Friday, 24 April 2015



This is something of a pleasing oddity: an old-fashioned period Gothic with a cast of familiar faces and big name stars (with two Oscar-winners), yearning romance, medical ethics and a nicely hidden reveal of the Big Plot Twist which I confess I didn't see coming. According to the entirely reliable IMDb the original source short story by Edgar Allan Poe, The System Of Dr Tarr and Professor Fether, has been filmed three times before, including a part-animated adaptation by Jan Svankmeyer, but the most common version would probably be the Mexican The Mansion Of Madness (aka Dr Tarr's Torture Dungeon) from 1973, but the poor quality of the public domain DVD releases does it no favours.

Stonehearst Asylum's alternative title is Eliza Graves, which are the two least exciting titles you could think of for the film: they are literally the where and who of the story. It's 1899 and young doctor Newgate (Jim Sturgess) arrives at the remote asylum in the wilds of Scotland seeking clinical experience to go with his studies; he finds a largely agreeable and enlightened regime headed by Lamb (Ben Kingsley), in which some of the less desperate patients are put to constructive use in the kitchens and grounds, or even as nursing staff. Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale) has been diagnosed as a "hysteric" (thanks to her unloving husband) but is now Lamb's second-in-command, and it's her who most catches Newgate's eye. But it's not long before Newgate finds another group of patients led by Salt (Michael Caine), locked away in the basement dungeons....

Spoiler Alert: it's frankly not a huge surprise that this second group are the genuine asylum staff imprisoned after Lamb has effectively staged a coup. This is another lunatics-have-taken-over-the-madhouse story, with the added twist that Lamb's benevolent approach is making far more progress than Salt's barbaric techniques of iced water and sexual indignities: the Bedlamites are happier and less disruptive, but Lamb is officially mad and Salt is officially a doctor. But at the heart of Stonehearst Asylum is the growing relationship between Eliza and Newgate: she clearly doesn't belong there but how can Newgate get her away?

There's always a danger with asylum-based films that it's going to step over the bad taste line and look for comedy in mental illness, and Stonehearst Asylum manages to avoid this (it does have a man who thinks he's a horse, who Lamb doesn't want to cure because he's a happy horse!). It's generally pretty good, solidly put together in a very traditional manner, without anything in the way of experiment or overtly graphic horror: it looks terrific (shot entirely in Hungary) with a standard orchestral score and a gallery of good character actors (Jason Flemyng, Sinead Cusack and David Thewlis all show up). Like Anderson's previous feature, The Call, it's more a film for the mainstream multiplex market than a personal, individual project such as Session 9 (which I probably need to give another go sometime). Even if it's not likely to show on many people's Top Tens, it's still well worth a look.


Thursday, 23 April 2015



Straight-up confession: I like the Fast And Furious movies. Granted it took a couple of episodes to find its formula of idiotically fast cars smashing into things and cartoonish blokes lamping one another with spanners while hot bikini chicks whoop from the sidelines, but once the franchise mutated from colourful but empty car chase exploitation to a fusion of Ocean's Eleven, Mission: Impossible and Top Gear, it just got bigger, better, noisier, sillier and crazier. And this latest episode is more of the same: much, much more. Perhaps to the extent that they nudge the plausibility barrier a couple of times, even given the parameters of the Looney Tunes world they inhabit (Vin Diesel walks away unscratched from not one, not two, but three brutal crashes that would have left The Terminator in pieces), but for the sheer amount of screeching tyre mayhem and full-on asskicking it's probably the best dose of adrenalin and testosterone you've seen since the last one, and you won't see better until the next one.

Fast & Furious 7 kicks off with the mystery villain from FF6's post-credits sting with top British assassin Shaw (Jason Statham) looking to exact revenge for his brother. First off was Han (Sung Kang), whose Tokyo death scene actually occurred halfway through the third film despite him being in the next three. Then a bomb nearly takes out the core threesome - Vin Diesel, Paul Walker and Jordana Brewster - but it's only when shadowy government man Kurt Russell turns up and promises them access to a revolutionary new hacking system called God's Eye that they get a chance at taking the fight to Shaw....In order to obtain God's Eye they first have to rescue the genius computer hacker who designed it - from an armoured bus travelling through impregnable and inaccessible mountain roads in the Caucasus Mountains. Then they have to retrieve the hard drive from a Saudi billionaire in a skyscraper penthouse, and it's only at that point that they can use the system to track down Shaw. But it doesn't work out, and Shaw manages to get the device for himself....

That's when the movie makes its big misstep, as Diesel decides to lure Shaw to a final showdown on the streets of Los Angeles, one of the most populous cities on Earth. Surely it would have been more sensible, and no less cinematically exciting, to head out of town into the deserts where the roads go on for miles without a civilian population of collateral casualties in waiting? I know exploding buildings and hair's breadth car stunts look great on screen, and the film's final half hour of cars and helicopters and missiles and grenades and huge guns and facepunching mayhem is brilliantly realised, but it just makes no sense to put thousands of average "real people" at such a pointless risk, especially when you remember how desperate the team were to avoid civilian carnage during the previous film's tank chase.

For most of the time it's a fun, noisy, blisteringly destructive blast and the car action is suitably demented. It's nice to see that Paul Walker, who tragically died halfway through production, is paid appropriate and sincere tribute at the end, in a sign off which lets the series continue naturally without the character (and as this instalment has taken a billion dollars already there's no sane reason why they wouldn't do another two at the very least). Frankly, bring it on: Fast & Furious 7 was one of my most eagerly awaited cinema trips of the year and it truly was worth the wait. I want to see it again.


Friday, 17 April 2015



This is less a remake of the 1976 True Crime slasher movie, more a 38-years-on sequel - but a radically different, self-referential sequel. Taking in-film genre awareness several levels beyond geeky injokery and even Wes Craven's reality/movie crossovers (this is closer to what Wes Craven's New Scream might be like if he ever made it, and Scream is definitely the key reference point), restaging and repeating many of the first film's events as stylish and bloody horror setpieces, it's bold, visually ravishing and great fun.

Just as Charles B Pierce's film ended with a queue of cinemagoers waiting to see the very film they're appearing in, so Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's climaxes its opening attack with its survivor crawling under an open-air cinema screen that's playing Pierce's film. It's a Halloween tradition in Texarkana that Pierce's film is screened every year (to the disgust of the local Bible-thumping pastor) in commemoration of the real events of 1946 it depicted - but this year the Phantom Killer is back and re-enacting the crimes himself. Obviously it can't be the same man after nearly seventy years, but to that first victim, prospective college student Jami (Addison Timlin, from Odd Thomas), the only way to identify the killer is to reopen the cases to find some overlooked clue....

Beyond the references (which audaciously include a brief reenactment of Charles Pierce's crew shooting the film we're watching the sequel to), The Town That Dreaded Sundown looks terrific, with odd angles and gorgeous lighting and photographic effects that sometimes make you think you're watching something Oliver Stone shot twenty years ago. It's also considerably more violent than the original, yet miraculously escapes with a 15 certificate despite the occasionally graphic violence and nudity. Granted the Texas accents lost me a little from time to time, and it's a pity that the older character actors (Gary Cole, Ed Lauter) weren't given more to do - the film makes a great play of bringing in a top man (Anthony Anderson) to lead the manhunt and then mostly forgets about him - though it's nice to see Veronica Cartwright and Edward Herrmann (in one of his last roles) again.

All of which leads you to wonder: why is this film getting such a limited release? Where were the trailers and posters? I ended up with a 50-mile round trip to my nearest screening, where it plays just once a day and last night was watched by no less than eight people. Which I didn't mind, but it's a shame there didn't seem to be much push for it and by Thursday I'd be surprised if it's showing anywhere at all (it is already on Netflix USA). Maybe the original is just not a particularly well-known title over here - it hasn't been to the BBFC in nearly thirty years for its VHS release, and none of the online streaming sites seem to stock it (except for YouTube, of course). It's a shame because The Town That Dreaded Sundown is actually a very good, very interesting film, and it's annoying that something surprising and involving and well shot has almost no chance of attracting an audience when it really is worth tracking down. I even like it more than It Follows: it's my favourite horror release of the year so far. And it's lovely to see the Orion Pictures logo on the big screen once more.


Monday, 6 April 2015



Sometimes it's quite a thrill to find a movie you've never heard of sitting in your mailbox. Literally, all you have is a title: in this instance, Massacre Gun, which could be absolutely anything. What's even more exciting is when a film that has come out of nowhere turns out to be a terrific treat: exciting, involving, astonishingly beautiful to look at and almost making you want to watch the whole thing again immediately. Why isn't this film better known? Why have I never heard of it before?

Directed by Yasuharu Hasebe, who went on to one of the Female Scorpion films and the Stray Cat Rock series, as well as a vile-sounding series of rape-themed exploitation films, Massacre Gun is a wonderful Japanese gangster thriller from 1967 concerning Kuroda (Jo Shishido), a hitman who quits his gang when he has to terminate his own girlfriend. Inevitably the gang don't take kindly to this and take on not just him but his brothers, a boxer and a jazz/blues club owner: equally inevitably, retaliation follows retaliation until it has to come down to a final blazing shootout.

It's shot in gleaming black and white which adds enormously to the mood of vintage Hollywood film noir - you could easily imagine Robert Mitchum or Ava Gardner or any of the legends of noir walking into shot (albeit in full glorious widescreen rather than plain old 4:3 Academy ratio). The monochrome looks absolutely stunning and it was clearly the right choice instead of colour. I'm slightly less keen on the use of jazz and blues but that's just down to my personal musical preferences.

I confess I'm not particularly knowledgeable about Japanese cinema (though pleasingly the disc arrived just as I was starting a little exploration of the subject) so I don't have a vast range of references. I can certainly say it's a lot better than any of, say, Takashi Miike's numerous gangland action films such as Deadly Outlaw: Rekka (which purely by chance I happened to watch the following night) which is honestly not in the same league. By comparison Massacre Gun oozes class and style and is infinitely more rewarding.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there's less in the way of extras for a Japanese crime thriller nearly half a century old than we're used to on many retro releases. Here there's a recent interview with star Jo Shishido, much of which centres on memories of his childhood rather than his films, and a half-hour talk by Tony Rayns about the rise and fall of the Nikkatsu studio. More intriguing are the trailers for Massacre Gun which look to include scenes and shots that don't look to be in the film itself. Relative lack of bonus features aside, though, it's a terrific film and thoroughly enjoyable. And now I'm really looking forward to Arrow's imminent release of 1968's Retaliation from the same director and the same star. More please.