Thursday, January 3, 2019

The Giant Gila Monster (1959)

Although this is a very low budget 1950s monster movie with laughable special effects and some hokey acting, The Giant Gila Monster is a very pleasing film, with an engaging story. Basically a story of a boy, his hot-rod and a Giant Gila Monster, directed by Ray Kellogg, who also gave us The Killer Shrews (also 1959) and the unfortunate but memorable The Green Berets (1968). The first of these is notable for its dogs that are meant to be giant shrews, and its star James Best, better known as the incompetent Sheriff Roscoe P Coltrane in The Dukes of Hazzard. The second is notable as a truly bad John Wayne movie, which is probably the only pro-war film about Vietnam. Ray Kellogg himself was a military cameraman who covered the Nuremberg Trials. After the real horrors of death camps and Nazi cruelty, giant lizards and killer shrews would have been light relief.

The teen star of TGGM is one Don Sullivan. His film career only lasted about six years, but included The Monster of Piedras Blancas (1959), Curse of the Undead (1959) and Teenage Zombies (1959). One of his movies I really need to see is The Rebel Set (oh look, 1959), a story of three beatniks who try to rob an armoured car. Sounds like pure gold. I like a heist movie as much as anyone, and anything with beatniks in really sends me, like far out, dad.

After giving up the silver screen, Sullivan apparently became a leading cosmetic chemist, and only died about a year ago. He's no great actor or major talent, but he provides just what this movie wanted, Chase Winstead, a teenager who only wants to do the right thing. Unusually for a film of this period, the young people are all good, with not a JD in sight. Some of the adults don't think so much of them, but they are the ones proved wrong in the end.

Chase and The Sheriff have a knees-up
The setting is a small town in rural Texas, which is surrounded by brush land and dried-up river beds. This is where the titular monster lives, wandering about and cleverly avoiding detection. There's a bit of science about why the monster is so big, but it's more to do with natural genetic mutations than radiation, another departure from 1950s monster tropes. The Gila Monster is famously not a Gila Monster, but a Mexican beaded lizard, although apparently they're not that different. In the tradition of cheap SFX the monster is just a normal-sized lizard filmed with small props like model cars, and a model train set, which it wrecks in a nonchalant way. At no point do we see the people and the lizard together, so no ropey photo-matte or green screen is needed.

The story opens with two teens necking in a car which is promptly trashed and flattened by the monster. In another unusual turn of events, the hunt for the missing teens is pivotal to the plot. In so many of these films, the opening scene of destruction is not relevant to the plot, but is just a taster for the audience. The father of the missing boy puts pressure on the local sheriff to find his son, and the sheriff goes about his search in a methodical and undynamic fashion. Chase, the local teen mechanic, hot-rodder and nascent pop singer is much more useful.

There are plenty of scenes of record hops, malt shops and hot-rods to satisfy fans of American Fifties youth movies, and the monster appears often enough to be a threat, although we're never remotely scared by it. The acting is all tolerable, but nothing special, and the action skips along gently over around 75 minutes without challenging us in terms of complexity or ideas. It's a very gentle monster movie all round really. There's even a scene where Chase sings to his disabled little sister, who has just been bought her first set of leg braces. Chase is a beacon of goodness in this movie, but it's not made a big deal of.

That's lizards for you
I may have made this film sound a bit dull, and it kind of is, but it is also fun and both typical and atypical of the genre. This is probably the nicest monster movie I've ever seen.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Pieta (2012)

Gang-Do: What is money?
Mi-Son: Money? The beginning and end of all things. Love, honor, violence, fury, hatred, jealousy, revenge, death.

More evidence that South Korea can consistently deliver movies that are challenging, inventive and disturbing, comes in the shape of Ki-duk Kim's Pieta. Its title is an obvious reference to Michaelangelo's statue of the same name, that depicts the Madonna holding the corpse of Jesus after his crucifixion. Religious intentions aside, this is a striking image of motherhood confronted by the death of her martyred child. The statue shows Mary strangely distanced from the event, neither hysterical nor angry. She simply holds her son's corpse, and seems lost to emotion. Has she simply accepted that this is the way it must be? As if she always knew the outcome?

Kim's movie deals with a superficially similar relationship between mother and son. It also deals with sacrifice, martyrdom, and the inevitability of a predetermined outcome, but unlike Michaelangelo's statue, it also deals with vengeance. The subject of vengeance seems to be strong in South Korea's modern cinema. Think of Jee-woon Kim's I Saw The Devil (also released in 2010), and Chan-wook Park's Vengeance trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance) and you'll see what I mean. As powerful a group of stories about vengeance as you could collect, and all demonstrating that getting even is often deadly for both sides. This is epic, legendary stuff, and all set in contemporary South Korea.

Pieta portrays a world of grim, grinding poverty, among the metal-workers of a Korean city. These struggling no-hopers inhabit a squalid landscape of dirty back alleys and lock-ups, performing body and mind-numbing piece-work tasks at lathes and die-stampers in filthy conditions. They are poor yet there seems to be no help for them. Their only hope, if you can call it that, is to borrow money at exorbitant rates from loan sharks. This is where Gang-Do comes in. Played with unnerving menace by Jung-Jin Lee, Gang-Do is a collector. He is also a mutilator, and a deeply damaged, deeply callous individual. He moves like a shark, relentless, and without mercy, performing acts of astonishing brutality in a contemptuous, methodical fashion.

Jung-Jin Lee as Gang-Do
When the debtor can no longer pay, Gang-Do causes the unfortunate to have an accident with some of their own machinery. If they lose a finger or a hand, the insurance pay-out is enough to cover the debt. The sharks get their money and leave a cripple behind, a man who cannot work and cannot earn money. It seems that if there is a safety net in Korea, it is a very long way down. 

Gang-Do goes about his business, hurting people and taking no pleasure in anything, except a crafty wank under the covers. His life is a pointless cycle of empty wandering through slums, with only the inflicting of pain as a career. Not a happy man. In fact, he is a permanent walking sneer at anything like happiness or normality. Then one day, a middle-aged woman appears, and claims to be his mother.

Min-soo Jo as Mi-Son
I don't think it's fair to go past this point, plot-wise, as the whole film pivots on the question of whether Mi-Son (yes, that's the character's name. I suppose it's an in-joke, although I don't know much about the Korean language) is really Gang-Do's mother or not. If you get a chance to watch this movie, you should. One thing I have said a number of times about Korean cinema is this: unless you've seen this movie, you've never seen a movie like this before. A masterpiece of grimness, with outstanding performances, great cinematography, and an unpredictable plot. Recommended.

Friday, November 30, 2018

The Ghastly Ones (1968)

Groovy poster, which as always is badly misleading
The next in Chris Goodwin's Top 666 Horror Movies, this is number 662, and quite a bizarre little film it is too. This was my first viewing of one of Andy Milligan's movies, although some of his movies were known to me by their titles. Between 1965 and 1989 he made nearly 30 movies, and some regard him as one of the worst movie directors of all time.

Among his oeuvre are greats such as Depraved! (1967), The Filthy Five (1968), Gutter Trash (1969), The Man With Two Heads (1972), and one of my favourite titles of all time: The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here! (1972). I like the implication of this, that werewolves are a problem, but wait until the rats get here, then you'll see some troubles, buster!

Anyway, back to The Ghastly Ones. Thanks to the wonderful Something Weird Video, I can see this no-budget piece of rubbish in as perfect condition as one could hope. The print is scratched and battered, but most of the film's shortcomings come from the cinematographer, which was also Andy Milligan. Shots are often out of focus, either under- or over-exposed and frame composition is definitely not a strong point. The editing is atrocious, and as you might expect, the acting, set, costumes and special effects are reflective of an auteur pursuing a personal vision with little money, minimal talent, and no actual idea of how to do what he's doing. It's wonderful.

The costumes are a particular joy, as the women's dresses are so over-patterned that they are in danger of triggering an acid flashback. Although this is clearly set in the early 20th century, the three sisters all seem to own totally inappropriate slinky night attire that leaves little to the imagination. Also the wallpaper in the house is mainly bonkers too. It's a visual riot. [update: apparently Andy Milligan was responsible for the costumes too. It seems that at one point he had his own dress shop on 42nd Street. Apparently he offered 'creative fashions' and had an 'aggressive artistic attitude', according to the DVD booklet.]

For all its faults, The Ghastly Ones is great fun, and at no point during its meager 71 minutes running time, was I bored or unduly confused by what was happening. I've seen plenty of big studio films that are really no better than this one, but have had millions lavished on them.

The story is set around the turn of the 20th century, which is something generally assumed by the fashions worn by the characters. The costumes look like they have come straight from a local am-dram society, and the actors seem to have come from the same place. Everybody does as well as they can, but it's all broad dramatic brushstrokes and nothing particularly challenging.

The doomed couple and their giant parasol
The vicious killer who doesn't feature in the rest of the feature
In a short prologue, a young couple are enjoying a nice day out on a private island somewhere in New England or somewhere. The young man wanders off to look around, and is soon disemboweled by a mysterious and murderous stranger. Then the girl is similarly dispatched. After this, these two victims are never referred to again, and we never see the murderous stranger again. It seems Milligan just wanted to give us a taste of the location, and the fun we have to look forward to.

The main story concerns three married young sisters, Victoria, Elizabeth and Veronica. They have been invited to attend the reading of their father's will, who died some years before. All three travel with their husbands to the lawyer's office in New York. The lawyer, who is meant to be very elderly, is as convincing an old man as I have ever seen, in a school production of A Christmas Carol. The actor (Neil Flanagan) has the most preposterous nose hair and eyebrows ever seen. 

Nose hair out of control alert!
According to the will, which 'Lawyer Dobbs' reads in his best crotchety-old-man-from-a-1970s-TV-period-drama voice, it seems that their father didn't love their mother, and that the family house was never the scene of happiness or genuine love. Therefore, according to the provisions of the will, "each of you, and your husband, shall reside at the Crenshaw House, in sexual harmony, for the period of three days." Nice. After this time the lawyer will appear and more documents will be presented that will decide who gets what. Obviously, we know that the three days won't pass smoothly.

Yes, you're smiling now, but you won't be for long
At the house the sisters meet the Trasks; ugly sisters Hattie and Martha, and frustrated half-wit brother, Colin. There aren't enough Colins in the movies, but I don't think many real Colins will want to claim this one as a screen idol. He really is witless and has teeth only slightly better than Shane MacGowan.

Hattie and Martha. See what I mean about the dresses?!
Crazy half-wit Colin and the crazy wallpaper
Don't interrupt me while I'm acting, you funny-looking person
The plot isn't much to write home about, being a typical 'family secret' mystery slasher. The three couples try to settle down in the old house, but (not very many) strange things happen, such as a dead rabbit turning up in someone's bed, an X being painted on someone's door, and someone else being poisoned, but not dying. Things start to hot up a bit when one of the husband's is disemboweled in the basement by a figure in a pointy hood and cape, and then when dinner is served, a woman's head is the main course. 

Dinner is served
I won't give away the ho hum 'surprise' ending, but it isn't much of a surprise. The movie is standard in many ways, but what really raises it up, to about knee level, is Milligan's utterly incompetent photography, and performances that range from acceptable to bizarre. Particularly of note are the aforementioned Colin, dumber than the dumbest dodo I've ever seen in a movie; and bumbling sister Hattie, who manages to be both sinister and sympathetic as she tries to keep things on track. A very strange-looking woman, she is constantly trying to get Colin to do the simplest things, but as he is utterly stupid and bad-tempered she has to be lashing him with a belt every five minutes.

Obviously this is a deeply amateur production, but it does move pretty fast, and is full of wonderful mistakes and ineptitudes that make it very entertaining. Not sure I could recommend it, but if you like the Ed Wood kind of thing, you'll probably enjoy this.

The trailer

There is also a surf band called The Ghastly Ones

Friday, November 23, 2018

Hell is a City (1960)

Before I forget, I'd like to recommend a TV channel. Not something that happens everyday, but I have a bit of a soft spot for Talking Pictures TV. It's on Virgin 445, Freesat 306, Freeview or Youview 81 or Sky 328. This channel specialises in British TV and movies from the 1930s to the 1980s or thereabouts. The majority of its content comes from the 1950s and 60s. The really good thing is that there's a lot of obscure, unsung stuff, as well as classics. Crime, war, comedy, westerns, horror, monster movies, everything. If you have any interest in British cinema, give it a go. There is a smattering of American stuff, but it usually has a strong British connection. Have a look:

Hell is a City is a film I have on DVD, but is just the kind of thing Talking Pictures TV would show, a largely unknown but still well regarded British crime thriller from 1960. The city of the title is not New York or London, but Manchester. I wonder how many other crime thrillers are set in Manchester? Not many I'd warrant, but I'd love to see more if they're as good as this one, a potent mix of film noir and 'kitchen sink drama'.

First off, a flaw for me is the star. I've never warmed to Stanley Baker. He's like a thoroughly unsympathetic Sean Connery, and it's a testament to the quality of this film and his performance in it that I like him a lot more now. The fact is that there's many a great actor made crappy films, and many second-rate actors have done classic movies, so you just have take it as it comes, and judge on its merits.

Stanley Baker and Billie Whitelaw
Apart from Baker, there are a lot of other well-known faces. Donald Pleasence, Billie Whitelaw, Warren Mitchell, George A Cooper (who some may remember as the grumpy caretaker Mr Griffiths in Grange Hill), and an uncredited appearance by Doris Speed, who was just about to become a household name as Annie Walker in Coronation Street.

The director is Val Guest (1911-2006), who directed some real corkers in his time. The Quatermass Experiment (1955), The Abominable Snowman (1957), The Camp on Blood Island (1958), Expresso Bongo (1959), The Day The Earth Caught Fire (1961) and When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth (1970). He also directed and wrote the screenplay for Cannon & Ball's "hilarious" "comedy" The Boys in Blue (1982), but we shan't hold that against him.

Guest also wrote the screenplay, which is based on a novel by Maurice Procter (1906-1973). Procter served as a policeman, and his direct experience of crime and police work brought some realism to his novels. I have a copy of this, but it's one of my many unread books.

The action moves along at a cracking pace, and doesn't let up for a minute. Baker plays Detective Inspector Harry Martineau, a hard-boiled Manchester copper with a marriage on the rocks and a bad temper. Straight away we learn that a villain Martineau put away some time before has broken out of jail and may be heading for Manchester, bent on recovering hidden jewellery from the robbery that put him away.

John Crawford as Don Starling
Weirdly, but typical of the period for some reason, Don Starling is played by an American actor (John Crawford), which is oddly jarring. I think he's trying to do a British accent, but it's not convincing. Turns out he is headed to Manchester and soon contacts his old firm. They're not overly glad to see him, but he soon convinces this motley crew that he has a surefire way to get plenty of money, and get out of their hair with the help of cash and a fake passport. The scheme involves robbing book-maker Gus Hawkins' takings from the office girl who takes them to the bank every week. During the robbery, the gang are obliged to kidnap the girl, because she's got the bag chained to her wrist. Driving away from the scene, Don is a bit too handy with the cosh, and shuts her up permanently. The gang unceremoniously dump her body by the side of the road on the moors, where they are observed by a travelling salesman played by Warren Mitchell.

"Has some bastard been passing me snide money?!" - Donald Pleasence as Gus Hawkins
The salesman phones the police, and Martineau is soon on the gang's trail, not realising it's Starling he's got in his sights. You have to run to keep up with this stuff. The plot heats up, as Starling calls in favours from many other members of the Manchester demi-monde, including a barmaid who's soft on Martineau. This leads to some marvellous performances from a great cast; Donald Pleasence as Gus Hawkins the shifty bookmaker, Billie Whitelaw (looking for all the world like a young David Bowie) as his cuckolding wife Chloe, and Vanda Godsell as 'Lucky', the barmaid who carries a torch for Martineau.

The only element that I thought held the film back slightly was the relationship between Martineau and his long-suffering and dried-up wife, Julia (Maxine Audley). She doesn't want kids, he does, and they snipe and stab at each other in an infuriating manner. How they ended up together I cannot imagine. There is an alternate ending on the DVD, which I was really glad they didn't use, that relates to this afterthought of a subplot.

Punters at the 'tossing school'
Making the toss
As well as its fast-paced story, Hell is a City makes full use of Manchester's scenery, both urban and rural. From the mean streets of the city centre to the wealthy suburbs, the moors, and those marginal areas where the city meets the country, where grass grows in the streets. One scene in particular made me wonder if it was depicting a real thing. On rocky waste ground, near some rows of working class houses in a poor area where the moors and city merge, a group of local men stage an illegal 'tossing school' (!) in which punters bet on the outcome of the flipping of two coins. With look-outs posted in nearby houses to watch for coppers, bets are shouted, and stakes are collected. The coins are tossed and as they land in the dirt, the winners collect and the losers complain and bet more. This has to be one of the purest acts of gambling, which probably goes back to the birth of money itself, where (mostly) poor men gamble with the money they could be putting by to feed their families, in hopes of gaining a tax-free bundle. All this on the skill-free toss of a coin.

If you have any fondness for black and white British films, film noir, fast-paced crime stories, roof-top chases, top-notch ensemble acting, or just want to see Manchester as it looked 60 years ago, this movie has it all. I'll even throw in a killer jazz score by Stanley Black for good measure.

For an incredibly in-depth look at the people and locations involved in both the book and the film, I recommend this post:

Eagle-eyed viewers may notice that George Nixon, the creator of has used images of my copy of the book featured above. This is because all my cover scans are available on I love it when my scans appear in this way, but obviously I prefer it if there's a credit. Not a problem though. Here's a link to my book cover scans, if you like that kind of thing:

 Hell is a City original trailer

The Tossing Ring

 Extracts from Stanley Black's score

Friday, November 9, 2018

Der Fall (1972)

Walo Lüönd as Alfons Grendelmann
There is something that I really love in films, something my wife calls 'badger-poo'. This amusing (or not) term came about when I once tried to describe the ineffable texture of a movie and used a kind of motion of my fingertips, as if I were examining the texture of a substance like flour, or sawdust, or perhaps, badger poo. I suppose this is something that you might see on a nature programme, where Chris Packham or someone may take some dried scat and attempt to tell something about the animal, its health or age or whatever, by close tactile examination of its droppings. Anyway, basically, there are some films which are full of 'badger-poo', not a term I find inspiring, but I can't get away from it now.

Some films are so loaded with a sense of place, a sense of time, a complete world of somewhere that is real, but no longer reachable. A window into a recent past, usually a foreign past, (some places are loaded with 'badger poo'. Berlin, Paris, and Finland are particular examples for me) which I can never see in reality, and only exists in films. Imagine Edward Hopper's Nighthawks (1942) as a movie, for example.

Most of these films are black and white, and most are European. The ones that I have in the front of my mind writing this, are Bob le Flambeur (1956), Coplan prend des risques (1964), M (1931) and Pidä huivista kiinni, Tatjana (1994). There are others, but it's a tough company to join. These are films which all have brilliant stories, but more importantly, they have an atmosphere which I could inhabit. You could cut out all the dialogue and close-ups, and leave me with the scenes, the buildings, the rooms, the lights in the dusk, and I would still be happy to watch. Laitakaupungin valot (2006), that's another one.

A recent addition to this select group of mine is Der Fall (1972), the last film directed by Kurt Früh (1915-1979), probably Switzerland's most successful film director. That brings us to an important point. I think it might be the only Swiss film I've ever seen, although I could be wrong. It's definitely the only movie I've seen that is in Schweizerdeutsch, which adds another element of atmosphere for me. It's German, but not German. Maybe it's even more precise than German, constructed with Swiss cultural precision engineering.

Atmosphere, or 'badger poo', if you prefer
Der Fall is the story of Alfons Grendelmann, an ex-policeman turned private detective, played by Walo Lüönd (1927-2012), apparently one of Switzerland's best-loved actors. Alfons, like many real private detectives, seems to spend most of his time exposing marital infidelity and looking for missing teenagers. He is also lonely, and emotionally reserved; an unhappy man who has reluctantly accepted his lot.

After Alfons leaves the hospital where he has been visiting his sick father, the title sequence sees him take the train back to Zurich. Sitting across from him is an attractive young woman, who he occasionally glances at; with longing or just because she's there, it's hard to tell as his hang-dog expression gives nothing away. The woman plainly feels he is staring at her, so she pulls her skirt to cover her exposed knee. [PS After another look, I'm pretty sure that this woman is Marsha, who we shall hear of again, very soon. A clever bit of foreshadowing by the director]

Then he follows a woman from the train station to a block of flats. As we have no information yet about this character, we don't know what to make of it. As he tails the woman, he is distracted by a policeman who greets him as a workmate, so perhaps he is not just following women for fun.

Before long, we have determined that he is a private detective, and that he shares office space with Fraulein Gretz (Annemarie Düringer, 1925-2014) a woman who runs a freelance secretarial services business. The underlying romantic possibilities between them are a major part of the movie, as they move around each other unable to fully explore their attractions. She tries to take their relationship past the platonic, but he is so distracted and consumed by his work, clearly unhappy to have been driven from the police force for exposing a colleague's criminal behavior.

Annemarie Düringer as Fraulein Gretz
Eventually. he becomes involved with a much younger woman, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. What really makes this film special for me is the minutiae of Swiss life in the 1970s. This period is notable for me as it was still a time where young and old had hugely differing attitudes to life. These days most people in their 60s dress as if they were 25, and have many of the same interests as people much younger than them. In the 1970s, even people in their 40s dressed in conservative colours with sensible and quite drab fashions. The teenagers and twenty-somethings set new trends with long hair, short skirts, flares, bright colours, liberal attitudes to sex and politics. A real generation gap. Swiss society seems quite conservative, so the actions of the young are a real contrast. At one point the detective goes to a bar filled with young people, and seems so vulnerable in his car coat and moustache, next to their blasé, hedonistic attitudes. Alfons is reminiscent of Columbo; dishevelled, smarter than he looks and doggedly determined. The contrast is that Columbo has a wife, although we never see her, while Alfons is deeply lonely and alienated from women. Perhaps he's seen too many infidelities.

Walo Lüönd with Katrin Buschor as Marsha
A businessman comes to Alfons asking for his help in discouraging the demands a young woman he is having an affair with. In the course of the case, Alfons meets the woman, and their relationship has major repercussions. Marsha is a carefree, gold-digging teenager, played by Katrin Buschor, who only seems to have made two films, a shame considering she's so striking, and such a natural actress. 

Apart from the main plot, there are dozens of smaller incidents that make the movie memorable. From the strange clients Alfons has to decline, to the architecture and sights of Zurich, and the indoor cycle race that forms the backdrop to the finale. For me, this is a feast of Swiss noir, and a whole pocketful of 'badger poo'.

There is a version of it on YouTube, but that sadly only comes with Hochdeutsch Untertitel. The first six minutes are available though, with English subs. This includes the hospital visit and the credit sequence on the train.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

The Children of the Corn (1984)

#663 on Chris Goodwin's list. ( 

John Franklin as Isaac, high priest of 'He Who Walks Behind The Rows'.
A very long time ago, I read Stephen King's short story collection, Night Shift (1978). One of the stories was Children of the Corn. This tale of rural American religious weirdness with elements of the supernatural, really defined the term 'American Gothic' for me for a long time. Around the time that I read the story, a movie version was released, and I rented it on video. I remember thinking that it was a decent adaptation, but somehow lacked the full menace and fear that the story had given me. I wondered whether this was a general failing of movies over the printed word, or perhaps my imagination was just so much better than that of the filmmakers.

For a long time, the only thing that really kept Children of the Corn in my mind was the fact that an image from the final sequence of the movie featured on the inner sleeve of the Sonic Youth LP, EVOL (1986), which I had in heavy rotation through most of the late 80s and early 90s. This LP and its imagery helped cement CotC in my mind as a particularly American kind of horror. The name of the LP, which revealed the naive truth that 'LOVE' spelled backwards was 'EVOL' (Evil) sat well with the often simplistic world of horror movies and the peculiar kind of horror of the youthful villains and their harsh religion revealed. All in all, a pretty heady mix for a guy in his early twenties, fascinated by American horror writers like Stephen King, Robert E Howard, and H P Lovecraft.

inner sleeve of EVOL by Sonic Youth
on the right, Linda Hamilton and the skeleton of the town policeman.
I don't know where the image of the girl with the pitchfork comes from
Fast forward to now. A guy in his 50s, still thrilled by a good horror movie, and still fascinated by the bad ones. As you may have noticed from this blog, the bar I've set for what films I watch is so low, that it's basically resting on the ground, particularly where any kind of horror, crime or sci-fi movie is concerned. Seeing The Children of the Corn on Chris Goodwin's list brought back a lot of memories, but I hadn't rewatched the film since my first viewing in about 1985. Sadly, watching it again made me realise that sometimes we really can't go back.

"Sit down and watch the movie! I don't care what this jerk thinks about it!"
The story is very simple. A rural American town is the unwitting host to a strange creature of undetermined supernatural, probably demonic origin: "He Who Walks Behind The Rows". This creature has somehow infected the children of the town with an extreme case of extreme religious mania, so powerful that they are convinced that only children are without sin, and adults are evil. One day they kill all the adults in the town, and set about creating a society without blemish or wickedness. The cult is a mix of Christianity and an atavistic paganism that worships a Christ made of grass, who looks a lot like the 'green man' of folklore. It's obviously a big subject to tackle in a horror story, but King does a good job in his short tale. He isn't really known as a 'serious issues' writer, but you can tell that he has genuine concerns about fundamentalism and the bigotry and violence that can spring from it. In the 1970s and into the 1980s, the young in America were attacked for all their interests. Things like D&D, punk rock, 'satanic' metal music, and even kid's cartoons came under the hammer of the Moral Majority. King turned this upside down, and made children into the fire and brimstone that burned away the adults.

The leader of the cult is Isaac, a boy of about 12. In the movie, he is played by John Franklin, who would have been murdered along with the rest of the grown-ups, as he was 24 when the film was made, but anyway, he's the boss. Into this situation drives a young couple just heading through Nebraska on the way to Seattle. Vicky is played by Linda Hamilton, whose life would be changed that same year as she took on the role of Sarah Connor in the Terminator series, while Peter Horton plays Burt. Horton went onto greater fame too, as one of the leads in late 80s TV show, Thirtysomething, an everyday tale of adult angst among Philadelphia's yuppies.

"I have another movie coming out soon. Some kind of sci-fi, time travel thing. Fingers crossed it'll go places."
As Vicky and Burt drive past the fields, which should be sinister, but come off just looking like fields, they knock down a child who darts out of the corn. Sadly, this was a child trying to escape the town realising that getting older in this neighbourhood wasn't healthy. Driving into town they uncover all these spooky goings on concerning the kids and their religious cult, and all kinds of bad stuff ensues, as you'd expect.

Unfortunately, this movie really hasn't stood the test of time. It's quite possible that some of the 8 or 9 sequels or the 2009 remake may even be better, but I haven't seen any of them. The movie just doesn't take on the subject matter enough. It's like a TV movie, which is something many 80s horror suffers from. Things are too well-lit and flat, the actors are generally just average, and the images are not imaginatively framed, or dynamically directed by Fritz Kiersch. The whole thing is just too workmanlike. Kiersch hasn't directed many movies, and it seems that CotC was his first, so maybe that explains it. Not much of his other work is notable, although I do remember Tuff Turf (1985).

Definitely the scariest thing in this movie is Courtney Gains.
Courtney Gains as Malachi, chewing the scenery like a boss.
Kiersch also directed the movie version of everyone's favourite misogynistic fantasy/sci-fi series, Gor (1987), which has earned a hefty 3.5/10 on IMDb. His last movie, The Hunt, was in 2006 and is only his second horror movie after his 1984 debut. He has some standards though, as one of his films, Fatal Charm (1990) is credited to Alan Smithee.

Basically, as far as I'm concerned this is a reasonably executed dud. Anything good about it really belongs to Stephen King.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The Nights of Terror a.k.a. Burial Ground (1981)

This weird little Italian zombie movie is #664 on Chris Goodwin's list. ( 

I'd seen this previously, many years ago, probably in the early 1990s, and I didn't remember thinking much of it. I could only really remember one scene, which is the scene everyone remembers. I shan't mention it in this review, because either a) you know about it, b) you don't want spoilers, or c) you don't want to know about it, because it's gross.

Watching it again, I liked it a lot more, but it still has plenty of flaws, and isn't one of those films you can recommend without a lot of caveats.

Undead monks go to work

The Nights of Terror was directed by Andrea Bianchi, who died in 2013, but apparently hadn't worked in movies since 1995. He gave us such greats as Strip Nude for your Killer (1975), Confessions of a Frustrated Housewife (1976), Exciting Love Girls (1983) and Fleshy Doll (1995). It wasn't all fun and games though. He did find time to direct Commando Mengele (1987) in which Jewish commandos track down Nazi war criminals in the jungle.

The plot of The Nights of Terror is simple enough. A bunch of jet-setters come home from a long holiday to the big country house of one of their number. A history professor has been staying there in the meantime, studying the occult, and investigating strange passages under the house. Before the opening titles he foolishly calls up a bunch of undead monks from their crypt, and they kill him, but he'll be back later.

The jet-setting cast are all pretty unpleasant, rich, idle arrogant types, not particularly well-drawn characters, but after all, they're only there to be hunted down by undead monks, so what difference does it make? There's some love-making, some amateur photography in the grounds, plenty of lounging about. It's just a matter of time before the screaming starts.

The weirdest among them is a strange young man played by Peter Bark (aka Pietro Barzocchini). The character seems to be about 12 or 13, but he looks so much older. He was actually 25 at the time, and he's a very disconcerting actor. Like Michael Berryman his weird looks are a gift to a horror film maker. His IMDb bio describes him thus: "Peter Bark was a supremely creepy and unnerving Italian midget thespian who bore an uncanny resemblance to a diminutive Dario Argento." I kind of see what they mean, but it's not that uncanny. Also, Dario Argento isn't such a big chap.

Peter Bark: "a diminutive Dario Argento"
Dario Argento "a larger Peter Bark"

Back to the mansion, where zombie monks are appearing from all over the place, causing the jet-setters to scamper in every direction. Frankly, the best thing about this movie is the zombie monks, and so I'll show you these images to give you an idea:

As you can see, these are some special undead monks. As well as looking totally bonkers they can also work together, use tools, and have no problem killing everybody. At one point they manage to decapitate the maid who is looking out of an upstairs window. Not something your average zombies would be able to achieve.

It's all a bit pointless really, but like a lot of Italian horror, works best if you think of it as a nightmare you're having. You can't run fast enough, you're being chased by something impossible, and there's horror movie music playing. Fun stuff.

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