Along with Brain De Palma Richard Franklin is a director who wears his Hitchcock influence on his sleeve, which depending on your point of view is either a good or bad thing. Personally I dig both these directors’ work watching their films more often than Hitch’s probably due to my love of all things trashy. Blasphemy I know but gimme Franklin’s sequel to Psycho or De Palma’s Dressed To Kill and Body Double over the master’s flicks any day. Feel free to kick my ass with hate mail.
One of the best films to come from the fertile mind of cult Italian filmmaker Lucio Fulci (Zombie Flesh Eaters, The Beyond, New York Ripper), A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is also one of the prime examples of a classic giallo thriller (a genre of Italian cinema named after the popular pulp crime novels published in the 1960s, dubbed ‘giallos’ because of the cheap yellowing paper they were printed on).
In the best giallo tradition, the plot of A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is convoluted yet ultimately simple and obvious, and seems to serve ostensibly as a vehicle for the film’s cinematic style. Carol Hammond, a classy and wealthy but seemingly bored London housewife (played by beautiful cult Euro starlet Florinda Bolkan) is traumatised by vivid, sex and violence drenched dreams which feature her permissive, party-loving neighbour Julia Durer (the equally stunning Anita Strinberg). When Carol awakens one morning to discover her dreams have transcended into reality and Julia has been discovered brutally murdered, she is fingered as the main suspect and must try to decipher her dreams and discover whether or not she is a cold-blooded murderess with a memory block or the victim of an elaborate frame.
Coming off like a Hitchcock film on acid, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin literally pulsates with a psychedelic vibrancy, with some intense erotic imagery and moments of gaudy, extreme violence that foretells some of Fulci’s later career choices. The sequence where the institutionalised Carol stumbles upon a quartet of still-living, whimpering dogs hung up and dissected in a laboratory is truly disturbing and ghastly, and it’s not too hard to see why this scene was cut from most prints during the film’s initial theatrical run (the dogs, and a horde of attacking bats, were created by noted mechanical effects expert Carlo Rambaldi, who would go on to work on such notable films as E.T. and Alien. Ennio Morricone’s sparse but hypnotic soundtrack perfectly complements the film’s surreal tone and style, and would have to rate as one of the great Italian composer’s more underrated scores. The film also looks sumptuous, with nice sets and some ostentatious but stylish early-seventies wardrobes worn by the female leads. With their elegant and striking looks, Florinda Bolkan and Anita Strinberg are both effective in their roles, and are well supported by Stanley Baker (as a Scotland Yard inspector), Jean Sorel and Leo Genn as Carol’s father Edmond Brighton, a distinguished lawyer trying to clear his daughter’s name.
Umbrella’s release of A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin utilises a mostly sharp widescreen print that offers you the options of watching the film either in Italian language (with optional subtitles) or English dubbed. While the Italian language soundtrack is best, the dubbed version doesn’t distract too much due to the film’s UK setting. The colours of the transfer are vibrant and do justice to the lush cinematography of Luigi Kuveiller. A couple of the re-instated nudity and violence sequences are a bit grainy due to the source material utilised, but it’s nothing too distracting. Unfortunately, no special features are present, making Shriek Show’s two-disc special edition from a few years back still the ultimate release of this film. Considering some of the special editions of genre films which they have released in the past, it’s a shame to see Umbrella content to put out bare bones releases of late (in what is surely a cost-cutting measure for the company).
A perfect introduction for those unfamiliar with the giallo, and an essential addition to the DVD library of any established fan of the genre (not to mention the army of loyal Fulci cultists).
Available on R4 DVD from Umbrella Entertainment.
It is the 17th century, and the English Civil War rages on with all the grime and viciousness peculiar to civil wars. The film opens with a cleric named Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) hiding under a bush and praying to God to spare him. When his pursuer is killed, Whitehead takes the opportunity to flee from the battle and takes up with two other deserters – the simple Friend (Richard Glover) and the more pragmatic Jacob (Peter Ferdinando). Whitehead’s mission was to reclaim some stolen property belonging to his master, but this is rapidly forgotten as the three go looking for an alehouse. They are joined by another runaway soldier, Cutler (Ryan Pope) who claims to know the location of an alehouse, and offers them a meal of mushroom stew. All but Whitehead partake, and it becomes rapidly clear that the mushrooms were not of the ordinary sort. Cutler, it transpires, is working for an Irish alchemist and necromancer named O’Neill (Michael Smiley) who is an ex-fellow-student of Whitehead’s and intends to use the stupefied men as slave labour, uncovering a treasure he believes is buried in the titular field. Continue reading
Life has not been easy for Kay (Aida Folch). Her only family is her deadbeat Dad, who swings between making dodgy deals and losing any gains through gambling. Amidst it all, she meets a kindred spirit in Abel (Francesc Garrido), a taciturn former boxer and father of a young boy, now making a living as a strong-arm debt collector.
When one of her father’s schemes presents a sudden, high-risk way out of her situation, Kay recruits Abel. Together, they must negotiate a complex web of betrayal, intrigue and corrupt cops if they are to make it out alive – and with the cash.
The world of Spanish suspenser 25 Carat is not a particularly original one. The annals of film around the world are packed with similar tales of gangsters and kidnap and handovers. But while the movie does not look to break any new ground, it hits all the bases and does it well.
The focus on the lead pair of characters means they are well-developed and sympathetic. Kay may pride herself on being tough and independent, but she is desperately lonely. Abel thinks he has everything figured out, only to realise from Kay’s relationship with her Dad his own shortcomings as a parent. Both are damaged individuals fighting to retain some sense of morality. The result is that we, the audience, really care as the situation becomes increasingly complex and dangerous. The tension ratchets up because we want to see these two people find each other and escape.
The camerawork is subtle, but effective, making the most of natural light. The shots are often extremely tight when the lead characters are involved, adding to the sense of intimacy. The violence, when it happens, is shot in matter-of-fact style. It is sudden and messy; there are no choreographed martial arts experts here.
25 Carat is an action-thriller that could come from any country. But it shows that a solid plot with affecting characters still delivers the goods and this is a comfortable cut above average.
25 Carat is available on R4 DVD from Aztec.
When the name Tinto Brass is attached to a film, it would probably lead most audiences to expect one of two things:
i – A collision of 1970s Art House erotica and (s)exploitation shock tactics, such as in his infamous Caligula and Salon Kitty.
ii – Curvaceous, scantily clad and sexually liberated young women, sensuously cavorting, as the Italian erotic maestro steadily becomes more and more infatuated by their derriere, as in many his later outings like The Key, Paprika, Miranda or All Ladies Do It.
Luc Besson has become a name best known for directing and producing action fare. But back in 1985, he was a little-known filmmaker with one dialogue-less feature to his name (the post-apocalyptic The Last Battle). With this minimal backdrop, he created the film that would make his first major mark and pave the way for what was to follow, the offbeat ensemble piece Subway.
Christopher Lambert (best known as the eponymous Highlander) is Fred, a safe-cracker invited to a high-class party on the whim of a bored trophy wife, Helena (Isabelle Adjani). He steals some papers from her safe and is pursued by her husband’s men into the Paris Metro. There, he gives them the slip and finds the subway is populated by an assortment of quirky characters, each with their own way of surviving in the underground after-hours world.
The meandering narrative weaves around the lives of Fred and Helena, as well as the police operatives (including a pair named “Batman” and “Robin”) and the miscreants and petty thieves who call the subway home. Amongst the latter are various musicians, who Fred takes it upon himself to for a band out of. They include a drummer, played by Besson’s ever-present friend, Jean Reno.
The plotting of Subway is clearly not Besson’s focus. Instead, he aims to depict a world that the general populace only brushes against. There are few scenes set outside the subway, but instead of being a constraint, Besson turns that into a virtue. The subway becomes a world in and of itself. It has brightly-lit shops and cafes on one side and gloomy tunnels full of fluorescents and rains of sparks.
The visual flair that would characterize Besson’s career is remarkably mature even at this early stage. He has a striking sense of cinematography that combines fluid, mobile camerawork with strong lighting choices that mean Subway is never less than a joy to look at.
The emphasis on the visuals does seem to come at the cost of other elements. Most of the characters are woefully underdeveloped, even Fred. Only Adjani’s Helena gets any kind of arc or depth as she is shown to rebel against her life of luxury for the vibrance of life amongst the subway underclass. Adjani herself shows off some of her power as an actress, including a fine line in comic timing that her classic looks may belie.
A drifting film that has some great moments and clear indications of talent behind the camera, Subway may not demonstrate the finished Besson article, but it is a worthy watch all the same.
Only extras are trailers.
After the debacle and traumatic birth of Alien 3, it was 1995’s nihilistic Se7en that launched the career of former music video maker David Fincher and the film itself remains hugely influential. From the endless rain and dark interiors to the scratchy and almost tactile opening credits, the shadow of Se7en lies heavy across horror and thrillers in general produced since.
In celebration of the film’s 15th anniversary, this new DVD release includes a wealth of extras and a comic filling in a bit more backstory around the ‘gluttony’ murder from the film.
Despite its reputation for innovation, the core story of Seven is remarkably traditional. We have the usual mentor/young hothead police partners investigating the usual series of serial killings as they try to uncover who the murderer is. The difference for this thriller however, is the nature of the killings is the important aspect, rather than the identity of the killer themselves.
Morgan Freeman classes up the joint in his usual manner as the world-weary Detective Somerset. He is a man who has seen too much and has had his optimism for the world eroded by day after day of investigations into the dark side of humanity. Assigned to replace him is Brad Pitt’s Detective Mills.
The newly-married Mills (to Gwyneth Paltrow’s angelic Tracy) is full of youthful bravado. He wants to make a difference, choosing to be assigned to this crime-ridden (and unnamed) city. Where Somerset is beaten down but a secretly hopeful man of peace, Mills is fire and vigour, ready to confront crime – with force, if necessary.
Right on the verge of his retirement, Somerset finds himself assigned to a sequence of killings apparently addressing the seven deadly sins, namely gluttony, wrath, lust, sloth, avarice, envy and greed. As the bodies begin to mount up and the evidence remains naggingly sparse, Somerset is called back from the edge to assist Mills in trying to stop the murderer before he or she can claim their full seven victims.
The film showcases intricate production design, creating a world of shadows and dirt that you can almost smell. David Fincher shoots it in his usual style, while both Freeman and Pitt put in solid work. The most memorable aspects of Seven, however, are the nature of the killer, the unforgettable ending and the horrifically intricate killings themselves – undoubtedly a stage-setter for films such as Saw to follow.
On a DVD with many extras, the most intriguing one is a storyboarded look at the film’s original ending. A less-nihilistic variant of what was filmed, this ending is set up in many ways in the themes and dialogue of the film and would have perhaps been more dramatically satisfying. From the commentary, the decision to change seems to have been primarily Pitt’s, and it remains an odd decision.
Seven perhaps suffers slightly due to the cavalcade of rip-offs and imitators, but 15 years on it still stands as one of the great thrillers, if also one of the darkest.
- 4 x Audio Commentaries
- Deleted Scenes
- Production Designs
- Alternate Endings
- Promotional Material
- The Notebooks
- Mastering for the Home Theatre
Seven is available on R4 DVD from Roadshow Entertainment.
Three teenagers discover a body in the woods not too far from their homes. On top of that, they catch a glimpse of the killer. Should they go to the cops? They could…or maybe they could blackmail the killer into killing someone for them…
Such is the hook of indie flick Acolytes, a low-budget Australian effort that manages to entertain throughout, courtesy of regular plot twists, without ever quite igniting to attain greatness.
Director Jon Hewitt assuredly guides a cast – particularly its three neophyte leads in Sebastian Gregory, Holly Baldwin and Joshua Payne – through a story that is identifiably small town Australian. This is the back suburbs of Queensland where, the movie argues, there is an underbelly as seedy as any.
Most facets of Acolytes are strong. The acting is rock solid and the cinematography is eye-catching, if occasionally distracting in its flashiness. The script holds back secrets until the third act, springing a succession of reveals into what has to that point been a thriller with a measured pace.
Naturally, the killer (a reserved performance by Joel Edgerton that has echoes of John Jarrett in Wolf Creek) does not act quite as the teenagers hoped and they are forced to confront dark acts in their own past. The key problem with Acolytes is that when the reveals come, the emphasis is on surprise rather than a philosophical through-line in the movie. One twist is so left-field that it almost feels like cheating in that there was no character groundwork laid for the sudden shift in one of the leads.
The stylish shooting and often striking composition combine with the low-key tone to elevate Acolytes above the level of the average thriller, but in reaching for one-too-many surprises, the film misses the opportunity to add emotional and cerebral weight behind its tale. Solid, but short of greatness.
A decent selection of extras: an audio commentary, a selection of interviews, a making of called ‘Diary of a Serial Killer: The Making of Acolytes’, deleted scenes, alternate endings and the soundtrack.
Available on R4 DVD from Madman Entertainment.
Thailand has rapidly become an emerging power in world cinema, with a strong line in genre titles like Shutter (2005) or martial arts flicks like Ong Bak (2003). Another indicator of the country’s strength is this superior thriller, a comic book adaptation also known as 13 Beloved.
The story sees innocuous and somewhat nerdy salesman Puchit (Krissada Terrence) have a string of bad luck that sees him lose his girlfriend, his car, his job and then suffer problems from home. Just as things seem at their darkness, he is thrown a mysterious lifeline. His phone rings and a voice tells him he has been selected for a game show – if he passes 13 challenges, he will win $100 million.
The first challenge is to kill a fly. The second is to eat it.
From there, things spiral as Puchit is forced by the rules to keep the game secret and yet carry out increasingly dangerous and amoral challenges. As his Grand Theft Auto-style rampage through the city captures media and police attention, he begins to notice the challenges are oddly tied to events in his own past…
13 Game of Death benefits hugely from its ‘game’ structure. Discovering what the next challenge is absorbing, as all the while Puchit’s co-worker Tong (Achita Wuthinounsurasit) uses her IT abilities to try and uncover who is behind the wide-reaching game. The story hurtles on like a juggernaut, glossing over some pretty hefty coincidences or stretches of logic at times around the nature of the challenges.
The momentum of it all is the main area of enjoyment. It is undoubtedly an entertaining ride and whilst it does have a message on materialism, it is not exactly the most in-depth or high-brow of statements. The moral interest comes in more later on in the challenges as Puchit knows he gets nothing if he quits, so added to the difficulty of each challenge is the threat that if he does leave, everything up to that point will be for nothing.
Perhaps the conclusion is a little bungled as the powers behind the game are revealed to be a little cliched – but up until then, 13 Game of Death proves a fun ride. Much of the credit must be placed at Terrence’s feet. Better known in Thailand as a pop singer, his weak-chinned Puchit makes a great descent from sweet naivety to blood-splattered cynic. It’s a great performance, being both convincing and endearing as events spiral far beyond his control.
A well-paced thriller and a success in its home country, it is unsurprising that the remake rights for 13 Game of Death have already been scooped up and a sequel is due out later this year in Thailand…
13 Game of Death is available on R4 DVD from Madman Entertainment.
A good plot twist can be a potent weapon in the armoury of a movie. Ideally, these serve as an addition, an extra to an already-effective plot. The story has seemingly been resolved and then the twist arrives to reveal the hidden extra layer to all that has gone before.
When this works, it can come seemingly out of nowhere and elevate a good film to greatness. One such example would be The Sixth Sense. Of course, the flipside of the equation is when a film rests entirely on its twist and without it, the story is lacklustre and rambling. In these cases, the twist must be something extra-special and surprising. Too often, though, with an audience engaged in nothing but trying to guess the twist, these films can be predictable and disappointing. One such example would be…After.
The premise of the film centres around Nate (Daniel Caltagirone), his wife Addy (Flora Montgomery) and her brother Jay (Nicholas Aaron). Together they are Urban Explorers, described by the opening onscreen text as extreme sport’s answer to computer hackers. They break into dangerous areas…just because they can. We see in the opening scene an example of the trio’s work as they infiltrate an office building before leaping from the roof in a base jump.
After this escapade, they decide to take on Moscow, especially the legend of tunnels beneath the subway, long since closed and possibly irradiated. Cameras in tow (all the better to broadcast their adventures on the web) and packed to the nines with equipment, they begin their mission. Soon, however, Nate starts to have visions and see things related to the disappearance and murder of his daughter and he finds his grip on reality in the labyrinthine tunnels beginning to slip…
Where After succeeds is in the choices of shooting style. The film switches between shots from the lead trio’s own cameras to third-person shots that are themselves typically handheld or at wild dutch angles. Garish colours wash every frame, turning the cold stone tunnels into nightmarish, erratic environments. The visuals give the whole a sense of energy and immediacy that perfectly suit the subject.
Complementing the camerawork is a solid score from The Crystal Method and some strong acting from its cast of unknowns (well, to me at least). In fact, it could be argued that pretty much all of the bases for a great movie are covered.
Except for that pesky script.
After quickly falls into ‘what is going on here’ territory and it becomes apparent from early on that there will be a big reveal to explain the circumstances behind the mysterious visions Nate experiences. Unfortunately, the twist is one that has been used by at least a dozen films in the past few years and particularly horror fans will guess it from very, very early on.
With the twist an obvious one, there is little else in the script. Character development is minimal and other plot points are…well, there aren’t any. And just in case you weren’t the kind of person to guess the twist, the DVD case helpfully draws a comparison to another film in its synopsis…a film with the exact same twist (and some of the same visuals).
This critical flaw turns what could have been an absorbing mind-bender into a dull trudge of pointless or obvious ‘visions’. Despite a fresh eye to the filming style (including some very nicely-blended digital effects) and fine work from the cast, this lack of originality in plotting hamstrings the film. Instead of being a low-budget gem of guerrilla style filmmaking, After is instead a tired, over-familiar piece of interest only to those who have managed to avoid seeing the many other movies featuring the same twist – surely now the cinematic equivalent of it ‘all being a dream’.
Available on R4 DVD from Madman Entertainment