Terror Train 1981 ***

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The Shining is such a one-off, a scary film that takes place largely in brightly lit interiors, that features few deaths and no explanation; there’s literally nothing quite like it. Kubrick’s cinematographer, John Alcott, was quite a talent, and his gifts were immediately put to good use in this unassuming little slasher movie which did no harm at all to the reputation of director Roger Spottiswoode (Under Fire, Tomorrow Never Dies) star (Jamie Lee Curtis) or even the budding career of a young magician named David Copperfield.

Terror Train also has a very clever idea that makes it somewhat unique. Yes, it’s Halloween on a train, in which a maniac boards a booze-cruise-on-rails full of partying medical students, including Curtis. The killer is wearing a disguise, and seeking revenge for a prank played many moons ago. But each victim he kills leads to a costume change, making it quite a tricky business to keep track of his movements; the audience is constantly looking for a man in a mask, but it’s the mask of the last victim you’re searching for.

Alcott goes to town on the train, framed by a beautiful exterior shot in the opening credits, and then with each compartment framed in very different light; Alcott’s use of colour certainly evokes memories of the Overlook’s past glories, and his use of diffuse lighting is very Eyes Wide Shut. And there’s lots of action on the train, including a very odd house band who conjure up a number of moods, and the novelty of several routines from Copperfield which derail the film’s momentum with their variety-show pacing.

Overall, Terror Train is something of a curiosity; back in 1981, it must have seemed like the slasher movie fad would never end, but Terror Train now appears to be one of the best of a rather tatty bunch. Cast, technical aspects and conception are all first rate; horror fans used to scraping the bottom of barrels may well find that Terror Train is worthy of a return ticket.

Child’s Play 2019 ****

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There’s an art to a good reboot, and the 2019 version of Child’s Play was a genuine surprise in that it got the mix of familiar and new just right. Don Mancini’s Child’s Play movies were a good example of the diminishing returns that sequels provided in the 80’s and 90’s. Taking the Zuni-doll from Trilogy of Terror and giving it some slasher-movie moves was a potent force back then, so potent that the films were banned by the UK government after being cited as inspiration for violent acts we won’t go into here. Invention curdled, the concept got stale and the whole package needed a re-think; Lars Klevberg’s film does exactly that.

Firstly, the notion of a serial killer’s soul entering a doll is junked, perhaps wisely given that rival properties The Prodigy and Annabelle both riff on that idea. Instead, Child’s Play as a socially relevant sci-fi angle whereby a disgruntled employee at the Kaslan corporation sabotages a doll at the company’s Vietnam factory. By footerimg with the dolls circuitry, he turns a Buddi doll, trusted and loved by children, into a creature with no sense of right or wrong; the children are initially stunned and then attracted by Buddi’s ability to swear and act irresponsibly (Mark Hamill provides the creepy voice). By positioning Buddi, or Chucky as he’s briefly known here, as something created and developed by 2019’s economic apartheid, Tyler Burton Smith’s script removes much of the hokiness involved in the conceit, and offers opportunities for trenchant satire.

And the reboot also finds a happy centre in Aubery Plaza, an actress closely associated with hipster values via Parks and Rec, but also someone who embodies snark; she’s just the right cynical person to be set against Chucky’s sarcastic quips. She’s slow to realise that the doll she’s gifted her son is a murderous monster, but it’s fun watching her figure it out, with gruesome killings for interlopers including death by lawn-mover and a severed head wrapped in wrapping paper and gifted to an unfortunate neighbour.

Genre fans will enjoy the casting of Brian Tyler Henry and Tim Matheson, and there’s also a wild department-store finale that sees drones, dolls and all manner of inanimate objects springing to life and attacking shoppers. It’s easy to see why the Stephen King of Maximum Overdrive would get a kick out of this film, which offers a nice mesh of black humour, social satire and outrageous gore.

Ready or Not 2019 ****

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The future of the Fox Searchlight brand is under question after the Fox studio was bought over by Disney; certainly, it’s hard to see how such a red-in-tooth-and-claw comedy-thriller with Satanic overtones like Ready or Not might fit into the wholesome Disney brand. Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett from a screenplay by Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murphy, Ready or Not is a horror film in the idiom of Get Out, and features a young couple whose mutual distrust grows during her introduction to his rich and powerful family. But the two films are very different in tone, with Ready or Not featuring a brisk and busy evocation of country house mayhem that’s in tune with the recent Knives Out. There’s an agreeable Gothic flavour that hints at the supernatural elements which are accentuated as the plot develops.

Things starts innocuously enough; Samara Weaving is Grace, who arrives at the house of the Le Domas family with her prospective husband Alex, played by Gilmour Girls star Adam Brody. The Le Domas family have made their fortune from board games, and Grace is happy with the idea of taking her place at the family table, until it emerges there’s a ritual to complete. A game must be played, and Grace must pick a card at random; the one she chooses dismays the family, as it says “Hide and Seek’. This means that Grace must hide, and the rest of the family must seek her out, but the stakes are higher than is immediately apparent, and one shocking act of violence leads to another.

The end of this decade has seen an increase of films that view the rich as something other than a club that inspires us to join; we don’t admire the Kardashians, we hate them because we sense that their good –fortune is built on the back of our own pain. The rich and affluent are uncovered as preying on the other echelons of society, and Ready or Not is suffused with tart social criticism. The violence is spiky, the narrative manages some clever slight of hand, and clichés of the Most Dangerous Game variety are generally turned on their heads. Early on, Grace views herself in the mirror, her wedding dress torn and blood-splattered, an ammunition belt around her waist; niceties have been damned, and she sees herself clearly for the first time as a warrior in a battle for her class.

Ready or Not was a sizeable hit, but didn’t reach the huge audience it deserved; the box-office numbers of a Get Out or a Halloween should have been the reward for such an original and satisfying film. An illustrious history on streaming awaits; Ready or Not is a super-smart B movie that offers a dark, splattery note on the margins of society’s growing divisions circa 2019.

Incense for the Damned 1970 ***

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Aka Bloodsuckers aka Freedom Seekers. Another titling disaster, Robert Hartford-Davis’s obscure horror film doesn’t seem to know how to describe itself; none of these titles work better than the name of the book that provided the inspiration here, Simon Raven’s Doctors Wear Scarlet. That’s not a great title either, although it does slip in as a line of dialogue here, as Richard Fountain (Patrick Mower) prepares to address an Oxford college dinner. There is some kind of critique going on of establishment corruption, but Incense for the Damned is so scrambled, it’s a constant battle to get a handle on what’s happening.

Raven’s substantial body of work seems to have been consigned to the dustbin of history, but his narrative here seems to have borrowed heavily from the adventure stories of Dennis Wheatley. Fountain is a talented young man who has gone off the rails with drugs while ‘searching for his manhood’ in Greece; a group of friends enlist the help of a resourceful British consul (Patrick Mcnee) to rescue him, only to find that dark forces are at work. It’s a haggard structure that recalls The Devil Rides Out, but retooled with 1970’s hippy trappings.

It’s understood that the film has been re-edited and re-worked to the point the director disowned it; there’s plenty of evidence of two different films happening here, and neither of them working. Fortunately Edward Woodward turns up to deliver a half-time pep-talk about how ‘vampirism is a sexual perversion’ in a desperate attempt to connect the two separate narratives. Woodward’s character also jabbers on about men who can only make love with statues, which he says is called Pygmalion Syndrome, so it’s hard to know if he can be trusted or not.

The perennially august Peter Cushing turns up for a few scenes, but he’s literally in the wrong movie here; if Cushing thought the Blood Beast Terror was his worst movie, then one presumes he didn’t see this one because it’s absolutely awful, one that gets it’s seven-minute psychedelic orgy scene in early to fend of unwary viewers. And yet the influences (John Fowles’ The Magus), the photography of the Greek island of Hydra, and the subversive intent are all in place; there’s a decent film buried somewhere in there for genre specialists to exhume.

 

 

 

The Blood Beast Terror 1968 ***

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Also known as The Vampire Beast Craves Blood, Blood Beast From Hell and Deathshead Vampire, Vernon Sewell’s horror/thriller really couldn’t find the right title for this novel twist on traditional themes. But any film that features both Peter Cushing and special effects by a pre-Alien Roger Dicken deserves a fresh appraisal, and there’s quite a lot to suggest that Sewell’s film is a neglected genre piece.

This is a Tony Tenser/Tigon production, made during the peak of Hammer’s success, and it’s clear that they hoped to find a few franchise-friendly monsters to rival the other studio. So what is the blood beast? Well, it’s a kind of moth, or perhaps a were-moth might be more accurate, since it can take human form; Curse of the Were-Moth presumably tested badly, so Blood Beast Terror it was.

Tigon also took cues from Hammer in terms of casting and approach. Peter Cushing is a name that will always draw genre fans. He was a distinguished and gentle soul who seems to glide around in these films, always polite, even when playing madmen; during the heat-wave scenes here, he never loosens his cravat. He’s ideally suited to Sewell’s production, which is big on drawing room conversations, entomology lectures and the details of coach and horse travel; the setting is the 19th century, but it could easily be the 14th. Cushing plays Detective Inspector Quennell of Scotland Yard, who is trying to solve the murders of several young men. Could Carl Mallinger (Robert Flemyng) and his daughter hold the secret?

There’s some British comedy stalwarts in supporting roles, including Minder’s Glynn Edwards as a cop and Roy Hudd re-invigorating the cliché of the post-mortem medic who loves to eat on the job. An additional point of interest in the female were-moth, played by Benedict Cumberbatch’s mother, Wanda Ventham. It’s not easy for an actress playing a were-moth, but she gives it a good shot.

Cushing reputedly wasn’t wowed by the result, but there’s quite a lot of fun here, notably the beast in a chrysalis form thanks to Dicken. And there’s also an extended theatre-play within a film that features medical students performing a version of Burke and Hare. It seems pointedly aimed at making fun of the Hammer brand, and stops the action in its tracks for a good ten minutes. But the cardboard set, unconscious humour and stilted acting are all on-message with The Blood Beast Terror’s playful genre reconstruction; its another nice find on the impressive Flick Vault channel.

The Tingler 1959 ***

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William Castle is a somewhat neglected figure, perhaps because he staked his reputation on novelties, some would say gimmicks, which were dated from the moment they appeared. Such felicities as having a skeleton appear above a cinema screen seem rather old fashioned in the shadow of IMAX 4DX. So it’s rather nice to see The Tingler appear on Amazon Prime is a natty new print that makes it ripe for rediscovery.

What’s surprising here, given Castle’s reputation, is the ingenious nature of the whole conceit. The Tingler is a horror film, but one that operates in a specific and rather post-modern way. Vincent Price plays Warren Chapin, a scientist who has been working to isolate the Tingler, a creature that feeds on fear; it appears inside the human body, often at the instant of death, and Chapin is keen to isolate it. Many boffins might have been tempted to use illegal means to pursue this goal, but fortunately LSD was legal in the US at the time, and The Tingler features the spectacle of Price and other cast-members cheerfully blowing their own minds and (pretending to) trip on acid.

This in itself is odd enough, but things get weirder when Chapin meets a woman who is a deaf mute and is unable to express herself; she’s got a lifetime of fear bottled up inside her and is ready to blow like a bottle of champagne, releasing a mega-tingler. Her husband owns a silent-movie theatre which appears to be showing 1921’s Tol’able David in a permanent loop, and when The Tingler escapes, it escapes into the theatre and begins tingling the occupants of the seats.

This leads to a quite wonderful sequence in which you, the viewer, find yourself watching the same silent movie, with Vincent Price on the soundtrack warning you about dangerous creatures on the loose and potentially assaulting your backside. It places the audience in the movie in an absurd and yet ingenuous way; there’s also a brilliant scare involving a splash of blood-red in an otherwise black and white movie. With a frank view of drugs, plus some meta-narrative twists, The Tinger is a great way to waste 80 minutes, and shows that 1959’s cinema showmen had plenty of ingenuity as the on-going battle with tv hotted up.

Click the link below to see if this film can be seen in your country, and for what price.

Gwen 2018 ****

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Comparisons to Rober Egger’s The Witch are inevitable for Gwen, an effective little indie film about a young girl’s hard-scrabble existence in the desolate mining areas of North Wales. That’s not ideal given that William McGregor’s drama is hardly a conventional horror film, although there are strong supernatural elements. Like The Witch, it’s a slow burn that gets to a fever pitch in the last act, but it’s notably different in that the pay-off is a different kind of horror from most supernatural genre fare.

The big draw here is Maxine Peake, who has a substantial reputation as one of today’s best performers; her Hamlet was certainly as good as any man’s. She plays Elen, a young mother whose ageing rapidly as the difficulties of raising her family increase. Elen’s single-mother existence is complicated by her difficult relationship with her daughter Gwen (Eleanor Wothington Cox), who lacks her mother’s fiery temper. Elen responds instinctively and protectively, sometimes violently, and is nursing a potentially life-threatening illness. And the very land that Elen and Gwen live on hides a secret that makes their situation all the more precarious.

William Oldroy’s 2016 film Lady Macbeth might be a better point of comparison; this is a well-acted, visually austere drama in which the central theme is man’s inhumanity to man. Elen’s supernatural beliefs are very old-school, but Gwen’s investigations of the world around her seem to back up many of her mother’s fears, irrational or not. The cost and difficulty of sourcing medicine to treat her mother makes for a depressing spiral of events, but Gwen, the film and the character, never stops for pathos or contrivance; McGregor maintains a hard edge throughout.

Gwen just about fits in on the fringes of the growing ‘folk horror’ genre, but don’t be expecting devils, demons and talking goats. There are jump-scares, however, and a feeling of dread and foreboding that’s justified in the final scenes. And McGregor also does well with a cast who are not overshadowed by Peake’s powerhouse performance; Gwen transcends genre expectations to offer a potent, difficult but rewardingly tough drama.