The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)

Considering the calibre of the career that followed, it sometimes seems easy to overlook the sheer magnitude of Dario Argento’s game-changing debut as director. If Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Blood and Black Lace lay the ground-work, it’s Argento’s debut that knocks it out the park. Lifting the best of Bava and infusing it with his own, career-making penchant for beautifully staged acts of violence, Argento’s film is rounded off with a
powerful central performance from Tony Musante and a memorable Ennio Morricone score.

To describe, in short, the plot of The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, risks describing the plot of countless other films that have followed. A man witnesses an attack and, believing his memories to hold the key to a series of brutal murders, investigates. There’s the template, the prototype, the giallo-by-numbers outline that so many other films after would follow (including Argento’s own). Specifically, here, it’s struggling writer Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) who witnesses a seemingly brutal but non-fatal attack on a woman, Monica Ranieri (Eva Renzi), in an art gallery. Now a key witness to what might be an attempted murder by a serial killer, he’s restricted from travelling back to the USA with his girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall). Instead, as more women turn up dead, Sam finds himself drawn into the investigation as he desperately tries to recall a missing detail from that night.

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Review: The Shepherd (El Pastor) (2016)

Festival hit The Shepherd is a drama in the art-house mould that has received critical plaudits and yet has left me leaving quite cold. I suspect The Shepherd might make for a more interesting watch in a cinema setting, but watching it at home I mostly found myself very, very bored.

The titular shepherd, Anselmo (Miguel Martín) goes about his simple, daily routine of making breakfast for himself and his dog Pillo, tending to his sheep, visiting his local bar, and reading. He is visited by two property developers interested in the area, and they offer to buy up his land. Anselmo refuses, much to the annoyance of his neighbours who are willing to sell. And so an increasingly hostile stand-off begins, as greed turns seemingly normal men irrational, and Anselmo must decide how much intimidation he’ll take.

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Review: A Dark Song (2016)

There is some really wonderful horror cinema coming out of Ireland at the moment, and it’s so pleasing to see genre works getting support from its film board. From Isolation through Wake Wood, The Canal, Citadel and Without Name, the range of horror filmmaking coming from Ireland is truly impressive. I think easily my favourite of this recent wave of films from the Emerald Isle is, appropriately, the Irish-Welsh co-production A Dark Song, a searing feature debut from writer-director Liam Gavin. Taking what might be the ritualistic set-piece from a number of different sub-genres and expanding it to be the main focus of the film, A Dark Song is an incredible meditation on life, death, morality and human nature.

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Review: Free Fire (2016)

I don’t always get on much with Ben Wheatley’s films. Though I adore Sightseers, I found both Kill List and A Field in England underwhelming, and High Rise to be a mess, albeit an enjoyable one. Approaching Free Fire, then, I had an open mind but a sense of knowing what I might expect my own response to be, and it was indeed so. While I enjoyed the film well enough, it left me unsatisfied and wanting rather a lot more from it.

Free Fire is quick to establish its main players, and it does so effectively – a deal broker, Justine (Brie Larson) has organised a weapons deal between Irishman Chris (Cillian Murphy) and South African Vernon (Sharlto Copley). They’re assisted by loyal Frank (Michael Smiley) and suave Ord (Armie Hammer), while the muscle-for-hire, Stevo (Sam Riley) and Harry (Jack Reynor), are too hot-headed for their own good, leading to a tense deal heading southward, and what might then be the climax of another crime film becomes the main bulk of Free Fire: a shoot-out between all parties involved, where loyalties are tested as much as the human body’s resilience to bullet wounds.

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Review: Elle (2016)


Some mild spoilers within.

I had an interesting discussion about Paul Verhoeven’s Elle with a fellow member of the cinema audience recently, and the most striking thing to me that she said – more striking than her conclusion that film was definitely misogynist – was that when she chose to come to see it she knew that Isabelle Huppert wouldn’t be in anything that sick. Now, my favourite Isabelle Huppert role is in The Piano Teacher, so I must say I was expecting the exact opposite, I suspect, of my fellow movie-goer, and I was not disappointed in that regard. It seemed my fellow audience member had taken the film at its most superficial, and I suspect she’s never seen The Piano Teacher, either. There was a great deal of nuance and restraint to the sickness in Elle, and it is that which elevates it to a film which is hugely enjoyable – and yes, very funny – without incurring the wrath I usually have reserved for lazier attempts at rape-revenge films.

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Blu-ray Review: The Entity (1982)

The Entity is one of those wonderful films from the era of big-budget, mainstream horror filmmaking based on popular novels – following on from the venerable likes of The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, through to Demon Seed and beyond. The film in synopsis sounds, now, like that kind of film that would struggle to get made in such a mainstream setting, or at least would result in a myriad of hot-takes before it even hits a big screen (probably from myself included). The film is inspired by the true story of Doris Bither, a woman who claimed to have been repeatedly assaulted and tormented by supernatural entities. In the film, Barbara Hershey plays hard-working single-mother Carla Moran, who is, one evening, raped in her home by an unseen assailant. The attacks continue, threatening her life and her sanity. When the doctors trying to help her insist on uncovering a rational explanation for what’s happening to her, Carla turns to parapsychologists she meets at a book shop. Finally finding support from people who believe her, Carla agrees to take part in a dangerous solution: luring and entrapping the entity.

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Short film review: Halfway House (2017)

Back in 2013, actor Leslie Simpson made a foray into filmmaking with his directorial debut, the atmospheric short film Grandpa. Simpson is back with another short, written and directed by him, and it’s a wonderful step-up for the multi-talented filmmaker. Here he takes the lead as Joseph, a seemingly normal man, living in a nice house with his wife Stazi (Phoebe Ashford). Something goes bump one night, and the next morning, things in the house have moved. Stazi’s sure there’s a rational explanation. The next time it happens, more things move, and the detectives (Anna Burgess and Nicholas Politis) are even more sceptical. Joseph and Stazi become increasingly concerned by the goings-on in their home, and have to take matters into their own hands.

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DVD Review: Elsa Fraulein SS (1977)

When an 80-minute film starts off with three whole minutes of grainy stock footage, you know you’re in for some sort of a treat. When it also includes the credit ‘Eurocine presente’ then you start to get a bit more of an idea of what kind of treat that’s going to be. And so, you’re a bit more forgiving of the bad cuts, bad editing, questionable acting and cheap costumes. Those minor details seem barely worth mentioning when considering a film that one shouldn’t really expect more of.

Elsa Fraulein SS is one of those many Naziploitation films that riffs off the Ilsa model – sadistic lady-Nazi tortures a variety of nubile ladies and grizzled Nazi-men. The exploitation of Ilsa as a pinnacle of the genre is evident in the title used here – Elsa Fraulein SS is otherwise also known as Captive Women 4 (4?!), Fraulein Devil and – surprise – Fraulein Kitty. This film’s other obvious influence is the wonderful Salon Kitty, only instead of a brothel in Berlin being used as a spy-den, the not nearly as professional spies are here based on a pleasure train, travelling all of Germany as reward for the Nazi’s greatest officers.

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Review: Raw (2016)

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Raw is this year’s The VVitch or It Follows – that tentpole horror film that gets a big Spring release here in the UK. It seems to be a nascent tradition, and it’ll be interesting to see whether a contender for next year’s equivalent emerges from the upcoming festival season, or if the past two or three years have just been an accidental distribution model. Having played pretty much all the major genre fests – under tight security, no less – and gaining significant traction with stories of fainting and puking at screenings, it’s fair to say that Raw finally arrives with a fair bit of baggage.

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DVD Review: Catfight (2016)

I’d spotted the publicity for Catfight in recent weeks and hadn’t, from the images and basic synopses shared, twigged that this was the latest film from Onur Tukel. I’d seen two of Tukel’s previous films – Summer of Blood and Applesauce – and had not particularly enjoyed either of them. Then again, I don’t think I’m particularly the target audience of Tukel’s brand of low-key, cynical humour, styled after Woody Allen and the like. So, upon learning that Catfight – sold as a “brutal and darkly hilarious film” – was Tukel’s latest, my curiosity was piqued. While I’ve not been a fan of Tukel’s films, they’re certainly not bad films, and so what really drew my interest was seeing if Tukel could effectively manage to write a film led by two female leads, when his previous films have been, well, pretty damn masculine.

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Review: Prevenge (2016)

Ben has recently made reference to the on-going exploration of pregnancy in horror, and as a theme it certainly seems to be having a bit of a moment – from the last year or so, Shelley, Antibirth, and Prevenge have all tackled the issue, in quite different ways. Prevenge has perhaps been the most hotly-anticipated and highly-regarded of these films, at least in the UK, coming from accomplished comedy writer and actress Alice Lowe, making her feature film directorial debut.

What makes the debut all the more stunning is that Lowe directed – and starred in – the film while seven months pregnant herself. Impressive though that is from an endurance perspective, it also seems to have been quite vital to the success of the film thematically: a genuine portrayal of the psychological difficulties of pregnancy… with added murder.

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On the Radar: upcoming DVD and Blu-ray releases to look out for – 04/04/2017

If there’s been one recent Blu-ray announcement that I’m most excited for it’s got to be Arrow’s upcoming The Bird with the Crystal Plumage set. Coming in June, the set promises a 4K restoration of the film, a host of new commentaries and analyses on the film, a brand new interview with Maestro Argento himself, as well as a 60-page collectors’ booklet, a poster and re-production lobby cards. Along with the Phenomena release (May 8th), it’s looks like Arrow are revamping their Argento collection, and if they’re all getting this lavish treatment then, well, my bank account’s going to be looking significantly poorer for a while!

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