Film Diary: RE-ANIMATOR (Stuart Gordon, 1985)

‘I gave him life!’

There’s no doubt that Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985) has become an iconic horror film. An immensely effective black comedy that is anchored by a wonderful performance from Jeffrey Combs as Herbert West (to which Bruce Abbott is required to perform as straight man Dan Cain, who assists West in his… necromantic adventures), in hindsight Gordon’s film seems to owe as much to vaudeville comedy double acts (if Dan Cain is Bud Abbott, Herbert West is Lou Costello) as it does to the horror genre.

There’s a hint of inter-generational conflict, the young and up-and-coming West, a student of the prestigious Dr Hans Gruber in Switzerland, being set against the prideful Dr Carl Hill (a marvelously perverse performance by David Gale). Hill is the funding magnet for Miskatonic University, and has a Nietzschean obsession with the will and its location in the brain; in the R-rated cut (which excises some of the film’s more outrageous mayhem and adds some expositional scenes that were omitted from Gordon’s preferred, unrated, cut), this obsession manifests itself in Hill’s well-practised ability to control the will of others through hypnosis. Meanwhile, Cain is trying to curry favour with Carl Halsey (Robert Sampson), the Dean of Miskatonic University and the father of Cain’s lover Megan Halsey (Barbara Crampton).

It seems that the intention was for Cain to be the film’s protagonist, and although Cain is perhaps the film’s most morally well-intentioned character, as in all vaudeville pairings the ‘straight man’ often seems more than a little ‘flat’; most viewers probably work their way into the narrative through West. West is quite clearly looney-tunes (the R-rated version also adds a scene in which Cain finds West injecting himself with the reagent, with the ferocity of a true junkie), but thanks to the exuberance of Combs’ performance, it’s difficult not to sympathise with him. West is a truly revolutionary figure, like a Bakhtinian clown whose appearance is distruptive to hierarchies and models of authority. Early in the film, he is shown disrupting a lecture given by Dr Hill through the snapping of pencils. (This results in Hill admonishing West, telling him – in a line delivered wonderfully by David Gale – ‘Mr West, I suggest you get yourself a pen’.) In the film’s climax, West assembles a horde of reanimated corpses, all given to enacting their own will, who threaten to tear down the establishment (in a metaphorical sense, if not in a literal one), after Hill’s sexual obsession with Megan comes to a head (geddit?) in a scene that, in the post #metoo world, seems even more deliberately cringey than it was during the Eighties.

Megan is a more mercurial character. When West first approaches Cain, asking to rent a room in Cain’s house, Meg suggests Cain turn him down; out of economic necessity, Cain accepts West’s proposition, however. Meg’s instinctive doubts about West are, the narrative proves, well-founded: West, it seems, kills Cain’s beloved pet cat so that West may test his reagent on it, then kill it once again when it comes back to life; and West is also responsible for alienating Cain from Dean Halsey’s affections, leading Cain into disrepute through his association with West’s activities. However, on the other hand Meg is also given to manipulating Cain’s will through a combination of histrionics, nagging and sex.

In retrospect, Re-Animator is a film about the revolution and the carnival, will and desire, the self and the institution. Some of its boundless energy was captured in Gordon’s next Lovecraft adaptation, From Beyond (1986). Back in 2016, I wrote a lengthy review of the Arrow Video release of Brian Yuzna’s sequel, Bride of Re-Animator (1990), which can be found here.

Viewing Notes. This viewing was via the ‘integral’ cut of the film (running 104:55 mins) on the German Capelight Blu-ray release. The Blu-ray set also includes the unrated and R-rated edits of Re-Animator. The ‘integral’ cut uses the unrated cut as its base and inserts into this the expositional footage unique to the R-rated cut.

This was my first time watching the ‘integral’ cut of Re-Animator. Having first seen the film in about 1990 via the UK VHS release, which contained a heavily BBFC-censored version of the unrated cut, I didn’t see the scenes exclusive to the R-rated edit until I managed to get hold of the Elite Entertainment 10th Anniversary LaserDisc release in the mid/late 1990s. Seen in isolation, as they are presented on that old LaserDisc release, the scenes unique to the R-rated cut ‘work’ in their own ways, and at least one of them (the scene in which Cain finds West self-administering the reagent in order, ostensibly, to keep himself awake) should arguably have been included in the unrated cut. However, in truth the ‘integral’ cut drags owing to the inclusion of the scenes of Dr Hill hypnotising various personages; part of the appeal of the unrated cut is its almost breathless pace.

The Capelight Blu-ray presentation is very good, easily eclipsing the old US Blu-ray release from Image Entertainment. I have not yet seen the Arrow Video Blu-ray released in the States, so cannot comment on how the Capelight release compares with that presentation of the film.

2020-7

Film Diary: LA NUIT DE LA MORT! / NIGHT OF DEATH! (Raphael Delpard, 1980)

‘What do you think could go on in a place like this?’

A French gore film with more than a passing resemblance to Jean Rollin’s early 1980s work – though given Rollin’s standing as one of the few French horror/gore filmmakers of the mid-20th Century, this comparison is admittedly difficult to avoid – Raphael Delpard’s La nuit de la mort! (Night of Death!) reworks Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ‘eat the rich’ into ‘eat the young’. When reserved, respectful Martine (Isabelle Goguey) takes a job in a retirement home, she is coached by brash Nicole (Charlotte De Turckheim). Initially, she is told that the clients’ good health is owing to a strict vegetarian diet, but as the story progresses Martine comes to realise that her elderly charges are consuming something much less traditional (ie, the internal organs of young women), resulting in an artificially elongated lifespan.

Like Rollin’s David Cronenberg-esque La nuit des traquees (Night of the Hunted, also 1980), La nuit de la mort! focuses on an institution which, behind its respectable facade, facilitates all sorts of debauchery. The film’s depiction of cannibalism situates it on a sliding scale of movies that deal with the theme of anthropophagy – from the cannibalism-as-savagery motif of the Italian cannibal movies of the late 1970s and early 1980s (eg, Umberto Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox, 1981) to the satirical depiction of cannibalism at the heart of institutions such as family life in Bob Balaban’s Parents (1989). Here, in Delpard’s picture, the devouring of human flesh is used not just as a metaphor for inter-generational conflict but is also depicted as a form of vampirism; its ritualistic consumption is a source of rejuvenation and, possibly, eternal life. In the film’s focus on elderly inhabitants of a retirement home that consume the young proletarian women who work there, La nuit de la mort! owes more than a smidgen to the Countess Bathory legend.

La nuit de la mort! contains a particularly memorable scene of evisceration in which a naked Nicole is butchered by the elderly patients in her care. A remarkably authentic-looking dummy torso is cut open and real offal removed from it. It’s a potent, gruesome scene that anticipates, later in the film, Martine’s discovery of her friend’s butchered corpse in a wardrobe.

Apparently, though she’s very good here, Goguey was never comfortable acting on screen and preferred to work behind the camera: Goguey acted as an assistant director for Claude Pierson, in the era of Pierson’s transition from softcore to hardcore sex pictures.

Viewing Notes. The Synapse DVD release runs for 94:17 mins and is presented in 1.66:1, with anamorphic enhancement. The 35mm-shot feature looks very good. The French soundtrack is accompanied by optional English subtitles.

2020-5

Film Diary: LA LAMA NEL CORPO / THE MURDER CLINIC (Elio Scardamaglia, 1966)

‘It must be very exciting to make love with a murderer’.

Set in the 1870s, Scardamaglia’s La lama nel corpo is a typical mid-1960s Gothic giallo all italiana. The picture features William Berger as Dr Robert Vance, the head of a psychiatric clinic based in a decaying mansion. This Gothic setting forms the locus for a series of murders, of Vance’s patients. Who could the killer be? Fred, a male patient who exhibits violent psychotic breaks with reality? Dr Vance himself, who is claimed to have murdered his wife’s beautiful sister? And what is the source of the strange noises emanating from an upstairs room?

Into this mayhem comes Gisele (Francoise Prevost), who after an incident involving the horse-drawn carriage she is travelling in, is rescued by Vance and taken to the clinic in order to recuperate. Prevost is a wonderful female lead – mature, resourceful and beautiful – and far from the pathetic woman-in-peril of most Gothic fiction of the era (for example, the Roger Corman Edgar Allan Poe adaptations). She enriches the film, the screen lighting up when she appears, and gives the film a touch of class. Berger, sadly, is quite limp and unmemorable in his role.

La lama nel corpo is a film of many red herrings; its plotting suggests the influence of Mario Bava’s Sei donne per l’assassino (Blood and Black Lace, 1964). Some aspects of the story – such as Prevost wandering at night through the huge corridors of the clinic in search of the source of the mysterious sound she has heard from her room – make one wonder whether Dario Argento took some ideas from La lama nel corpo when making Suspiria (1977). Regardless of the fairly non-distinctive narrative, the film’s setting adds much to the picture, the production design creating a strong sense of atmosphere that is amplified by the predominantly low-key photography. Throughout, there is much staging-in-depth using the full horizontal axis of the ‘scope frame, with action taking place in both the foreground and background of the compositions.

Viewing Notes. La lama nel corpo has been difficult to see in a reasonable presentation. The FilmArt Blu-ray released in Germany contains an adequate presentation of the film, in the film’s original ‘scope aspect ratio and seeming to be uncut (running for 86:59 mins), though one that seems to be sourced from a print in rough shape. (The disc includes both a ‘restored’ presentation in which some of the damage of the source has been remedied, and an ‘unrestored’ presentation which exhibits plentiful damage – burn marks, scratches, etc.) The drop into the toe is sharp, with shadow detail often seeming ‘crushed’, and sometimes the rise into the shoulder is equally bold: skintones sometimes bloom.

The disc offers Italian, German and English audio options (all lossless), with optional German subtitles only.

2020-2

Film Diary: DAWN OF THE DEAD (George A Romero, 1978)

‘You are stronger than us; but soon, I think, they be stronger than you’.

It’s always tough to write about favourite films, and Dawn of the Dead has been one of my favourites since before I reached my teenage years, my first encounter with the picture being through the cut Entertainment in Video VHS release. I vividly remember watching the film for the first time, on a Saturday night with my grandfather, who passed away over a decade ago. I mention this because revisiting the film in my middle age, having experienced numerous bereavements, what strikes me as much as the film’s major theme of consumerism gone made (which is so in one’s face that it’s arguably more text than subtext) is Romero’s more subtle focus on attitudes towards death and how these differ according to cultural and class background. ‘They still believe there’s respect in dying’, Peter tells Roger at one point, when Roger asks why the poverty-stricken inhabitants of the tenement that the SWAT team invade have kept the corpses of their relatives in the basement of the building. Later, Peter tells the survivors of his grandfather, a houngan in Trinidad, who told him that ‘When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth’.

Viewing Notes. This time, I watched Dawn of the Dead via the restoration of the European cut of the film, running 119:43 mins, from the Italian Midnight Factory Blu-ray set.

Romero’s 126-min theatrical cut has always been my favourite edit of the film and therefore my ‘go to’ version of Dawn of the Dead. However, in the mid-1990s I acquired the longer 138-min ‘Cannes cut’ and the 119-min ‘Argento cut’ on VHS tapes dubbed from the Japanese LaserDisc release. These offer a case study in how an edit can change the overall tone of the film. The 119-min cut prepared by producer Dario Argento for release in several European countries removes much of the film’s humour, adds in some gore, restructures some scenes slightly (notably the scene in which Peter and Roger use the trucks to block the entrances of the mall) and replaces Romero’s mix of Goblin tracks and library music with wall-to-wall Goblin tracks. The result is a cut of the film that has much less dry humour which, combined with the added gore footage, feels much more oppressive because of it, the rockin’ Goblin score making the film seem more action-oriented. The European cut feels much more like an assault on the senses than the other edits of the film. Where much of the film, in the Euro cut, features more music, Argento also removes some music cues – where Romero underscores the death and resurrection of Roger using library music, in the Euro cut this scene plays out without musical accompaniment, with the result that it’s more haunting.

To be fair, though I’ve watched Dawn of the Dead dozens of times, I’ve only watched the European cut of the film perhaps four or five times in the past 25 years – always when acquiring a new home video version containing it. The first time was via the aforementioned VHS dubs of the Japanese LaserDisc; the second was when Anchor Bay released their DVD boxed set in the mid-2000s; the third was when Arrow Video released their Blu–ray set in the UK; the fourth was via the Opening Films Blu-ray release from France. Based on a restoration of the European cut that was taken from a 4k scan of an interpositive, Midnight Factory’s Blu-ray presentation of this cut of the film is, while not without its flaws, pretty darned impressive. (Early pressings of the disc had an encoding issue that was remedied by a disc replacement programme, which Midnight Factory kindly also honoured for international customers like myself.) The colour palette is noticeably improved, with a sense of consistency and depth to the colours that was absent in previous home video presentations of this cut of the film.

Given that the Euro cut makes standout use of the Goblin music, I sucked in my pride and chose to watch the film with the lossless 5.1 track included on the disc (a lossless 2.0 track is also on offer; the purist in me would usually go for that option). This is rich and has some excellent range and effective separation; gunshots sound impressive, in particular, and the Goblin score sounds superb. However, this 5.1 track contains an incessant reverb/echo effect which can be quite distracting at times.

2020-1

FILM DIARY: The Untold Story 2 (Andy Ng, 1998)

A sequel in name only to Herman Yau’s memorable 1993 Cat III picture THE UNTOLD STORY, which features a powerhouse performance from Anthony Wong, THE UNTOLD STORY 2 has virtually no relationship with Yau’s film – other than the presence of Anthony Wong in the cast. Though the film’s promotional artwork, and certainly the DVD cover, might suggest Wong is playing a cannibalistic cook similar to the ‘Bunman’ of the first picture, the reality is far different. In THE UNTOLD STORY 2, Wong plays a minor character, an indolent police officer named Lazyboots. It’s a walk-on, walk-off role, certainly overshadowed by the major player in this film, Paulyn ‘Alien’ Sun.

Sun plays Fung, the mainland cousin-in-law of Cheung (Emotion Cheung) who arrives in Hong Kong to work at the family-owned restaurant. The clientele of Cheung’s restaurant are equal parts police and triads. Anthony Wong’s character, Lazyboots, offers some comic relief; like many HK films of this era, THE UNTOLD STORY 2 depicts the police as clueless and utterly impotent.

From their first meeting, it is clear that Fung is besotted with Cheung. Fung is charming and loyal – everything Cheung’s unfaithful, unpleasant wife, Fung’s cousin, is not. However, Fung is also a raving maniac, something which is revealed gradually to the audience and then to Cheung: we realise the depths of Fung’s depravity when, in retaliation for anti-mainlander abuse thrown at her by a customer in a shop, Fung follows the woman into a public lavatory, douses her in paint and sets her alight. Outwardly polite and deferential, Fung is also secretly murderous.

Played wonderfully by the beautiful Alien Sun, in a performance that oscillates between absolute naivete and savagery, Fung is a deceptively complex character. Certainly, her dedication to the put-upon Cheung makes her somewhat sympathetic, though as the narrative progresses her violence escalates, and as the film heads towards its climax Fung descends into full-on ‘bunny boiler’ mode – with the final sequences of the film paying homage to the likes of Adrian Lyne’s FATAL ATTRACTION (1987) and Curtis Hanson’s THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE (1992). However, arguably the film is largely sympathetic to Fung: we see the prejudice that, as a mainlander, she faces from the Hong Kongers, who subject her to namecalling and ridicule her. On the other hand, Fung’s deadly behaviour in some ways seems to legitimate the Hong Kongers’ fear and distrust of mainlanders: the film seems to suggest that these two factors become self-validating, leading to a spiral of antagonism between the two cultures.

‘I am the last woman in your life’, Fung tells Cheung as the film nears its climax. But when the deadly Fung is played by the incredible Alien Sun, who can make the most murderous character utterly beguiling, if you were in Cheung’s place would you mind?

Viewing Notes. Watched via the Chinese Universe DVD release, which contains a non-anamorphic presentation (1.85:1) and runs for 90:35 mins.

FILM DIARY: Red to Kill (Billy Tang, 1994)

One of the definitive Cat III pictures to come out of Hong Kong in the early 1990s, RED TO KILL differs from some of its contemporaries (Danny Lee and Billy Tang’s DR LAMB and Herman Yau’s UNTOLD STORY) by not having a ‘ripped from the headlines’ plot: unlike those films, which were based very loosely on true stories, RED TO KILL’s plot is entirely fictional.

An unashamedly combative film, RED TO KILL is anchored by Ben Ng’s incredible performance as Chan, the man who altruistically runs a home for mentally challenged adults but who by night turns into a brutal, absolutely feral rapist/murderer whose assaults are triggered by the colour red. Chan is by turns utterly calm and controlled, suited and booted by day; but by night, he is all jittery tics, rippling muscles and jock straps as he searches for his victims. It’s not a stretch to assert that the transformation from day-Chan to night-Chan is like the transformation of Dr Jekyll into Mr Hyde, with the colour red as the alchemical ingredient that acts as a catalyst for the metamorphosis of the former into the latter.

The film builds some sympathy for Chan by depicting, through a vivid flashback, the incident in his childhood that led to his present-day triggering by the colour red: Chan’s father caught his mother with her lover, and the very young Chan was forced to watch as his mother and her lover butchered both Chan’s father and Chan’s young brother, the blood spattering across Chan’s face. Watching RED TO KILL, one might be reminded of Will Graham’s assertion in Michael Mann’s 1986 movie MANHUNTER: ‘My heart bleeds for him, as a child. Someone took a kid and manufactured a monster. At the same time, as an adult, he’s irredeemable. He butchers whole families to pursue trivial fantasies. As an adult, someone should blow the sick fuck out of his socks’.

The story builds towards a ferocious climax in which Chan, wielding a sledgehammer and wearing a wrestler’s cossie, hunts down the social worker (Money Lo) of one of his victims, the mentally handicapped Ming Ming (Lily Chung), with whom Chan has developed an obsessive fascination. Tang’s protacted handling of this climax and the manner in which he amps up the hysteria and violence has some equivalence in Tobe Hooper’s handling of the climax of THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974).

As challenging as the narrative might be, RED TO KILL is incredibly photographed. For the most part, the night-time sequences are shot with blue gels, resulting in an almost monochromatic palette – shades of blue and black. This is disrupted, however, when the colour red appears on the screen – such as a potential victim in a red dress or wearing red shoes. This aesthetic is incredibly effective in placing the viewer within Chan’s mindset, and, as unlikely as it may seem, one might wonder whether cinematographer Tony Mau was influenced by Powell and Pressburger’s THE RED SHOES…