Wednesday, 15 June 2011


What an interesting find, LETS SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1971) screened first up, late morning. In the introduction to the film Tony Earnshaw (Festival Director) explained how horror aficionado Kim Newman (In an interview on his career) was asked what his favourite film was and this was the answer, an obscure early seventies low budget affair that has gained cult status over the years but hasn’t really gained major recognition. After an extensive search, Tony tracked down an old discoloured 35mm print of the film from Paramount pictures dusty library.

What a find! If you like 70’s paranoia movies, this will be right up your street. Apparently influenced by THE HAUNTING, director John D. Hancock (Twilight Zone, Hill Street Blues) first movie should have gained him more recognition than it did. Only now does it seem to be getting the acknowledgment it deserved. A really interesting movie taht make a virtue of its low budget and never really gives you solid answers to the complexities of its plot. What starts out as a story about a couple leaving the rat race for a backwater town and an empty old house, moves into psychological territory as we discover that Jessica has recently been released from a psychiatric hospital. When spooky things start to happen around the house and then the locals start acting very oddly, were wrapped up in a quagmire of themes, each hinting and suggesting at a different outcome. Is there a conspiracy to ‘Scare Jessica to death’? Why does the strange traveller girl look just like the ancient fading family picture in the attic? Why do the locals all sport weird scars and act as if they are possessed? LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH is like THE HAUNTING meets INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS with a healthy chunk of Lynchian obscure weirdness thrown in for good measure. See it if you can!

Choices, choices! Next up I chose THE STUFF, Larry Cohen’s (Q THE WINGED SERPENT, IT’S ALIVE) mid eighties schlock piss take parable on modern consumerism is actually rather satirical and pretty funny, despite its exploitation movie facade. THE STUFF is a tasty yet deadly living organism that overcomes the mind and takes over the body. Somehow this highly addictive substance has become the top selling, vigorously marketed dessert in the US. Ex CIA agent Mo Rutherford is hired by a rival company to investigate what dubious secrets lie behind its success. I was pleasantly surprised at THE STUFF’s spin on genre classics like THE BLOB and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. Quirky performances from Michael Moriarty and Paul Sorvino make it really quite cutting edge in many ways. This film made me laugh with it not at it.

THE BEAST MUST DIE (1973) is really an AMICUS ‘B’ movie and not one of their best BUT with , as is so often the case withAMICUS, a really interesting cast. Peter Cushing (Of course), Anton Diffring, Charles Gray, a very young Michael Gambon and Calvin Lockhart. Heres the cheesy concept (And thats all you really have to know!) A big game hunter invites a motley group of guests to his remote home, convinced one or more are werewolves. BUT and this is the cheesy fun part, before the end of the movie we are forewarned that we, the audience, will be given the chance to guess who we think the wolf is. A clock ticks down as you consider briefly the clues given, just before the truth is reveal. Did you guess correctly? What fun! Interactive media before the xbox was even a glint in Microsoft’s eye. Great concept but overall the plots a bit naff really. Fun while it lasts though.

Missed Hammer’s COUNTESS DRACULA and new horror shorts unfortunately, just can’t see everything. Managed to get a little time to investigate the museum itself and discovered a great section on the history of animation and some interactive stuff on optics, moving images, photo techniques, etc, great for kids and big kids alike. Tried to check out the new Ray Harrehausen collection but failed (the archive was closed on Sunday).

So onto the evening’s entertainment. I mentioned in the last blog that there is also a classic TV section to the festival and the highlight of Sunday’s selection was a screening of Jonathan Miller’s 1968 BBC film WISTLE AND I’LL COME TO YOU based on a classic M.R. James ghost story and a post screening audience with the man himself, interviewed by my very own college tutor (Too long ago to mention) and well known art historian Christopher Frayling. A fascinating and quite unexpected session that covered Miller’s intellectual theories on, well, all sorts of things. Frayling tried to keep it on track, referencing his TV work on ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1966) and the connection between Miller the physician and Miller the director of Film, Theatre and Opera but the good doctor did have a tendency to take his answers in whatever thought provoking directions that sprang to mind. Miller was fascinating and often humorous with among other things, anecdotes on working with Peter Sellers and Peter Cook. The M.R. James adaptation, starring Michael Horden is considered one of the best produced although I personally found it rather slow. You imagine Horden is an older version of Miller himself (He was only 34 when he directed it for BBC’s Monitor programme), an intellectual who holds a healthy scepticism for anything considered remotely otherworldly. He theorises and ponders on the human construct that lesser minds describe as ghosts only to find himself seriously disturbed by a series of events that alternatively could be passed of as bad dreams or supernatural happenings. It’s as if Miller is discussing and critiquing James’s writing while also (Loosely) adapting it.

In sharp contrast to the intellectual complexities of Miller’s mind, we closed the festival with a 35mm uncut version of Stuart Gordon’s RE-ANIMATOR. It’s been many years since I last saw this film and I have to say it holds up against modern schlock horrors pretty damn well. It’s confidently written and performed and blackly funny. Jeffrey Combs as Herbert West, the medical student with a new procedure that can reanimate the dead is wonderful. The grizzly consequences of his actions unravel in darkly humorous but rather gory mayhem. As a film maker myself, what struck me was how well structure but simple the plot was and the limited locations. This was a cheap film to make but it’s avid pace and visceral nature keeps you totally involved so as not to notice its budget limitations. Many contemporary low budget horror film makers could learn a lot from this! Me included!

So that’s it, all over. A great weekend. If you check out Ozzy Beck's blog you’ll see that he basically did everything i didn’t do and he still had a great time. Hats off to Tony for putting on such a full and engaging line up of films. If you check the Fantastic films facebook page, you’ll see he’s plotting next year’s line up already!!! For more new horror movies later this year, check out GRIMM UP NORTH festival this October in Manchester.

Monday, 13 June 2011


Thanks to festival director Tony Earnshaw, I managed to secure a weekend pass for the festival at the very last minute. Unfortunately I couldn’t make the busy Friday line up of films and events as I was directing a promo trailer for a new Feature film project called THE RETURNED. An exciting scifi film project that I’ll reveal more about over the coming weeks.

So, I missed out on prolific Hammer director Peter Sasdy talking about his work which included movies such as HANDS OF THE RIPPER, DOOMWATCH, COUNTESS DRACULA and WELCOME TO BLOOD CITY. I also missed a 35mm screening of HANDS OF THE RIPPER, Peter’s personal favourite. THE EXORCIST: DIRECTORS CUT and THE DEAD and a whole bunch of other horrific delights played out and from all accounts delighted the crowd.

Alas I missed them all but started nice and early on the Saturday morning, catching, first up, a 35mm screening of Hammer’s PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES, a rarely screened 1965 foray into zombie territory that beat the Zombie king, Romero, to the screen by a couple of years! As with much of the Hammer stuff, it looks a bit laboured by today’s standards but its interesting how much of the, now taken for granted, zombie tropes began gestation with Hammer’s movie. Possibly a lot more influential than its been given credit for.

Before I continue; a little about the festival as a whole. Very much the brainchild of Tony Earnshaw, the festival artistic director and, I think, an archivist at the Bradford media museum. Over the weekend, I came to learn a little more about Tony and discovered that he also wrote the definitive book on the making of NIGHT OF THE DEMON (1957), one of my favourite British horror movies (I Should have guessed by the festival logo!).

The museum has a library of old movies and the festival is able to make use of both archived 35mm prints the Cubby Broccoli and Pictureville screening theatres. There’s even a TV fringe element to the festival where they play some really interesting scifi, fantasy and horror stuff from the extensive TV archives. So, yes, its very much a retro fest with a healthy chunk of 60’s, 70’s and 80’s movies but they also screen a number of new horror movies (This year including THE DEAD and HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN). I’m guessing Tony is a bit of a purist and if possible sources his festival movies on 35mm, which is great for the punters. Sometimes he endeavours to hunt down missing or forgotten prints in order to present genre gems which have often been overlooked by time.

One of my issues with the festival is that there is just too much damned choice, sometimes with three presentations happening at once! On Saturday I also caught Aussie psychological thriller ROADMAN, Hammer’s Karnstein Trilogy (THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, LUST FOR A VAMPIRE and TWINS OF EVIL) and finally HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN.

ROADMAN is a pretty accomplished piece considering it was made on such a low budget. An impressive debut from director Peter Leovic, its a tense, engaging chiller about the double life of a serial killer, Max Greif, reaching out for normality. Ironically what makes it interesting as a psychological drama is what makes it somehow a little unfulfilling as a suspense thriller because we really come to feel something for Max as he leads a double life.

Despite his sometimes, very unsavoury behaviour, we come to identify with Max’s awkward attempts to woo his attractive but isolated neighbour Lorraine and his battle with the memory of his domineering father. And so when Lorraine settles down with him but ultimately discovers the truth about his murderous past we don’t really feel the threat. By the end Lorraine kinda comes to understand his psychological problems and embraces his faults. Its a character shift that I found hard to embrace totally. Maybe if we were given a little more about how Greif suffered at the hands of his father, we’d also understand his complex emotions and actions more. Still, a very interesting concept but for me more a psychological drama than a horror/thriller. I don’t think its available in the UK, which is a pity. It definitely deserves at least DVD release.

Theres something about Hammer movies that hold a fascination for people who grew up either watching them at the cinema or, like me on TV reruns in the late 70’s, early 80s. The Karnstein movies were the ones you were slightly embarrassed to watch with your dad! the ones with, X rated nudity and gore. Now, they’d probably draw little reaction from an audience of ten year olds! But back in the early 70’s they were considered boundary pushing! It’s amazing how things change!

What a cast in VAMPIRE LOVERS! Ingrid Pitt, Peter Cushing, George Cole, Jon Finch (Hitchcock’s FRENZY and Polanski’s MACBETH) and KATE O’MARA. All three films are based loosely on the 19th Century novella by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. Hammer broke new ground and briefly re-invented itself basically by the introduction of sex! Despite the cast, VAMPIRE LOVERS is still rather clunky but it’s a kitch romp. I doubt younger audiences would understand the fascination with the often rather unconvincing aesthetics of the Hammer output and it’s hard to explain what makes them fascinating, even now. It occurs to me though, that some contemporary film makers are making convincing pastiches of, particularly, 70’s movies (Think Ti West with HOUSE OF THE DEVIL for instance) but I defy anyone to make a convincing pastiche of a late 60’s, early seventies Hammer movie, I suspect it’s impossible. they exist in their own weird bubble!

In LUST FOR A VAMPIRE (1970), young beautiful Carmilla, enrols in an exclusive girls finishing school and proceeds to wreak havoc among pupils and teachers alike. Apart from a wonderfully camp performance from Ralph Bates and the sheer beauty (But wooden performance) of Yutte Stensgaard, LUST FOR A VAMPIRE is pretty ropey really. It is, though, high kitch and was maligned by some at the time of release for its nudity and sexual scenes. Was Hammer selling out? How tame these scenes look now! But there's one overriding still image of Yutte, naked and covered in blood, which still prevails and its this one image that keeps the film in our memories more than anything else!

Out of the three movies, the third TWINS OF EVIL holds up the best. better production values, better performances and a more interesting take on the source material. Probably also crowbarred in a healthy dollop of Vincent Price’s WITCHFINDER GENERAL, which was released three years earlier, TWINS has Cushing as a buttoned up puritan witch hunter who faces off against vampire; Count Karnstein but is oblivious to the fact that his two beautiful nieces have come under Karnstein’s evil spell. Its classic Hammer!

Last movie of the day, Jason Eisner’s HOBO WITH A SHOT GUN. You've probably heard of this movie if you are into new horror releases. Legendary Rutger Hauer is a homeless drifter who arrives in Scum town (A kind of eighties style, washed up shit hole ruled over by a freaky Dennis Hopper like gangster and his nasty couple of sons, who look just like Tom Cruise in RISKY BUSINESS!) and finds himself morally challenged by what he witnesses, finally taking the law into his own hands with a shotgun! Its
pure grindhouse untra-violent, trashy cinema. Also recalls early John Carpenter offerings. It’s tongue firmly in cheek, its actually very funny, if you have a black sense of humour! Released 1st August on DVD in the UK. Worth a watch!!

Sundays line up reviewed tomorrow! For the full festival line up, go to:

For more info on GRIMM UP NORTH FESTIVAL, this October in Manchester: