ON THE SHELF AUGUST 2014

batman b&w vol four cover scanUntil TRIPWIRE kicks off properly around November, I am going to be reviewing graphic novels here. So to kick off On The Shelf, here’s a couple of reviews of books I’ve read recently… First up is Batman Black and White Volume Four, published by DC Comics, various creators. The first Batman Black and White stories ran in the defunct Gotham Knights series in the first decade of this century. This hardcover reprints the six part series published by DC last year and the beginning of this year. Editor Mark Chiarello has assembled another impressive line-up of creators to take full advantage of the black and white format. There are disappointments here: Batman Zombie by Neal Adams shows why he isn’t a writer, Damion Scott’s Hall of Mirrors isn’t my cup of tea as it is very cartoony and Javier Pulido’s story Cat and Mouse story, written by Keith Giffen, looks rushed. But there are some truly stunning shorts here: Richardo Burchielli, with writer Marv Wolfman, channels Gene Colan, former Superman artist Kenneth Rocafort actually shows that he can tell a story very well, Alex Nino shows that he has lost none of his visual panache and British artist Dave Taylor (2000AD, Batman Death by Design) offers a beautiful tribute to deceased master Moebius in a tale that is one of the highlights here. But there are almost too many high points to draw attention to here. Anthologies are by their very nature eclectic and no one reader will connect with everything in its pages but Volume Four shows Chiarello’s rare skill at bringing together the best of today’s talent with a selection of old masters. If you are a fan of Batman and an admirer of what can be achieved on the comics page, then you should pick up Batman Black and White Volume Four. I am also going to recommend two other DC series, well actually they’re Vertigo/ DC series. The first is 100 Bullets, by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso, and the other is American Vampire, by Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque and various artists. 100 Bullets has been reprinted in five beautiful hardback collections, topped off with an interlocking Dave Johnson image done specifically for the new collections. Azzarello and Risso have created a wonderful modern noir tale of crime families fighting among themselves. Risso’s art is magnificently cinematic with every page brilliantly composed, making you want to stare at them for hours. Cover artist Dave Johnson’s contribution here mustn’t be marginalised either: his spectacular covers set the scene for each story and he is one of the most elegant artists currently working in comics. American Vampire is one of Vertigo’s more recent hits and you can get six hardcovers reprinting the first volume of the series plus various spin-off series. There is real chemistry between Snyder and Albuquerque and this story of vampires in the modern world, taking in the Wild West, Fifties America and even World War Two Europe, is inventive, smart and a compulsive read.

 

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A NEW DIMENSION IN HORROR
Evil Dead II is a classic horror film. Released back in 1987, Sam Raimi’s follow-up to The Evil Dead (1981) took the horror genre and turned it on its head. Evil Dead II is a horror comedy and the expert fusion of the two genres shows that Raimi is an extraordinary director. This restored Blu-ray starts off a little bit ropily with the picture quality a little bit grainy but it does improve after a few minutes. Bruce Campbell plays Ash, a chancer who brings his girlfriend Linda (Denise Bixler) to a cabin in a woods but he soon finds himself embroiled in a battle between the living and the evil spirits of the dead. Visually it is very impressive as Raimi uses a mix of animation, prosthetics and more traditional special effects to show why he has had such a long career in movies. It also managed to build on its more primitive progenitor, showing real technical development. Its script is suitably subversive too with its cartoon violence well handled. Campbell is manic, funny and charismatic on screen and the balance between the horror and the comedy is well-maintained. Clocking in at under 90 minutes, Evil Dead II is a smart, funny modern horror film with some nice touches and it certainly deserves a Blu-ray release…

Studio Canal

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A HOST OF HAMMER

People forget that Hammer was more than just Dracula and Frankenstein. This month there’s a raft of new Hammer releases from StudioCanal on DVD and Blu-ray, one of which reminds you that they weren’t just a house of horror.
Hell is A City, directed by Val Guest, is a police drama set in Manchester which was made in 1960 and is getting its DVD debut. Made like a British version of a US cop drama, Stanley Baker plays Inspector Martineau in pursuit of America criminal Don Starling (played by John Crawford). Baker, who went on to things like Zulu, makes for a good central protagonist and the rest of the cast, including cameos from a young Billie Whitelaw and Donald Pleasance, are very consistent indeed. Director Guest, who also directed films like The Day The Earth Caught Fire and The Quatermass Experiment as well as Expresso Bongo, acquits himself well here. A little bit of a hidden curio, Hell Is a City is worth checking out if you’re an aficionado of Hammer or 1960s British police films…
And there’s also three more typical Hammer films out on Blu-ray this month too. First up is The Devil Rides Out (1968), which is apparently Christopher Lee’s favourite Hammer film he appeared in. Based on Dennis Wheatley’s novel, and with a screenplay by none other than Richard (I Am Legend) Matheson, this film is arguably one of the studios’ best efforts. Lee plays against type as the Duc du Richelieu, who is concerned that his friend Simon Aron (Patrick Mower) has become embroiled in a satanic cult led by the malevolent Mocata (Charles Gray chewing up the scenery). Lee is very good as is Gray and it is still a slice of classic English pulp, directed with aplomb by Hammer veteran Terence Fisher. It is good to see The Devil Rides Out make the transfer to Blu-ray as it deserves it and they have done a very nice job with the picture…
Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966) is a strange film. Starring Christopher Lee in the eponymous role, it isn’t typical Hammer fare as there are no monsters or supernatural creatures. But it does still have that pulpy Hammer feel to it with Lee an interesting choice as the Russian historical figure. As with many of their films, it was shot in Buckinghamshire, which doesn’t always convince as Russia but Lee is always watchable on screen and director Don Sharp moves proceedings on with style and panache. The rest of the cast can’t really compete with him though and so Rasputin The Mad Monk feels like a minor Hammer film, worth watching but more of a hardcore fan’s delight. Again, StudioCanal have done a nice job with the transfer…
And finally, we have The Mummy’s Shroud (1967). No Lee this time but we do have Andre Morrell, from The Plague of The Zombies. This was Hammer’s attempt to resurrect another of the classic Universal Monsters after Dracula and Frankenstein and Morrell is good value. But it does feel very much like a second-string Hammer production, more like The Reptile than The Plague of The Zombies or the superior Dracula or Frankenstein efforts. It’s a bit of pulpy fun though and the mummy effects are decent. It’s a decent addition to Hammer on Blu-ray and worth watching with reasonably low expectations…
These four films show the range of Hammer over the years and it is heartening that they are attracting a new audience…
www.studiocanal.com

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FROM SNAKES TO ZOMBIES
The advent of Blu-ray has given a new lease of life for old cult classic films. British horror and cult movie house Hammer is no exception and two of its minor key movies, The Reptile and The Plague of The Zombies, have just been released on Blu-ray by StudioCanal, a company for connoisseurs of the kitsch. Neither film features Hammer stalwarts Cushing and Lee and so they are less well-known than the Dracula and Frankenstein efforts from the studio. Beginning with the stronger film, The Plague of The Zombies is a simple tale of gothic horror: set in a small village in Cornwall where its inhabitants are dying of a mystery disease, and Professor James Forbes and daughter Sylvia are invited down to try and get to the bottom of what’s been going on. Andre Morrell, as Professor Forbes, is good value on screen and John Carson as the sinister Squire Clive Hamilton is suitably creepy. As with the best of Hammer’s output, there’s a naive charm here that the filmmakers carried off with panache and there’s even a few genuinely creepy moments. The transfer here to Blu-ray looks great with the picture sharper than it’s been in years and it is great to see one of the lesser known Hammer films get a new release for home entertainment…

The Reptile, from the same year as The Plague of The Zombies, hasn’t aged as well as the other film. The plot is simple enough: soldier Harry Spalding and his wife inherit a house in the countryside from Spalding’s dead brother. But when they get down there, they find themselves caught up in a web of murder and deceit with Dr Franklyn (Noel Willman) at its centre. The transfer is crystal clear here too and the move to Blu-ray has really sharpened the picture but the script feels like a rejected Doctor Who plot and the acting isn’t up to much, although Jacqueline Pearce is always worth watching. It does have a little bit of that naive charm I mentioned earlier and the makeup on The Reptile is quite well-done though and if you’re a Hammer completist, then you should have this film.
So The Plague of The Zombies is a worthy addition to Hammer on Blu-ray but The Reptile is a bit of a curio and for Hammer obsessives only.

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GOING FOR A BURTON?

Tim Burton has always been a very strange director. His films have always looked sumptuous but often they have suffered from either a weak script or poor direction. Dark Shadows was a cult TV series in the US that ran from 1966 to 1971 about an eccentric family in Maine who hid a dark secret, that one of its number, Barnabas Collins, was actually a vampire. The TV series didn’t really get shown in the UK but it has quite a following in the US so it was an obvious choice for someone like Burton to bring to the big screen. I admit that I have never seen the original TV show so expectations were uncertain when I went to see the film. Burton has brought in regular collaborators Johnny Depp (as protagonist Barnabas Collins) and the director’s partner Helena Bonham Carter (as psychiatrist Dr Julia Hoffman) here while the rest of the cast includes Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Lee Miller and Chloe Grace Moretz as the rest of the Collins family. The plot is simple enough: vampire Collins is cursed and entombed in a coffin by witch Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) at the end of the 18th century after he spurns her advances. He is woken up almost two centuries later in 1972, when the family fortunes have dwindled and the town that they gave their name to, Collinsport, is controlled by Angelique, who now runs a huge fishing company. So Barnabas makes it his mission to restore the influence of the Collins family to its former glory while searching for his former love and coming to terms with living in a strange and unfamiliar future. Dark Shadows is a real mess: Depp does have some nice lines and he looks great in costume but any empathy for his character disappears when you watch him dispatch his victims to feed on. The rest of the cast are pretty forgettable: Eva Green looks stunning as witch Angelique but doesn’t have much to play with while Collins matriarch Pfeiffer and her estranged husband Roger (Lee Miller) are totally wasted, appearing as nothing more than flimsy foils for Barnabas’s story. The film’s script is all over the place as well: not scary enough to be a decent gothic horror and not quite funny enough to cut it as a straight-out comedy, the film ends making little sense, dispatching Angelique but setting things up for a possible sequel. Burton is a frustrating director: his ideas are nearly always interesting but he just doesn’t know how to put them all into a cohesive whole. Dark Shadows is worth watching for Depp’s amusing performance but otherwise it’s just the same old thing from Burton. File under mostly forgettable…

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LONDON CALLING PART TWO

As promised, here’s reviews of the two other films I caught at press screenings at this year’s London Film Festival.
First is The Descendants, directed by Alexander (Election, Sideways) Payne and starring George Clooney, Matthew Lillard and Beau Bridges. Clooney plays lawyer Matt King in Hawaii and the film opens to reveal the fact that Matt’s wife Elizabeth has just had a terrible boating accident and she is in a coma in a hospital. As well as dealing with her wife’s predicament, King is also the head of the family trustees and the entire family has to vote what to do with a large unspoilt piece of land in Hawaii, whether to sell it to developers or leave it unspoilt. It turns out that King and his relatives come from a family whose wealth can be traced back to the fact that their ancestor married a Hawaiian princess in the 19th century. Unfortunately, as King battles with what his and his family’s future holds, certain things come out about his wife, causing him to rethink his life with his two daughters. The Descendants shows the same sharp and keen eye for dialogue and getting the best out of actors that Payne displayed with Election and Sideways. Clooney, a little inconsistent in his film choices, made a smart move here as he is very sympathetic and very human as the father and husband whose world has suddenly changed in an instant. The rest of the cast are also very good including a particularly degraded looking Beau Bridges as King’s cousin, Shailene Woodley as King’s difficult teenage daughter Alexandra and Payne uses the idea of Americans with a foothold into Hawaii very effectively. We see Hawaii as a place with the same problems as the US mainland. Bittersweet and funny at the same time, The Descendants is a well-made and accomplished drama with a very likeable cast and a strong script…
A Dangerous Method is the latest effort from David Cronenberg and looks at the relationship between Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud and how modern psychoanalysis was created. This is the third collaboration between Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen, who plays Freud. The ubiquitous Michael Fassbender (X-Men First Class, Shame) is Jung while Keira Knightley plays Sabina Spielrein, a troubled Jewish Russian girl who comes to Jung for treatment. There are a number of flaws in A Dangerous Method: it feels too much like a play rather than a film with its theatrical setpieces and Knightley just doesn’t convince here, pushing her chin out to show the audience that she’s not all the ticket. The tone is rather arch, cold and self-important too which is a shame because the story of Jung’s friendship with Freud is one that should be intriguing and engaging. Mortensen and Fassbender do have some chemistry as the doomed friends but none of it really gels. Cronenberg is a strange director and while he should be applauded for trying to move outside of his comfort zone, A Dangerous Method really doesn’t work although it does look stunning…
Here’s a few pics from the press conferences for both film with Cronenberg, Payne and others…

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ENTRANCEWAY TO HORROR
The Door (Die Tur) is a German horror/ fantasy film starring Mads Mikkelsen, the Danish actor who is best known to international audiences as Le Chiffre in Casino Royale but was also in the excellent Flame and Citron, a Danish film set in Denmark during the Second World War. Mikkelsen plays artist David, whose life is torn apart when his daughter Leonie drowns in their swimming pool. What makes matters worse is that he feels responsible as he was too busy shacking up with Gia (Heike Makatsch) to keep an eye on his young daughter. For his wife Maja, played by Jessica Schwarz, the death of their daughter is the last straw. So we are moved forward five years in time. But then David finds a mysterious door in an overgrown garden in their neighbourhood, which appears to offer him a new beginning. But things are not as they seem. The door transports David back to before Leonie was killed and, as he prevents her death, he believes that he has rewritten history to patch things up. The problem is that the David of five years ago is still around and so, to resolve matters, the older David is forced to take action. Mikkelsen is an excellent lead and the gorgeous Schwarz as his wife is great to watch on screen. Director Anno Saul maintains the momentum throughout the film with everything shot at a slight distance to create an unsettling reality that doesn’t quite feel like the real world. The Door isn’t really a horror film so much as a fantasy but the Body Snatchers‘ type denouement is quite creepy, leading the viewer to realise that David’s not the only one who’s passed through the door. It’s available to buy now on DVD from Optimum and is recommended for fans of European horror films, especially ones that are a slow burn and are a little more cerebral than your average slasher movie…
www.optimumreleasing.com