British

Ravenous (1999)

ravenous

I picked Ravenous to review based on three facts, 1 – the cover of the dvd, 2 – the decade it was made, I have done several post-millennial films recently (although as it was released in 1999 it only just fell into the category) and 3 – I hadn’t done a film about cannibals since Cannibal Holocaust back in July. Given these reasons for choosing it, it is needless to say that I didn’t really know anything about the film or what to expect before viewing.

Ravenous is set in California in the mid nineteenth century following Captain John Boyd, played by a rather stoic Guy Pearce (Momento, The Hurt Locker) on his new post at Fort Spencer, a remote outpost in the mountains. The film opens at Captain Boyd’s promotion ceremony where he has gained his promotion due to singlehandedly capturing a Mexican command camp in the Mexican-American war. However, in a series of flashbacks, we learn that Boyd managed to survive the massacre of his entire regiment by pretending to be dead. This act of cowardice is known by the General and hence his promotion has also earned him a ticket to the most remote outpost, the aforementioned Fort Spencer. As a portent of what is to come, the new Captain is served a very undercooked steak for lunch which along with the memories of the act that earned him the promotion, causes him to rapidly lose his lunch.

On arrival in Fort Spencer, Boyd meets an assortment of outcasts including affable but inept Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Jones, Sleepy Hollow), drunkard Major Knox (Stephen Spinella, Milk), a collection of Privates each more hopeless than the last and two Native Americans who lived there when the fort was founded.  Shortly after Boyd’s arrival at the fort they find a half-dead man outside the walls. It turns out that the stranger is a man named Colqhoun, played by Robert Carlyle (28 Weeks Later) who was on his way through the mountains with a wagon train that got snowed in after trying a short cut. In the three months that they were trapped, Colqhoun and the others in the wagon train were forced to eat whatever was available, starting with the horse and oxen and culminating in human flesh. The story Colqhoun tells is a chilling one that really could have occurred in those times. It transpires that, through an act of cowardice of his own, Colqhoun has left the only woman in the party (50% of the female characters in the film) alone with the maniacal Colonel Ives. It is the duty of the soldiers at the fort to head into the mountains to rescue the lost travellers.

On arriving at the cave where the unfortunate travellers sought shelter it transpires that Colqhoun is in fact Ives and has lured them up there to replenish his supply of human meat. In the ensuing fight, Colqhoun manages to overpower and kill the soldiers except for Boyd who jumps off a cliff, landing in a ditch with a broken leg. Although Colqhoun searches for Boyd he is unable to find him and Boyd survives by eating the flesh of his dead comrade. The plot thickens as upon returning to the camp after an undisclosed period of time the replacement for Colonel Hart arrives and it is none other than Ives, a.k.a. the cannibalistic Colqhoun! Only Boyd knows this (as the others did not meet Ives in his previous incarnation) and things go steadily downhill for the Boyd and the fort. Will Boyd succumb to the flesh hunger or will he stop Ives before he destroys the whole fort?

There are no ‘perfect’ characters or heroes in the film, which makes a refreshing change, Boyd is plagued by cowardice and the rest of the men at the fort from afflictions ranging from anger issues to alcoholism. There are a number of well-known actors in Ravenous, all of which do a good job portraying their various character and their flaws. I found Carlyle’s portrayal of both Colqhoun and Ives to be amongst the best with the slightly deranged look of a man on the edge in evidence in the lost traveller which turns to sociopathic egomania in Ives.

Ravenous is based on the Native American myth of the Wendigo, that if a man consumes another’s flesh he takes their strength but is cursed to hunger for human flesh. It is an interesting idea, normally cannibals are portrayed as less civilised, either a remote forest tribe (e.g. Cannibal Holocaust) or inbred hillbillies (e.g. The Hills Have Eyes and Wrong Turn). I think the idea that anyone, through circumstances out of their control could become a cannibalistic monster is far more disturbing than less “developed” (for lack of a better word) cannibals.

I would recommend Ravenous to as a film for anyone to watch (as long as they aren’t too squeamish about cannibalism). The main downside to the film is the lack of female characters, there are only two in the whole film and they are in very, very minor roles.

Rating: 4/5 (It lost one mark due to the lack of female characters)

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The Witches (1966)

the witches

The Witches which was released in the US as The Devil’s Own which is also the name of the novel the film is based on. It opens with a dramatic scene in an unspecified country in Africa in which Gwen Mayfield, played by Joan Fontaine (Rebecca, Suspicion, is chased out of town by a tribal uprising lead by the witch doctors one of who looks like a giant Mr Potato head. The rest of the film is set in a very different location in the small rural village of Heddaby where she is recruited to be the schools new headmistress by the wealthy siblings Alan and Stephanie Bax, Alec McCowen (Frenzy)and Kay Walsh (Oliver Twist)respectively.

Heddaby seems like a wonderful place to recuperate after the dramatic incident in Africa, however it soon becomes clear that all is not as it seems. The first clue that something is off about the village is the revelation that Alan is not a priest as he first presents himself; in fact, there is not even a current church in the village. The headmistress’s attentions focuses on two students, Linda Rigg (Ingrid Boulting, The Last Tycoon) and Ronnie Dowsett (Martin Stephens, Village of the Damned) who, at fourteen has a blossoming potential romance. However, this relationship is cut short when Ronnie mysteriously falls into a comma and coincidently (or not) a doll missing its head with pins stuck in it is discovered.

Things go from bad to worse for Gwen with the death of one of the villagers leading her to jump to the conclusion that there is a coven in the village intent on human sacrifice (quite a large jump from the supposed suicide or accidental death of a drunk man) and she is briefly hospitalised and loses her memory. At the climax of the film, Gwen Mayfield returns to Heddaby in an attempt to regain her memory. Unfortunately, she stumbles onto a ritual in which the villagers intend to sacrifice poor Linda Rigg and she is her only hope of survival.

I have to commend The Witches imagination in costume and props, it has to contain the most ominous feather duster on screen. The witches costume at the final dramatic scene is something to behold, a bright orange tabard with a three horned goat creature on and an excellent headpiece comprised of burning mummified hands. There is little to write about either the acting or the soundtrack in the film, both are average, neither excellent nor remarkably bad and both make the film easy to follow and a joy to watch, ramping up the tension throughout the film.

Not one of Hammer Horror’s best films it is nevertheless an enjoyable, if slow to get started, to watch with some bizarre costume choices. It is missing the usual blood and boobs of a hammer film so don’t expect it but what you get instead is a creepy off-beat tale of witchcraft. I particularly enjoy the link the film makes between witchcraft in different cultures, from the wilds of Africa to the quaint English countryside.

Rating 3/5

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An American Werewolf In London (1981)

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I am surprised that I it has taken me so long to review a werewolf film given the number floating about. An American Werewolf In London was a good film to put right this lapse. The film opens in a long aerial sequence of the imposing English countryside (far away from the urban jungle of London) which reminded me greatly of the opening of The Shining released a year before. We meet David Kessler and Jack Goodman, two young American tourists played by David Naughton (Midnight Madness) and Griffin Dunne (Dallas Buyers Club) respectively as they come across a small village pub. The Slaughtered Lamb is a pub for ‘local folk’ and after an altercation with a few of the locals, the two hikers leave into the dark night. The pair completely ignore the locals advice of ‘Beware the moon’ and ‘Keep to the road’ and head off singing into the open moorland, an unwise idea at the best of times. The locals, feeling guilty go after Jack and David but are too late, the tourists have been attacked by a hideous wolf killing Jack and mauling David, putting him into a coma.

When David wakes up three weeks later in a London hospital he starts having horrific nightmares and is visited by a decomposing Jack, trapped forever to wonder the Earth until the bloodline of the werewolf that killed him has gone, which, of course, is David. When he is discharged David moves in with his nurse, played by Jenny Agutter (Logan’s Run) which seems somewhat unethical to me but this was the 80s I suppose. Alone on the night of the full moon he transforms into a werewolf and terrorizes the whole of London, killing several people.

The special effects in An American Werewolf in London are really good, especially considering that it was made in an era before CGI. The werewolf is one of the best I’ve seen on film, neither a hirsute man in need of a manicure or a normal wolf it is something out of nightmares, a giant black-haired beast with large yellow fangs and flashing eyes. The transformation from man to beast is definitely the set-piece of the film with the agony of bones transforming, limbs changing and whole physiology shifting in clear detail. That said, the special effects of the slowly decaying Jack are also excellently realised.

I really enjoyed An American Werewolf in London, it wasn’t too long and had a clear story arc, albeit predictable. Written and directed by John Landis (The Blues Brothers, Twilight Zone: The Movie) it is a fun film to watch when you are not in the mood for anything particularly scary or that requires too much thinking about.

Rating: 5/5

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Fun Fact: All the songs in the soundtrack have the word ‘moon’ in the title, including Blue Moon, Moondance and Bad Mood Rising.

The Deadly Bees (1966)

The Deadly Bees

The title, The Deadly Bees, is pretty self-explanatory; however the film sets up the back story in the first two scenes. The first takes place in a government office where two suited and booted gentlemen receive a letter from a ‘scientist’ about a strain of deadly bees he has developed, warning them to take him seriously or he’ll use his bees to kill some unspecified person. The two ministers write off the letter, along with the several waste paper bins full of previous letters from the scientist as the ravings of a madman. The second scene introduces the main character, Vicki Robbins, played by Suzanna Leigh (Lust for a Vampire) an exhausted pop star that is then sent to convalesce for two weeks on Seagull Island coincidently where the deadly bees have been developed.

Vicki stays with Ralph and Mary Hargrove, played by Guy Doleman (Thunderball) and Catherine Finn (The Creeping Flesh) where she meets H.W Manfred played by Frank Finlay (The Pianist, Lifeforce), your quintessential eccentric gentleman. Manfred is an expert apiarist and is bee mad, he even breeds his bees in his house with a window into their hive. However, all is not as it seems in the Hargrove residence either, with Mr Hargrove’s unexplained nocturnal visit to the stables with a large hypodermic needle. It seems that Vicki has stumbled into a long held feud between the two men. It soon becomes clear that the real villain of the film is Hargrove who goes on to use his swarm of killer bees to kill his wife, or is it? The film attempts to keep the viewer guessing as to which of the not particularly likeable beekeepers is responsible for the swarm of killer bees but it was pretty easy to guess who was responsible from about half way through.

The film suffers from a stilted and predictable script with plot spoon fed to the viewer just to ensure that everybody gets the (hardly complex) plot. Indeed some of the best acting is from the supporting animal cast, particularly the Hargrove’s dog, Tess who is unfortunately the first victim of the killer bees. The special effects of the film are underwhelming, using a lot of spliced shots of generic bees flying around to an ominous sound track and plastic flies stuck onto the face of a victim as they are attacked. In fact, all the bees used in various sequences, from the plastic flies to the superimposed bees and the single close up of bees stinging skin seem to be different types, sizes and colours.

The Deadly Bees is an adaptation of ‘A Taste For Honey’ by H. F. Heard and is one of the director by Freddie Francis’ (The Elephant Man, Cape Fear) weaker films. All in all The Deadly Bees is a pretty naff, unsubstantial film that is not really worth watching except to marvel at the poor effects, which were bad even for that era which gave us such greats as The Birds, Jason and the Argonauts and Mary Poppins.

Fun Fact: Ronnie Wood of The Rolling Stones appears as a cameo at the start of The Deadly Bees playing with his previous band, The Birds.

 

Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter (1974)

captain kronos

Captain Kronos is set in indeterminate olden times complete with bare footed peasant girls, mobs of angry villagers and tavern wenches. The eponymous Captain Kronos, played by Horst Janson (Murphy’s Law) is a wandering, swashbuckling, often shirtless man who rides around hunting vampires (as the name suggests). We learn that Kronos has become a vampire hunter after returning home from (an unspecified) war only to find his family have been attacked by a vampire. He is accompanied by Professor Hieronymus Grost played by John Cater (The Abominable Dr. Phibes, The Woman in Black), a hunchbacked well-spoken vampire expert. Kronos is called to help a village by Dr Marcus (John Carson) an old friend when young women in his village start turning up as shrivelled old women with blood on their lips. On their way to the troubled village, Kronos and Grost come across a very pretty and feisty peasant girl named Carla (Caroline Munro) in some stocks for dancing on a Sunday. Carla then joins the two vampire hunters and swiftly becomes Kronos’ lover, providing the prerequisite boobs for Hammer productions. There is a plethora of supporting characters, from local bar bullies through to the creepy local aristocratic family with a mother who is never seen in public.

The vampire in Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter is not the usual Dracula type vampire as expected from the more widely known Hammer Dracula films starring Christopher Lee. Rather, the vampire drains the youth from its victims after mesmerising them. Kronos and his team use rather strange methods to catch the vampire, apparently based on old folk tales, including burying dead toads that are resurrected when a vampire passes close.

Originally filmed in 1972, Kronos was destined to become a TV series, however it was eventually released in 1974. Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter is one of the last films Hammer Films produced before being resurrected in the 2000s. The film was written and directed by Brian Clemmens (The Avengers) and is a fun romp through the olden time countryside. There are no slow moments and every scene seems considered of the story, however the outcome is predictable to anyone with any familiarity with films of this type. Some of the dialogue is quite stilted and over dramatic as Kronos has a penchant for one liners. Captain Kronos has a dark fairy tale like quality and is more creepy than all out scary. I think it would have lent itself well to the planned TV series (think The Three Musketeers meets Supernatural) however it still makes admirably good watching as a feature film.

Fun Fact: Captain Kronos was turned into a novel in 2011 by Guy Adams, I wonder how similar to the film it is? If any of you have read it, comment and let me know!

World War Z (2013)

World War Z

World War Z is a big budget, big action film featuring Brad Pitt (who I’m sure you all know, but has also starred in Interview with a Vampire, Fight Club and numerous other films) as Gerry Lane. The film starts with a huge set piece with zombies attacking people in the middle of New York in which we witness both how people become infected (the traditional through a bite), how quickly it takes effect and how inexplicably capable Gerry is to deal with the zombie attack. Indeed, if he was not so capable, this film would be a lot shorter, say 15 minutes instead of 116 minutes. Through the film we learn why Gerry is so well equipped to handle this unfortunate turn of events, he is an ex- UN Inspector.

Fighting to survive the zombie apocalypse alongside Pitt are Mireille Enos (The Killing) as his wife, the slightly less capable Karin Lane and his two daughters, Constance and Rachel played by Sterling Jerins (The Conjuring) and Abigail Hargrove (The Butterfly Circus), who are frankly useless, which I guess is how children would react in that situation. Due to Gerry’s unique background, it earns him and his family a helicopter from his old boss Thierry Umutoni (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom) out of the fallen Big Apple onto a Naval vessel 200 miles from New York. It soon becomes clear that this is not the blessing he thought it was and in order for his family to remain on the ship he goes to the origin of the outbreak with Dr Fassbach (Elyes Gabel), a young brilliant doctor to try and develop a vaccine to the (suspected) zombifying virus.

After a quick sojurn in South Korea, Lane ends up in Israel where he spots an old man and an emaciated teen are ignored by the zombies, giving him the vital clue on how to stop the spread and save the world. One of the best things about this film is how it moves around the world, indicating that it’s a World war and not just America or the UK. The quest for a cure takes Lane from New York, to Cardiff via South Korea and Israel.

The zombies in World War Z are fast zombies and the infection spreads quickly, in some cases as fast as twelve seconds. They are characterised by much gnashing of teeth, in an effort to bite and infect, rather than eat human flesh. The special effects are, understandably with a $400 million budget, the best I’ve seen with both attention to detail and stunning large set piece involving almost literal waves of zombies.

Directed by Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace, Finding Neverland) World War Z is a fast paced film with not a great plot but lots of big action (big budget) scenes. It is a one man film, presumably making the most of the $13.5 million they paid for him. Whilst the plot is not believable (even for a zombie film), with the fate of the world resting on one person, it is still worth watching, keeping shocks and gore going right until the end and deserves its place as the highest grossing Zombie of all time*.

*Correct at time of writing.

The Sender (1982)

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The film starts dramatically with an unsuccessful suicide attempt on a public beach. The young man who tried to drown himself has no memories, including his name and he is assigned the name John Doe #83, played by Zeljko Ivanek (Argo, Hannibal). The story centres around Dr Gail Farmer (and her large 80’s perm), played by Kathryn Harrold (Desperate Housewives, Raw Deal) who treats John Doe at a state mental institution. Dr Farmer starts to notice strange things occurring in relation with the new patient, including a bathroom scene in which blood starts pouring out the taps and mirrors and a bedroom full of rats.

I did not massively enjoy this film, finding it in many ways predictable with limited (if any real) scares. It relies on many horror film favourites, including the creepy old man C.O.M, a troubled mother-child relationship and a ‘twist’ at the end (that I predicted half an hour into the film). It does however call into question the way mental illness was treated in the 1980s, for example the use of electroshock therapy as a cure for severe depression. Dr Farmer and Dr Denman (Paul Freeman), Dr Farmer’s boss, have a conversation about the treatment (Dr Farmer against, Dr Denman for) in which Dr Denman states that no patient has ever reported any pain to which Dr Farmer counters with not that they remember. When John Doe undergoes the treatment, all the staff in the room administering the electroshock therapy are lifted off the floor and electrocuted, experiencing the pain that it causes, showing how it feels and why it is no longer used.

The C.O.M in The Sender is in fact a creepy old woman, played by Shirley Knight (who goes on to star in Desperate Housewives alongside Kathryn Harrold). The C.O.M is in fact John Doe’s mother who, as well as knowing more than anyone else has the annoying habit of unexpectedly disappearing (and appearing) without a trace.

The acting in the film is very well done, with Ivanek’s John Doe convincingly confused and child-like and Harrold’s portrayal of Dr. Farmer as a substitute mother figure is first class. The Sender is directed by Roger Christian, who also directed Battlefield Earth which is regarded as the worst film ever made, winning Worst Director, Worst Picture, Worst Picture for the Decade and Worst ‘Drama’  of our first 25 years (and 5 others) at the Golden Raspberry Awards. Whilst The Sender does not reach these dizzying heights of badness, it does not encourage me to watch more films by Christian.

Maybe it is because it is not what I expected that I did not enjoy this film. When I read the description of this film I was expecting an evil demonic man who controls the people surrounding him into making them commit horrific acts. However, the ‘villain’, John Doe, is a misunderstood, frightened young man whose fears are projected onto the people around him. I would classify this film as a horror film in only the broadest sense, rather I think it is better thought of as a psychological thriller.