Lust for a Vampire 1971 ****

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They didn’t have Comic-Con in 1970, but if they did, they might have been speculating on the franchises and multiverses of the day; would George Lazenby top Sean Connery’s five James Bond films? Would Alan Arkin’s Inspector Clouseau eclipse Peter Sellers? And would Hammer’s Karnstein trilogy launch a horror franchise to dwarf their popular Dracula and Frankenstein revivals? (Bringing back Terrence Fisher and Peter Cushing, plus red hot vampire lesbianism would surely be a draw). The answers to each of these propositions were no, no and no, and miscalculation of audience demands were the cause in each case, but Hammer’s Karnstein films are well overdue a reassessment. Ireland’s J Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 novel Carmilla was the jumping off point for 1970’s The Vampire Lovers, but with Fisher and Cushing dropping out for this loose sequel, Jimmy Sangster crafted an unusually restrained treatment of vampire lore. Large dumps of exposition establish that Styria, Austria is a supernatural place where the locals grumble about the influence of the vampire family Karnstein. Writer Richard LeStrange (Michael Johnston) is warned off visiting, but stumbles across a luxurious girls school where the ‘girls’ all appear to be models of about 25 and all wear the kind of diaphanous nighties that suggest auditions for The New Seekers are in progress. The girls are prone to going missing, but owner Miss Simpson (Helen Christie) manages to cover things up by mailing their families death certificates provided by a tame doctor (Radio 1 DJ Mike Raven, voiced by Valentine Dyall). Miss Simpson turns out to be in thrall to vampire Countess Heritzen (Barbara Jefford), but star pupil Mircalla aka Carmilla Karnstein (Yutte Stensgard) seems to be falling for LeStrange via dream sequnces and strange anachronistic bursts of pop-music…Co-star Ralph Bates, who hams it up in the school-teacher role intended for Cushing, reckons Lust for a Vampire was one of the worst films ever made, but in comparison with his 1974 horror stinker Persecution, it’s a masterpiece. The script is literate; as the scrupulous DVD extras carefully point out, if a few scenes from Tudor Gates’s script could be re-instated, would offer an original story in a clever, meta way. Perhaps there’s one crash-zoom into neck-bites too many; there’s an exploitative sequence with the camera cycling through three separate female disrobings that may have quickened pulses at the time but might potentially tax the modern viewer’s patience. Sangster’s energetic direction, however, plus the unfamiliar cast and premise, make Lust for a Vampire a prospect to make the blood rush to the extremities of even the most jaded horror connoisseurs.

On DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK from Aug 12th 2019

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Theatre of Blood 1973 ****

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Everyone’s a critic, or at least, that’s how it seems to veteran actor Edward Lionheart (Vincent Price) in Douglas Hickox’s celebrated slice of Grand Guiginol. Lionheart is angry at the kind of reviews he gets, and decides to take revenge on the Theatre Critics Guild with the aid of his daughter Edwina (Diana Rigg), who seemingly disguises herself as Jeff Lynne from the Electric Light Orchestra to do his bidding. The critics themselves are a wonderfully cast bunch, all destined to be offed in a bloody fashion determined by the works of Shakespeare. Dennis Price, Arthur Lowe, Jack Hawkins, Robert Morley, Harry Andrews and Ian Hendry are amongst the victims, and there’s also time for such diversions as a sword-fight on trampolines. The neat idea is something of a precursor of both Paddington 2 and Se7en, although David Fincher probably wouldn’t have much time for a comic detective duo of Milo O’Shea and Eric Sykes. Michael J Lewis contributes beautiful, lush music that underscores the melancholy of the conceit; Theatre of Blood is a fun romp that proves that black comedy can work with the right, light touch.

The Skull 2019 ****

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‘This isn’t just any skull…’ says seller Marco (Patrick Wymark) to potential buyer Christopher Maitland (Peter Cushing); it’s not even a Marks and Spencer skull, it’s the actual noggin of the Marquis de Sade himself, and no good can come of it being hawked around occult dealers in this Freddie Francis horror/thriller. With a script by Amicus regular Milton Subotsky and based on a short story by Robert ‘Psycho’ Bloch, The Skull is a cut above the usual fare, with an unusual straight role for Christopher Lee, plus a perfect supporting cast including Patrick Mcgee, Michael Gough and Nigel Green. It’s quite tame by modern standards, but the quaintness is charming, and Francis whips things up to quite a frenzy by the end. The art of this kind of gentleman’s horror film is long gone; The Skull popping up on mainstream streaming services is a nice reminder of the genre’s charms. And according to Wikipedia, the actual skull of the Marquis is still unaccounted for, so in the light of what happens to the esteemed gentlemen here, best avoid any rash ebay purchases…

Journey to the Far Side of the Sun 1969 ****

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The late 1960’s saw the Twilight Zone twists of the popular tv show translate to the big screen; high concept sci-fi, from 2001 to Planet of the Apes was a big deal, and Gerry and Sylvia Anderson made their pitch with Doppleganger aka Journey To The Far Side of the Sun. The idea is great; a mirror image of Earth is discovered on the other wise of the sun, and astronaut Colonel Glenn Ross (Roy Thinnes) is dispatched by the European Space Exploration Council to investigate. He realises on arrival that in the mirror image world, the other Colonel Glenn Ross has just left, and resolves to return to Earth. Journey To The Far Side of the Sun has an incredibly downbeat ending, but it’s a lot of fun getting to that point, especially when Ross wakes up in the world where everything is exactly a mirror image. When shown on UK TV, some enterprising talent decided that the mirror image scenes must have been wrongly processed and reversed them for broadcast, making Robert Parish’s film something of a conundrum for the unwary. Whichever way you look at it, the support from Herbert Lom, Patrick Wymark, George Sewell and Ian Hendry is impeccable.

https://trakt.tv/movies/journey-to-the-far-side-of-the-sun-1969

The Little Stranger 2018 ***

strangerAfter the low-budget, high profile success of Room, Lenny Abrahamson’s follow-up caused confusion and derision when released in 2018; it looks and sometimes feels like a horror film, but there’s no horror and the punch-line is subtle to the point of invisibility. Nevertheless, this adaptation of Sarah Waters’ novel has much to commend it, even if it cleared halls in multiplexes. Dr Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) is called to visit Hundreds Hall, the falling-apart country pile of the once prosperous Ayers family. Faraday has had a fascination for the house, and the family, since he was a child, and he inveigles himself with the present family including Will Poulter as Roderick, badly burnt and traumatised, sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson) with whom the doctor has some romantic feelings, and Charlotte Rampling as the Ayers family matriarch. Supernatural reasons for the house’s history are discussed, and may well be true, but The Little Stranger stops short of any kind of physical horror, and the dark reflections are as much about Faradary’s social climbing as anything. Well-acted by Wilson in particular, The Little Stranger is an intelligent, high-brow film that almost no-one saw.

 

A Sense of an Ending 2017 ***

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Julian Barnes’s slim novella was a Man Booker Prize winner, and has obvious cinematic potential; it’s a long slow burn as we delve into the past, with a pay-off that’s humbling and painful. Ritesh Batra’s film captures ably the mood of the book; Jim Broadbent is ideal as Tony Webster, a London camera shop owner. A letter brings back memories of his teenage relationship with Margaret (Charlotte Rampling), and a counter-narrative about how they met is unfolded as Tony seeks Margaret out. A sensitive and more literate movie than most, A Sense of an Ending is an ideal way to approach the book; it nails the story down in a cinematic way, and a few anachronisms are forgivable due to budget restraints. Not for sensation seekers, A Sense of an Ending is an effective adaptation that deserved better than the minimal release it got; the young cast, including Billy Howie, Jack Alwyn and Freya Mavor should help it reach the next generation of film-goers who demand a little intellectual meat in the fare.

The House in Nightmare Park 1973 ***

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Frankie Howard is a UK comedy institution, as much part of British life as arguing about Brexit and football hooliganism. Howard’s face might be familiar from plum roles like Road Workman in Hole from 1962’s The Fast Lady, or his startlingly awful appearance in the 1978 film of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But his success at a tv comedian didn’t translate well to film; Howard had a gift of speaking in a conversational tone to an audience, and his titter-ye-not pauses are ingrained in the British psyche. Peter Sykes’s 1973 horror comedy casts Howard as Foster Twelvetrees, an actor treading the boards with little success until a mysterious booking leads him to a remote house where Ray Milland commands him to perform. The usual tropes about reading wills and hidden assassins are trotted out, with Kenneth Griffith amongst the support. Known as Crazy House in the US, but not by many, the relatively straight-man comedy of The House in Nightmare Park was abandoned in favour of the somewhat cruder humour of the Up Pompeii tv and cinema series; Sykes’s film shows Howard in an uncommonly restrained role.