Tuesday, 12 September 2017

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

An energetic and atmospheric take on the Sherlock Holmes tale, the Hammer Studios version of The Hound of the Baskervilles works as both an exciting detective story and an atmospheric Gothic chiller.

Although some changes are made to the source material, the basic plot remains the same, with Holmes (Peter Cushing) and Watson (Andre Morell) called on to investigate the mythical supernatural beast that has been haunting and killing members of the Baskerville family for hundreds of years. After his uncle Charles Baskerville is found dead, nephew Henry, the last of the line, finds himself left with the family estate – but does this have an unwanted extra, namely, the fatal family curse?

Cushing makes an excellent Holmes, a keen and energetic man with a razor-sharp brain and tongue to match, while Morell plays Watson closer to the literary version of the character, the heart to Holmes' brain, rather than the affable duffer that Nigel Bruce went for in the Basil Rathbone era films. Christopher Lee acquits himself well, playing a good guy for a change, but with enough charisma and haughty aristocratic manner to make Sir Henry convincing.  The script rattles along at a good pace, and the changes from the novel merely help make the story pacey and visual without dumbing it down.

What really makes this a unique take on the story is the way director Terence Fisher seamlessly blends Holmes and his world into that of Hammer Horror. The Baskerville house could just as easily be the Frankenstein residence, and the lush colours, bold music, and spooky atmosphere could be right out of any of their genuinely more supernatural efforts.

Friday, 8 September 2017

The Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968)

A garish mix of occult themed horror and groovy Sixties British psychedelia, The Curse of the Crimson Altar is not scary, but the colourful energy and supporting cast of Barbara Steele, Christopher Lee and Boris Karloff make it worth a look.

Antiques dealer Robert Manning (Mark Eden) is searching for his missing brother, last seen at Craxted Lodge a remote manor in the English countryside. The manor's owner, Morely (Lee) claims never to have heard of him, but nevertheless invites Manning to stay while the hunt continues. While there, manning starts to suffer vivid nightmares involving a sinister witchcraft cult headed by a mysterious woman (Steele). Is there a link between the dreams and to Manning's quests? And what are the real motives of occult expert Professor Marsh (Karloff)?

The plot is a little more confused than that synopsis makes it sound but the oily charm of Lee and the sinister menace of a cadaverous looking Karloff, coupled with the crazy sleazy dreams of rituals involving a green body painted Steele and a man wearing nothing but a leather apron and a helmet of antlers more than make up for any slow points.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Manchester By The Sea (2016)

Manchester By The Sea combines devastating tragedy with flashes of humour to create a film that is heartbreaking and emotional without ever being maudlin or histrionic.

Casey Affleck plays Lee, a gruff janitor living in a basement flat in Boston. After receiving the news that his older brother Joe has suddenly died, Lee has to make his way back to his former home, the snowbound titular Massachusetts town. Through a series of increasingly devastating flashbacks, we learn why Lee left in the first place, and why he is so reluctant to return.

Affleck's performance is astonishing, avoiding any showy, Oscar baiting wailing speeches. He is full of anger and pain, but it is always kept inside, hinted at with uncomfortable stares and gritted teeth.

The other main character is the town itself. The freezing weather drives one important element of the story, and the snow covered streets seem the perfect place for a character who keeps his emotions buried.

The film is ultimately about somebody coming to terms with what they have done and trying to find a way to move on. Kenneth Lonergan is smart enough (and respectful enough to the intelligence of his audience) to realise that this is a slice of real life. Lessons don't get learned, story strands don't get neatly tied up, but people change, and people learn about themselves and each other, and try to get on with life as best they can.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

The Final Portrait (2017)

Films exploring the challenges of the creative process of other artistic mediums can be a challenge in themselves, the challenge being how to explore that process without having characters just sitting at their typewriters or canvasses, scowling, swearing, and smoking endless cigarettes.

The Final Portrait fails in this respect, and is not helped by a showy, distracting turn by Geoffrey Rush as famed artist Alberto Giacometti, and a bland and forgettable performance by Armie Hammer as real-life writer and art scholar James Lord.

The story revolves around Giacometti offering to paint a portrait of Lord, something that should only take an afternoon, but ends up dragging on for over a fortnight. With each day, Lord gets dragged further into the artist's world and the people in it, such as his brother Diego Giacometti, and his long-suffering wife Annette.

Unfortunately, writer/director Stanley Tucci gives us no insight into why Giacometti is so utterly obsessed with painting Lord and why Lord puts up with the constant delays, which come at great expense and inconvenience to himself.

Instead, we get some heavy-handed characterisation showing Giacometti drinking, cavorting with a prostitute, unsure and uncaring as to where to hide a huge pile of money, and repeatedly shouting "Ow Faaaak" at the canvas as his latest attempt to paint Lord runs into trouble. We get it. He's an artist. He doesn't care about money or other people's feelings. He can't make his mind up about his art. As to why any of this is the case, no idea.

Having said that, the film looks great, and while the characters are not convincing, the boozy, shabby chic world of 1960s Bohemian Paris that they live in most definitely is.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Carry On Teacher (1959)

Being only the third in the series, Carry On Teacher lacks a few of the elements associated with the films, but we can already see a rough blueprint of how they will develop.

William Wakefield (played by Ted Ray, in his only Carry On film) is the Headmaster of Maudlin Street Secondary Modern School. His hopes of getting a job at a shiny new school rest entirely on the results of a visit by Government Inspector Miss Wheeler, and noted child psychiatrist Alistair Grigg (Leslie Phillips). However, the pupils don't want Wakefield to leave, and plot to sabotage the inspection by any means necessary.

Several actors would go on to be Carry On regulars and here seem to be rehearsing the roles they would play on a more regular basis, with Kenneth Connor as an affable duffer, Charles Hawtrey as a camp neurotic, and Joan Sims as Sarah Allcock, the object of male desire. The exception is Kenneth Williams, playing straight as Edwin Milton, the English teacher, very different from the leering grotesque persona of the later films. (Look also for a very young Richard O'Sullivan, of later Man About the House fame)

Being a Carry On film, some of the script revolves around sex, particularly Grigg chasing after Allcock, and the innuendo in her name does not go unnoticed. However, this is rather tame and anodyne, lacking the bawdy energy that the likes of Sid James would bring into later films of the series.

In fact, the world of Carry On Teacher is an uncomplicated, sometimes sentimental one, but modern viewers might find one aspect jarring. Corporal punishment is a recurring theme, particularly the reluctance of Wakefield to administer it, and is a reminder of a time when British school children faced the possibility of physical punishment from their teachers.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

K-Shop (2016)

A modern take on the Sweeney Todd story, K-Shop has some good ideas but these get buried in a script that fails to make the main character convincing.

Salah (Ziad Abaza) is a Turkish-British student, about to graduate with a politics degree. With nothing left to do but fine tune his dissertation, he comes to help his ailing father Zaki (Nayef Rashed) who runs a late-night kebab place in an English seaside town. He is horrified at the way the drunks abuse Zaki, abuse that turns tragic when Zaki dies at the hands of one of them, leaving Salah in charge of the shop. From there, he launches a one-man vigilante operation against his customers, and, being a businessman, finds a way to dispose of the evidence and cut down on his overheads.

The film certainly paints a bleak view of England, a land of binge drinking, vomiting, fancy dress stag nights, and sinister nightclub owning reality TV stars. The biggest influence, consciously or not, seems to be the Death Wish series and their subsequent rip-offs, where the filmmakers are not subtle about telling us about whom we should be cheering for and who we should be booing. The characterisation for the latter doesn't really go beyond being us being shown somebody saying something awful, such as call centre workers boasting about ripping off elderly vulnerable customers, or a drunk man helping himself to food and referring to Zaki as Saddam, and the character arc of Salah going from bookish student to cold blooded killer is not believable in the slightest.

Nevertheless the anger of Salah, coupled with a dark sense of humour and some outré gore compensate enough to make the film worth a watch for the misanthropic.