The Witch Who Came From The Sea 1976 ***


It’s the answer to the trivia question; what connects family favourite Back to the Future to the notorious video nasties, films banned by the UK government as potentially morally corruptive influences back in 1984? Cinematographer Dean Cundey warmed up for Marty McFly with this bleak, hard and for-sure nasty female killer drama, but it’s one that deserves a different kind of reputation. Actress Millie Perkins had once played the lead in Diary of Anne Frank; here she’s Molly, a troubled abuse victim who descends into madness, seducing, castrating and murdering men she sees on television while working in a seafront bar in Santa Monica. Despite the title, there’s no supernatural content; the title of this sleazy, yet erudite film relates to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, which is discussed in some detail. The murder scenes are deeply unpleasant and it’s tempting to look away, but the rest of Matt Cimber’s film is no easier to watch, with a frank and unsparing treatment of the incest that Molly suffered, seen here in flashback. Written by Perkins’ husband Robert Thom, The Witch is more character study that exploitation film; almost like a female version of Taxi Driver from the same year. Perkins throws herself into a deep, troubling role, and Lonny Chapman, from Hitchcock’s The Birds, is support. This has, for obvious reasons, been a film that’s been put well out of reach of the public; this Arrow Films release may well generate a cult audience. Cimber went on to make the Pia Zadora vehicles Butterfly and Fake Out, but it’s arguable whether he, Thom or Perkins is the real author of this powerful, upsetting portrait of a wronged and sympathetic woman.


Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have The Key 1972 ****


Also known as Gently Before She Dies, or Eye of the Black Cat aka Excite Me!, Sergio Martino’s giallo is an original and untypical affair that lifts elements from Edgar Allan Poe’s story The Black Cat, but also has a unique angle of its own. A Cat Called Satan would be an accurate title, since a moggy with that name as a pivotal role here; genre favourites Edwige Fenech and Luigi Pistilli star here; he’s Oliviero, an author who hasn’t written a word for years and makes money by selling off the antique furniture in his country pile with his wife Irina (Anita Strinberg) who he likes to humiliate at their regular orgies. After one of his students his murdered, and then his maid, Oliviero becomes an obvious suspect, but is he gas-lighting his wife or vice versa? His niece Floriana (Fenech) picks an odd time for a social visit, and it proves the catalyst for all manner of sexual and violent behaviour, with Satan included in the domino effect of killings, mutilations and seductions. Cream seems to be a theme, and choice cream-related dialogue includes ‘Hey, hot potato, got any cream in your tricycle? ‘ and ‘Satan’s favourite meal is snake-eyes and cream!’; this is a wonderfully lurid, pervy and overheated melodrama that’s constantly surprising. The magic of streaming is that films like this used to be incredibly hard to find and see, often in poor condition. That a potentially huge audience can see this, at the cost of a couple of free subscriptions, promises that such outré fare might just make a mainstream impact again, for the first time since it was made. Viewed on the Arrow Video Channel.

Dressed to Kill 1980 ***


Brian De Palma hasn’t been troubling the box-office much with ventures like Tomboy or Domino, but back in 1980, he on fire, and was hailed as the new Hitchcock. He won this accolade as much by imitation as anything else; Dressed to Kill feels like a fusion of the cod-psychology of Psycho plus some of the innocent abroad adventure of North by Northwest. The portrayal of a transvestite killer and gender reassignment treatment feels exploitative and is rather regrettable by today’s standards, and De Palma’s enthusiasm for naked female victims, hardly a unique fetish, inevitably limits the audience. But the technicalities of Dressed to Kill are still impressive; the early sequences involving Kate (Angie Dickinson) being stalked in a museum have steely control, and after she’s unexpectedly side-lined, the plot diverts to Kate’s son Peter (Keith Gordon) and Nancy Allen’s call girl Liz, leading to a spectacular elevator murder. The level of violence and the stereotyping are regrettable, but De Palma’s gift for tension and dramatic images doesn’t fade, and there’s nice turns from Dennis Franz and Michael Caine as the cop and the psychologist who prove useful Peter on his quest to find out who murdered his mother. they don’t make them like this any more, and that’s probably for the best, but as a snapshot of what was acceptable in 1980, this is a jaw-droppingly slick thriller.

Busting 1974 ****


Peter Hyams is a director with quite a body of big-budget studio work behind him, from Capricorn One to Outland; a hit tv movie sent him on a six month research spree at the LAPD and led to his writing and directing this early work, a strikingly small-scale and down-at-heel view of police-work. Elliott Gould, sporting a handlebar moustache, and Robert Blake are the cops who shake-down various low-lives on their way to confrontation with gangster Rizzi (Allen Garfield). An early scene in which the cops enjoy the beating up of men in a gay bar sets the unpleasant tone, but that scabrous honesty is what Busting is about; post MASH and throughout the 70’s, there was a general enthusiasm for depicting the moral confusion and general squalor of life, and the nihilistic workings of the police force made an ideal cross-section in films like Fuzz or The Choirboys. Hyams supercharges his story with a couple of stunning foot-chases, one leading into a brutal market gunfight, and the leads are just right for the abrasive feel. Busting was the kind of US import the BBC used to cheerfully show on a Sunday evening; in portraying life as a steaming cess-pit of prostitution, homophobia and general degradation, Busting lays the old, familiar story out before television and Starsky and Hutch in particular, could sanitize it for resale.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 2017 ****


S. Craig Zahler is working on a fairly unique angle in American cinema; it’s hard to imagine he cares about test audiences or anything really, other than positioning himself at the modern day answer to Sam Fuller, Peckinpah or perhaps Edward Bunker. Vince Vaughn puts aside his avuncular Fred Claus schtick to play Bradley Thomas, a tough guy who gets sent to jail when a crystal meth job goes wrong and a cop is killed. Eight years in the slammer might sound bad enough, but a mysterious henchman (Udo Kier, who else?) gives Thomas an even darker goal; his son will be mutilated unless Thomas infiltrates the highest security area of the jail and kills a target. Thomas is transferred to the deadly Redleaf Facility, where Warden Tuggs (Don Johnson) is the main obstacle. A hellish journey through the uncharted depths of the US penal system, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a brutal, uncompromising thriller that’s long and languid at times, but is compelling to watch. Vaughn has never been better than he is he, world-weary, but protective of his family, and fully aware that he’s on a suicide mission with a cost that’s hard to contemplate.

You Were Never Really Here 2018 ***


Lynne Ramsey has blazed a somewhat unique trail since her short Gasman; Ratcatcher and Morven Caller were promising rather than complete, but she comes of age as a director with You Were Never Really Here, an elliptical view of a hit-man’s disintegrating consciousness which has more than a touch of the late Nicolas Roeg about it. Joaquin Phoenix immerses himself to a disturbing degree as Joe, a jaded, exhausted killer who finds motivation and meaning in taking on a child-sex ring and working his way up the chain, rubbing everyone out as they go. It’s the kind of vigilante fantasy that would have made an ideal vehicle for Charles Bronson or Steven Segal, but Ramsey treats it very differently, making something lyrical and almost poetic in Joe’s agonising throes. The ending isn’t satisfactory, and the material sometimes reveals clichéd roots, but these defects only hit home afterwards; while Ramsey’s film unspools, it’s hypnotic and as compellingly lurid as the subject demands.

Bad Times at the El Royale 2018 ***


Writer and director Drew Goddard offers up an all-star, single-location thriller that looked like a Tarantino-lite knock-off from the trailer, but mines it’s own unique seam of neo-noir drama. A number of different parties converge on the remote and isolated El Royale Hotel, including suspicious priest Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), Charles Manson-like serial killer Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) and an assortment of others including John Hamm, Dakota Johnson and Cynthia Erivo. There’s buried treasure at stake, but the hotel itself, built over a state border and previously used for nefarious surveillance purposes, has a few secrets of its own. At nearly two and a half hours, Bad Times at the El Royale has a few longeurs, and there’s also some big revelations and genuine tension, particularly in the first half when motivations are still obscure. Goddard’s slow-burn tension doesn’t require any comparisons; he’s flying a flag for old-fashioned crime fiction, and approached in the right mind-set, the twists and turns of El Royale are well worth following