Retrospective: Wolfen (1981)

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1981 proved to be big hitters for wolf kind with three notable films leaning into the subject in their own unique way.
While most people will have heard of John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London for its broad strokes of horror blended with comedy and creature fx, or Joe Dante’s The Howling for its pulpy investigative tale of lycanthropy, but the third feature among the group, Wolfen starring Albert Finney may not readily spring to mind.

Possibly this is because the nature of the film doesn’t play with the true mythology surrounding werewolves, but rather that of an American Indian legend based on wolf spirits.

The film also plays with the ‘whodunnit’ detective story, following Finney’s Detective Dewey Wilson, who is called back into the police force when a high profile murder warrants a guru to put a final stop to the murders that have been taking place throughout New York. The victims who have the common traits of supposed animal attacks at its core. 

Wilson is teamed up with criminal psychologist, Detective Rebecca Neff (Diane Venora) in a partnership that has all the hallmarks of an early Mulder and Scully vibe. Neff’s insights into the science and animalistic behaviour evidenced at the muder scene, helps to solidify their enquiry.

Early on in the piece, the pair are attacked by an unseen creature, barely surviving their ordeal at an abandoned church, which forms a tighter bond and highlights that their investigations have something more paranormal in origin.

The remainder of the film plays with the spiritual side of nature, suggesting that despite the hallmarks of a potential terrorist activity behind the murders, that there is a pack of God-like beings with wolf traits known as spirits or shapeshifters are the true cause. It is this angle that definitely sets it apart from AAWIL and The Howling, and possibly why it didn’t manage to make its mark in comparison. It’s a shame because the psychological component that is played with as a humanity versus nature, and our base animalistic behaviour that is drawn upon for survival is one that is deeply compelling and told in an engaging way, supported by the strong performances on show by Finney. Detective Dewey is a great character and one that Dustin Hoffman had his eyes on at one stage, which says a lot to his appeal and strength. As is the other cast members, Edward James Olmos, Gregory Hines, Tom Noonan, all of whom provide compelling characters to support the narrative.

It also boasted at the time a refreshing approach to the killer’s perspective using a thermography technique, now closely associated with films like Predator

Sure it doesn’t have the same fanfare as the other werewolf flicks that year, but it had a strong, mature approach to its storytelling that shouldn’t be neglected.

  • Saul Muerte

Movie review: Old (2021)

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Of all the contemporary directors, M. Night Shyamalan has to be one of the most criticised. He’s credits have been a melting pot of hits and misses throughout his career that it’s hard to determine which one you’ll get with every feature that he helms. His highs and lows have been well documented, but there is always something that keeps drawing audiences to his movies, keen to get a taste of that little bit of magic when he strikes gold.

The rise, fall, and stumbling rise of M. Night Shyamalan

So, where does that leave Shyamalan’s latest venture?

If anything, it typefies a conglomeration of his canon of work, with a striking premise that tackles the eternal fear, ‘What happens when we grow old?’ And when the ebb of time shifts into fifth gear with any hope of slowing it down completely wrenched away.

When a family takes a holiday to an island retreat, that on the surface appears idyllic, but lurking beneath is something strange and sinister. In fact, that’s the overarching message that Shymalayan appears to be the tune that he is playing, as all the characters have something hidden, awaiting to unfold throughout its narrative, be it physical or mental.

As expected with Shyamalan’s works, the sting in the tail comes with its own set of curiosities when said family spend a few hours on a secluded beach, only to discover something is causing them to age at rapid rate and with no sense of how they can escape.

Another common theme at play here is the notion that there are powers that are behind the scenes with an ulterior motive, orchestrating the strange events that the family is subjected to.  This in itself may go against the director’s favour, who clearly has a deep interest in this subject, but some may consider this old territory and therefore not willing to go there with the storyteller.
Shyamalan also casts himself in the mix as a voyeur and one of the afore-mentioned people who are pulling the strings. This could easily become trite and fall into The Lady In The Water territory, but he manages to curb himself from plunging too deep into these depths. 

What is on display are some nicely etched out characters ably performed by a brilliant cast of actors, from the patriarchal Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal), and the matriarchal Prisca (Vicky Crieps). There is also an array of actors who portray the children as they age through the years, skipping through pre-adolescence, adolescence, and into adulthood, of which Thomasin Mackenzie and Alex Wolff hold the lion’s share of the screen time.
Nods should also go to Rufus Sewell who plays the unhinged threat on the shores, and ably dances with a narcissistic personality. And also Nikki Amuka-Bird, who gets her time to shine as a spiritual woman, who also struggles with epilepsy.

It is possibly due to these performances that hide the sometimes dodgy dialogue being delivered, but there are also some choice visual techniques that are at hand which deliberately shift the audience’s gaze into uncomfortable terrain. This choice is a bold one, and I personally felt it added weight to the story, but some may find this off putting.

And when the final reveal comes together, the naysayers will continue to hold their ground refusing to sway from their opinion.

The Diagnosis:

There are those that will feel disappointed in the choices that Shyamalan makes here, and to a degree he falls easily into old territory which falls all too familiar.

The subject of choice though is one that brings the fear out of all of us, growing old and losing our wits, our beauty, and our senses.

Shyamalan may divide audiences, but I feel that he continues to be bold in the decisions he makes, never shying away from the heart of his material and without doubt, pushing them into an imaginative and creative world.
In doing so, he will continue to hit or miss.

With Old he somehow falls somewhere in between the two, as if stranding his ideas on the very beach that makes up the setting of this film. 

The question is can he continue to find new ways to weave his craft, testing his measure, and keep the intrigue of those that follow him.

  • Saul Muerte
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The Unbreakable series movie review by Myles Davies

Retrospective: Konga (1961)

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Now I’m as much a fan of B-Movie horror films as the next guy and am not averse to the cheap budget and effects on show. If anything I welcome the discrepancies of these kinds of movies, not afraid to show its flaws which almost become a character in the film.

Konga was something of a passion project for American producer Herman Cohen, the man responsible for the successful 1957 feature I Was A Teenage Werewolf, and was keen to unite this idea with a colour version of King Kong, hence why the production was initially going to be called I Was A Teenage Gorilla. The chance would come when American International Pictures would collaborate with Anglo Amalgamated to work on an exploitation film together.

The problem I have with Konga is that it relies too heavily on the premise and both character and plot are neglected. There’s not a lot that British veteran Michael Gough can bring to the film to lift it out of this quagmire of a poorly written script. It is a little too familiar and formulaic to resonate in any way.

Gough would play Dr. Charles Decker, a man who has survived living in a remote part of Africa, believed to have died, and through his study of botany has come across an amazing discovery where he can grow animals and plants to an enormous size. Gough slips easily into the magnanimous scientist role and projects the God-like narcissist manner of a man, who believes he is greater than all he encounters.
This characteristic is heightened when he is able to use a serum that turns a chimpanzee into a ferocious gorilla, and when anyone crosses his path, has a perfect killing animal at his will.

Of course things inevitably go awry when love intervenes, and Decker persues one of his students, Sandra (Claire Gordon) which ignites jealousy from his colleague, Margaret (Margo Johns). Margaret then enacts revenge by injecting the chimpanzee with a huge dose of the serum, transforming the ape into Kong-like proportions and carnage ensues.

There is no hiding the flaws though, especially when you have a man dressed up as a giant-sized gorilla supposedly bringing the house down. 

Mark this down as a curious entry into the horror scene and one that doesn’t necessarily hit the right points and takes a big plunge off Big Ben into obscurity.

  • Saul Muerte

Retrospective: Suddenly At Midnight (1981)

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Suddenly at Midnight marks an important film not just in South Korea but also for the horror genre but it wouldn’t be until 2017’s Blu-Ray release by Mondo Macabro that a worldwide audience would fully appreciate its strengths.

Filled with haunting imagery that would symbolise the Asian horror scene and influence the next wave of film makers, Director Ko Young-nam cleverly weaves together Yoon Sam-yook’s screenplay using themes of jealousy, anxiety, and mistrust at its core.

When a wealthy biology professor, Kang Yu-jin returns home with a young housemaid, Mi-ok, in his care, his wife Seon-hee begins to feel the green tinge of jealousy creep over her. Mi-ok is young and attractive, and Seon-hee feels that she is now too old to contain her husband’s affections. These affections also appear to dwindle from her perception, but is it merely a case that Kang Yu-jin is simply a workaholic, self-consumed with his studies, and that all of this is all the matter of the mind?

The screenplay manipulates our own interpretations, swaying between one train of thought to the other. It doesn’t help that Mi-ok is a little strange herself, at first meek and mild, but then playful and secretive. Also, she harbours a curious doll in her room that begins to haunt Seon-hee’s nightmares. Furthermore, there are question marks over Mi-ok’s character as we learn that she is the daughter of a shaman priestess, so is she in fact the one manipulating those in the household, using the dark arts to wield her true means?

All these questions oscillate before our eyes, hypnotising our thoughts and shifting our interpretations with every scene like a pendulum, drawing us to a conclusion from which we continue to query which side of the story we ultimately fall upon.

It’s great viewing, and its heightened sense of paranoia craftily plays with our minds through some strong performances and a delicately balanced pace to its narrative that keeps you ensnared.

  • Saul Muerte

Retrospective: The Devils (1971)

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My first awareness of stepping into the visually spectacular world of Ken Russell was through his 1975 Rock Opera, Tommy, which projected the mind of British Rock outfit The Who’s Pete Townshend.
It was however his 1970 feature Women In Love alongside his 1971 triple whammy of films that would cement his place in celluloid history and destroy the notion that British films were always bound in kitchen sink dramas. Whilst both The Music Lovers and The Boy Friend equal praise, it was the third production that year that deserves your attention and is the subject of scrutiny for this retrospective.

The Devils was and still is a bold historical recount of a 17th Century priest Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed), in a tale that is embedded with political, sexual, and religious commentary through power and persecution.

It has morphed through various storytelling platforms leading up to Russell’s vision from Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon before John Whiting adapted it for the stage. It is through this feature that the sheer flamboyance catapulted the precarious balance of church and state with a political attack that would cut to its core. This very action not only makes The Devils a unique feature, but also kicks the censors’ nest into outrage and stupefaction to the point of immediate rejection. Most notably, was a scene now dubbed ‘The Rape of Christ’ which saw naked and fornciation nuns, frolicking with a statue of Christ, thus deemed too far for reviewers eyes and subjected to the cutting room floor. It was only through the perservertence of modern British film critic Mark Kermode’s lone campaign to search for the lost scene that it was inevitably uncovered and re-edited back into the feature that Russell’s true intention would be fully realised. 

On a personal note, there are a number of crucial things at play here that make The Devils one of the best and most misunderstood features to grace the screen. We’ve mentioned Russell’s stylised vision, which is a stunning sight to behold, and this is supported by the stark depiction through Derek Jarman’s set design synthesising the white tiles of the city with the black courtiers costumes. Strengthening the feature is the performances on show with the afore-mentioned Reed in arguably one his finest performances captured on screen. Russell himself would describe his muse, stating that the ‘camera was his slave’. And that’s not to mention Vanessa Redgrave who would subject her body through a haunting depiction of the hunchbacked Sister Jeanne, riddled with sclerosis and subjected to a life of sexual repression, embittered by the larger than life Grandier’s lavish attention that he bestows upon himself. Both characters are psychologically complex and ebb and flow through various modes as the hysteria heightens to a shockingly brutal conclusion.

The Devils is a film that could so easily be judged at face value, but if you dare to delve deep beneath the charade on show, Ken Russell a metaphorically dense narrative that casts similarities between past and present, through hard-hitting and controversial subject matter on the perversions of Catholicism and the effects that brainwashing and repression can have on the most steadfast and loyal citizens. It’s a glorious movie that stuck with me on my initial journey through the celluloid world and its portrayal is the reason that it stays with me today.
In Russell’s own words, it is ‘a film of imagination’, and for those with a wild and riveting imagination, it more than meets the mind, but subjects you to a wildly entertaining ride that warrants your attention.

  • Saul Muerte

Retrospective: The Cat O’Nine Tails (1971)

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The Cat O’Nine Tails (Il gatto a nove code) identified as a Giallo film from Italy, with its themes of mystery and heightened thrillers that became popular through the 70s and 80s boasts the great Italian director Dario Argento.
Despite having some visual traits and symbolism throughout that still tie this movie to the giallo scene, Argento has cited the film as one of his least favoured among his credits.

These may seem like modest words but under closer scrutiny the film does struggle a little under the weight of its exposition and in doing so, can be hard to navigate through its narrative.

The story needs to have some twists and turns along the way to allow the mystery to bear fruit but the telling of that journey can feel laborious at times.

The main context of the tale centres on a mysterious break in of the Terzi Medical Institute where it appears that nothing was taken, and yet one of the doctors, Calabresi believes he knows the culprit, and when he attempts to blackmail the individual is then murdered when pushed before a train.

This opens up the investigation for an unlikely duo, reporter Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus) and former hot shot reporter, the elderly, blind Franco “Cookie” Arno (Karl Malden) who still has a nose for a story. Between them, they identify nine possible leads that they could follow in order to identify the killer. The nine leads are the basis of the title Cat o’nine tails and along with it the mysterious journey to our conclusion begins and takes us through the local crypt and a thrilling conclusion on a rooftop. The tension of which is fueled by Franco’s blindness.

Despite the unfavourable comments of his own work, I found The Cat O’Nine Tails an entertaining one despite its complexity. I personally found the intricate narrative added to the mystery and allows the audience to traverse its murky case to a satisfying and thrilling conclusion. The hands of Argento manage to mould his visual style through the giallo lens and produce a worthy addition to the Italian celluloid movement that is well worth your time and satisfies on many levels.

  • Saul Muerte

Retrospective: Vampyros Lesbos (1971)

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I remember sometime ago reading an article from the team at Diabolique Magazine about this fascinating, prolific film director Jesús Franco, who was synonymous for his exploitative work in the horror genre, and was immediately intrigued.

Celebrating 50 years since its initial release back in 1971, Vampyros Lesbos is an erotic horror story which follows Linda Westinghouse (Ewa Strömberg) who has a series of erotic dreams about a vampire Countess Nadine Carody (Soledad Miranda) who seduces her and feeds off her blood. Despite being warned not to, Linda travels to an island to seek a new home, but in doing so, soon encounters the afore-mentioned Countess in a house where the infamous Count Dracula once resided. It is not long before Linda succumbs to Nadine’s advances and they are embroiled in a sexual encounter and ultimately drawing blood from her neck.

The story itself takes some convoluted turns through its telling, including a nod to another Stoker creation, Dr. Seward (Dennis Price) who treats Linda from her wounds. But he has an ulterior motive in trapping Nadine and convincing her to turn him into a vampire.
There is also a warped and malicious torturer, Memmet, (played by Franco) who seems hellbent on kidnapping Linda and carrying out his salacious desires upon her. All of which leads to Linda needing to expel her curse by killing Nadine.

Where the film suffers from a fairly leaden acting across the board, Vampyros Lesbos makes up for this through its visual exposition combined with the psychedelic funk soundtrack (which had a reawakening of its own in the 90s when remixed and released as an album called Vampyros Lesbos: Sexadelic Dance Party). It hardly stretches the imagination, but has a certain appeal to it that marks an identity of its own and along with Franco’s other ‘71 release She Killed in Ecstacy make a cracking double feature.

  • Saul Muerte

Retrospective: The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971)

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Mention British folk horror and most film enthusiasts will automatically strike up The Wicker Man into conversation, or perhaps The Witchfinder General. But where both these features were lifted by icons in the genre, Sir Christopher Lee and Vincent Price, The Blood on Satan’s Claw doesn’t have the weight of talent on display. It does however, like its counterparts, boast a cult following. And for good reason, as it marks an identity of its own with a unique tale spun by writer Robert Wynne-Simmons (The Outcasts) and director Piers Haggard. 

At its core, the tale that is woven is one of demonic possession in early 18th Century England. The oddities begin when Ralph (Barry Andrews) unearths a deformed skull from the ground, but despite his proclamations of the devil’s work, when it comes to proving his case before the local Judge (Patrick Wymark), the skull in question mysteriously vanishes.

Furthermore, when Peter (Simon Williams) brings home his ill-matched fiance according to social status, Rosalind, she suddenly screams through the night, falls ill and is then committed to by the Judge.

TBOSC has a way of getting beneath your skin in a curiously appealing way and when Peter starts to question his own sanity following an attack by a creature in the night only to find that he has severed his own hand. It also plays with the pack mentality too with a menacing presence led by some of the local youths, who gang up and hunt down their prey in the name of the prince of darkness. 

There is so much going for this film and it lures you in with its quirky simplicity and lifts the maniacal pandemonium that arises in a small town without any sense of order, led astray by their frenzy and beliefs in a greater power. Witchcraft is not a loose term in these times and with some strange happenings, decisions are made to stoke the flames of the occult. 

The mob will eventually rise armed with flaming torches to bring down the blasphemous brood, but will it be too late?

TBOSC deserves its place in British Horror hall of fame, and if you’re a fan of folk horror, this is well worth your time and is not surprising that it has influenced many filmmakers for holding true to its identity and not shying away from making its mark on the celluloid soul

  • Saul Muerte

Retrospective: The Pit and the Pendulum (1991)

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For those in the know, there’s a special place in the heart of the Surgeons team for the work of Stuart Gordon. If you haven’t already, please check out our podcast episodes on Re-Animator, From Beyond, Dagon, and Dolls.
Links are found at the end of this article.

At the time that we recorded these episodes, I remarked that we had neglected to include his take on the Edgar Allan Poe novella, The Pit and the Pendulum.
Now celebrating 30 years since its release, it seems as good a time as any to retrospectively look back at this film which starred Lance Henriksen.

Upon review, this clearly isn’t Gordon’s finest hour behind the camera, but that’s not to say that there’s not fun to be had in viewing the movie, and most of that is in part due to Henriksen’s performance, quietly subdued take of the evils that humans resort to in the name of lust and infatuation.

Henriksen plays the Grand Inquisitor, Torquemada,  during the torturous time of 15th Century Spain. His tirade has no bounds until he meets Maria (Rona De Ricci) and is immediately enamoured by her beauty. Torquemada struggles with the conflict that arises between his infatuation towards Maria and his devotion to the Church and decides to repress his sinful ways and subject his cruel desires outwardly, charging Maria with witchcraft and a trial by torture.

Whilst imprisoned by a confessed Witch, Esmerelda (Frances Bay – Arachnophobia, Critters 3, In the Mouth of Madness). Here, Maria’s upturned world suddenly spawns new life and the possibility of something beyond our imaginations, but when her husband’s failed attempt to rescue sends him to the new torture device, the pit and the pendulum, is it all too late for resurrection to save him from certain doom.

The Pit and the Pendulum suffers from adding little substance to the subject at hand and while it isn’t a terrible film, it does fail to spark the imagination from a director known to stimulate the visual senses.  It does boast the great Jeffrey Combs aka Herbert West in Re-Animator amongst the cast, but there’s not enough primordial fat for either Combs nor Henriksen to chew upon to make the film stand out. Instead it simmers rather than scorches the fiery subject matter.

It could have been so much more, but quite possibly the adaptation was a step to far for Gordon to handle or make his own, reduced to the shadows of Roger Corman and Vincent Price’s classic take from the sixties.

  • Saul Muerte

Movie review: Saint Maud (2020)

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It’s a crying shame that Saint Maud has only just now been released to a wider audience through home entertainment here in Australia. Having been released in the UK back in 2019, and then picked up by A24 films, a company known for its ‘highbrow horror’ releases, such as The Lighthouse, Midsommar, and The Hole In The Ground. It easily sits in good company with these movies with themes of faith, madness, and salvation at its helm. 

The narrative focuses on the burden that we carry through our lives when dealt with a traumatic episode. In this instance, we follow a nurse, Katie (Morfydd Clark – Crawl) who fails to save the life of a patient despite attempting CPR. So affected by this ordeal, Katie takes leave of her role in public health to invent a whole new identity in private care, and adopts the personna, Maud.

The story itself soon picks up with Maud assigned with the care of Amanda Kohl (Jennifer Ehle) a former dancer and choreographer who has succumbed to lymphoma. Believing that Amanda has been enveloped in sin, Maud then takes it upon herself to heal her through her faith and connection with God. So devoted is Maud to her beliefs that she begins to experience physical reactions that she believes is a testament to her unfounded devotion to the Lord. The beauty of the film is that it doesn’t question the faith itself but the extreme actions that manifest in an unstable mind when reduced to the base forms that life can subject us to. When we have nothing to fall upon other than our beliefs, then what can materialise out of faith can be an ill-fated journey through a twisted form of salvation. In Maud’s case, her salvation comes through not only cleansing her own soul, but by saving the soul of the atheist and sin-ridden Amanda, pushing these thoughts to its conclusion through pain, struggles, and ultimately redemption.

Charged with bringing this tale to fruition is writer, director Rose Glass, who’s debut feature is a mature and psychological venture into the heart of humankind, constantly questioning our role in the world and what drives us, or steers us towards our fate.

The Diagnosis:

Both Clark and Ehle produce powerhouse performances that twist and turn through a beautiful mix of power and vulnerability. They are beyond exceptional in their perceptions of both Katie/Maud and Amanda respectively and help solidify and ground the fantastical in reality, so that by the film’s resolution, the horror that unfolds with a deep and unsettling feeling that resonates long after the closing credits.

Glass proves that she is a talent to watch in the future who is able to tackle some dark, psychological subjects with the confidence of a veteran in her field.
Saint Maud is quite possibly one of my favourite movies in recent years.

  • Saul Muerte