This blog is devoted to all those pieces of 20th century culture too often pooh-pooh'ed by the so called 'high brow' crowd. The stuff that conjoures words like 'vibrant', 'garish' and 'lurid'. Cheap paperbacks, b-movies, exploitation, fantasy, horror and hokey sci-fi - all have a place on this blog where the trash of yesterday is recognised as the classics of today.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Movie Review: The Blood on Satan's Claw (1971)

I'm getting quite a kick out of satanically-themed movies of the 70s at the moment. This one from British studio Tigon fits into an even smaller genre known as 'folk horror' which includes the likes of Witchfinder General (1968 - also Tigon) and The Wicker Man (1973). These films explore the pagan traditions of the countryside (often set in past eras) and the brutality of religion (both pagan and Christian).

But where Witchfinder concentrates on the abuse of power by religious bigots and Wicker Man shows the horrific effects of pagan superstitions gone mad The/Blood on Satan's Claw (the film was released under both titles) differs in that its religious authorities and lawmen are in fact, no matter how brutal their methods, largely in the right. There genuinely is something nasty and supernatural going on in the simple country lives of these 17th century English folk.

The film gets off to a cracking start with several different story lines linked by the discovery of a deformed skeleton by local plowman Ralph. Believing the remains to be some sort of demon, Ralph's tale is met with skepticism by Judge Wymark who is staying with Mrs Banham. The widow Banham's nephew has also come to visit, bringing with him his betrothed. But the unfortunate girl meets an icy reception and during the night suffers some sort of fit accompanied by nasty visions before being carted off to Bedlam, sporting a nasty-looking claw where her hand used to be. Then there is the case of Angel Blake (played by the absolutely stunning Linda Hayden) who has found a claw in the field and seemingly succumbs to its power. All these intertwining story lines are evidence of an early version of the script that was set out like one of Amicus' horror anthologies. I'm glad they went with keeping it whole as it all makes for a very interesting first act.

Things soon take a turn for the seriously nasty with local children sprouting patches of scaly, hairy skin on their bodies and following the increasingly bitchy Angel Blake with all the fanaticism of a murderous cult. In a surprisingly gruesome and harrowing scene, Widow Banham's nephew suffers a similar trauma to his ex-fiance when he is attacked in bed by a clawed hand. After cutting the demonic hand off with a knife, he is distraught to discover that the hand was in fact, his own.

I was pleasantly surprised by the gritty and downright creepiness of the film. Most British horror films from this era are more than a little campy, playing up on the sex and blood. But this film made me feel genuinely uneasy, aided no doubt, by an extremely creepy musical score and eerie cinematography. While Blood on Satan's Claw certainly does not shy away from the gore and also includes, as one might expect, the almost obligatory rape/sacrifice scene, none of it feels gratuitous.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Movie Review: Race with the Devil (1975)

A fine example of the 1970s obsession with the occult and the Satanic here, only this movie crosses the old 'evil cult out to getcha' plot with the car chase genre. Peter Fonda and Warren Oates play a couple of chums who take their wives (one of them being Loretta Swift - 'Hot Lips Houlihan' from M.A.S.H.) on vacation in an RV. Things go pear shaped when the two fellas witness a satanic ritual where a young, naked female is sacrificed by a bunch of be-robed cultists. Spotted lurking in the bushes, our two all-American heroes make for the RV and put pedal to metal in an attempt to escape.

What follows is a fairly usual tale of out-of-towners up to their necks in the Texan outback where seemingly everybody is in league with the cult (including the Sheriff) and is out to get them although they mask their evil intentions behind that brand of polite local friendliness seen in stuff like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The real selling point of this movie is the climactic car chase where various locals pit their trucks against the RV causing more than a little destruction along the way.

It's pure Grindhouse trash of course, but great fun all the same. The Satanic cult is extremely generic with as much thought put into it as one might expect from a low budget movie made in the 70s. People seemed terrified that this kind of stuff was going on all over the US at that time but I've never actually heard of any evidence of real sacrificial cults. It was just one of those paranoid knee-jerk reactions we've seen before in the witch hunts of the seventeenth century and the mass-panic over communism in the 50s.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Robin Hood - A Journey

The character and legends of Robin Hood played a major part in my childhood. I was about 6 years old when I watched The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) for the first time and it's remained a favorite movie of mine ever since. This was about the same time that Lego were releasing their 'forestmen' sets which was basically a way of introducing Robin Hood into their Castle line and I loved them to bits. I can remember faithfully trying to recreate every scene of the Errol Flynn movie with those little men in green with the various knights and soldiers filling in for the bad guys. Not much later the Kevin Costner version of the movie hit cinemas and I fell in love with an all new version of the legend. There are innumerable such versions of England's boldest outlaw, the most recent being of course the Ridley Scott/Russel Crowe job which I only just got around to seeing (and I think it's great, incidentally). But I thought I'd take a look at four Robin Hood movies from my childhood that had a huge influence on me and my imagination.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
There were versions before this including the silent one starring Douglas Fairbanks, but Errol Flynn in green tights set the standard here and became the measuring stick to which all subsequent versions have been held. An early Technicolor effort, Robin Hood is a glorious thing to behold. The colour palette is striking from the greens of Sherwood Forest to the extraordinary costume design. The only rival that comes close is The Wizard of Oz (completed a year later).

And then there is the cast. The leading trio from Captain Blood (1935) are reunited once more with Olivia de Havilland as a stunning Maid Marian and Basil Rathbone making his mark as one of cinema's greatest villains in the role of Sir Guy of Gisbourne. The Sheriff of Nottingham is relegated to a bumbling buffoon of a character played by Melville Cooper who provides much of the comic relief and Claude Rains is fantastic as the ginger-bewigged Prince John who is intent on seizing his brother's throne while the King is a prisoner on his way home from the Crusades.

I absolutely love this movie. For me, it's right up there with Star Wars (1977), and largely for the same reasons. It moves along at a great pace with stunts and sword fights that still hold up today (the final duel between Sir Guy and Robin has to be one of the greatest duels in cinema). Flynn swings around and does all manner of cool things like hacking through a rope holding up a portcullis and riding it all the way to the top while his horse gallops underneath. And the score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold is brilliantly rousing and endlessly hummable. It was this movie that made me love pretty much anything with swords in.

Walt Disney's Robin Hood (1973)
Clearly hoping to recreate some of the success of 1967's animal caper The Jungle Book Disney tried its hand at medieval England with its cast of critters donning tunics and caps with feathers in. The results were mixed, but personally I love it. It's totally daft with Robin and Marian played by foxes and a strikingly familiar looking bear (voiced by Baloo's Phil Harris) as Little John. What used to really crack me up when I was a kid was the interaction between cowardly lion Prince John (or 'PJ' - voiced by Peter Ustinov) and his slippery aide, 'Sir Hiss' who is totally useless and only serves to irritate his master to bursts of rage.

The animation is very similar to The Jungle Book and lends itself well to the high-action tomfoolery that an animated take on Robin Hood demands. The archery tournament and the ensuing chaos that results from Robin's unmasking and the nighttime mission to free prisoners from the castle are great set pieces. And the facial expressions are hilarious. But the songs are surprisingly unmemorable for a Disney production with the exception of Alan-a-Dale's narration and whistling opening tune that was forever stuck in my head as a kid.

Robin Hood (1991)
Totally lost in the shadow of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves that also came out in 1991, this version is surprisingly good. What I admire most about it is its attempt to turn in an historically accurate version of the legend. Prince of Thieves is often accredited for dispensing with the tights and campy posturing in favour of a more grounded Robin Hood, but this version got there first with a decent stab at costumes fitting the period and a mossy, misty Sherwood Forest replacing the fairy-tale greenwood that we've seen before. This Sherwood (or is it Barnsdale?) is no studio back lot or national park. This is England in all its wild, bleak beauty.

The story is also refreshingly original. The usual villainous trio of Prince John, Sir Guy and the Sheriff are replaced here by two Norman nobles called Baron Daguerre and Sir Miles Folcanet with Prince John only making a cameo appearance. The hero of the piece is a certain Robert Hode, Earl of Huntingdon; a Saxon who is chummy with his Norman overlord Baron Daguerre. After a run in with Folcanet over a Saxon poacher, Robert Hode is given the heave-ho from his lands and title and takes to the forests with his friend, Will Scarlett. Falling in with Little John and a band of thieves and outlaws, Hode comes to be called (somewhat inexplicably) Robin Hood, and the usual rabble-rousing against the oppressors begins. Uma Thurman puts in a great pre-Pulp Fiction performance as Maid Marian.

The character of Robin is pretty different too. He is no heroic freedom fighter in the spirit of Errol Flynn. In fact, it is Will Scarlett who prompts him to save the poacher in the beginning; the very act that leads to his banishment. And the whole robbing from the rich to give to the poor concept comes very late to the party, with Robin spending most of the film as a common bandit! Patrick Bergin seems an unlikely cinematic hero with his moustache and curly black hair, but in fact gives a great portrayal as the devil-may-care bandit who gradually comes to see the plight of his people.

Robin Hood Prince of Thieves (1991)
This one gets a lot of flack but I've never really understood why. Some say its too Americanised and too showy. Perhaps I'm just blinded by the fact that I loved it too much as a kid and don't see it's flaws even now. But then, there are other movies I liked as a kid that I can't watch now (like Hook). Anyway, I've always found this to be a huge amount of fun and can watch it over and over. Sure, Kevin Costner and Christian Slater seem a bit out of place in medieval England, but at least the film isn't bogged down by too much light-hearted comic relief as so many pseudo-historical family movies are (such as the Pirates of the Caribbean series or 1993's The Three Musketeers).

What struck me about Prince of Thieves as a child was the gritty realism of it all whilst still retaining the fun and action of the legends. It's violent (the hand-chopping scene in the beginning gave me the heebie-jeebies as a kid) and often brutal as in the river fight between Robin and Little John. The swords are big and heavy and the landscapes (mostly shot in Ireland) are truly stunning.

But my favorite thing about the movie by far has always been the music. The Late Michael Kamen turned out, in my opinion, one of the finest movie scores ever. It really deals out a sense of the legendary and the medieval as well as being heroic and bombastic. Fantastic stuff. Unfortunately it isn't used in the trailer below, but the Willow theme is almost as good, right?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

What was Christmas Like... 40 Years Ago?


The three highest-grossing movies of December 1970 were;

Christmas Number Ones

Top of the charts in the US
was Smokey Robinson and The Miracles with The Tears of a Clown.

And in the UK; Dave Edmunds with the decidedly un-seasonal blues classic I Hear You Knocking.


Nerf Ball
Another reminder of a more simpler time, the Nerf ball was a simple foam ball. Yep, that was the big seller for Christmas in 1970. Created by Parker Brothers, the ball was declared 'the world's first indoor ball!' and came with a promise that it would not break lamps or windows when hurled about indoors (which surely sounded like a challenge to most kids). Nerf products remained popular for years afterwards with the company producing various sports balls made from the foamy, squashy material and later, in the '80s, 'Nerf Blasters' which fired foam darts.


This simple electronic musical instrument was big news in the UK. With Australian artist/TV personality Rolf Harris as its spokesperson, the Stylophone was a popular Christmas gift for 1970. By pressing each metal note with a stylus, a circuit would be completed and result in an electronic 'beeping'. There were several play along records also released and David Bowie even used it on his 'Space Oddity' single.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

What was Christmas Like... 30 Years Ago?


The three biggest grossing movies for December 1980, which incidentally, are all in the top ten highest grossers for that year. Also, Flash Gordon which I've included for its later cult appeal despite it's poor box office take in 1980.

Christmas Number Ones

Topping the Billboard Top 100 Hits in the US was Lady by Kenny Rogers.

And in the UK; the tooth-rottingly sweet There's No-one Quite Like Grandma performed by Stockport-based St. Winifred's School Choir.


Rubik's Cube
The brainchild of a Hungarian professor in the mid-70s became the 'it' Christmas toy of 1980. How times have changed, eh? Imagine handing this to a member of the current Nintendo Wii/PlayStation III generation and saying "Here you go, kid. Merry Christmas. Knock yourself out"! A real reminder of a more simpler time, the Rubik's Cube was a fad that has remained with us ever since. People still buy these. Even my parents had one back in the day.

The Empire Strikes Back

With the franchise on its second movie and before the later years of Ewoks and Jabba's muppet show, Star Wars was at the top of its game in 1980. After famously being caught with their pants down in 1977 when they severely underestimated the first movie's popularity, Kenner made up for lost time with its sequel and with a whole new array of bounty hunters, rebels in snow gear and Imperial war machines to choose from, Christmas 1980 was a bountiful harvest for many a young Star Wars fan.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

What was Christmas Like... 20 Years Ago?

With the countdown to Christmas in full swing, I thought I'd take a trip back in time and stop off at each 10-year interval until 1970 or so, to see what was going on at this time of year back then. This post will take a look at a year I remember very well - 1990 (I skipped 2000 as it still feels way too recent).


Here are a few of the biggest widely released movies of the Christmas season in 1990. Home Alone was huge and was one of the highest grossing movies of that year.

Christmas No. Ones

In the UK, having a number one single at Christmas is kind of a big deal and often results in festive (if sometimes overly wholesome) entries by big names (and sometimes not so big). The yuletide spirit is somewhat less reflected in the US with the Billboard Top 100 rarely taking notice of the festive season.

In 1990, the US number 1 single on Christmas was Because I Love You (The Postman Song) by Stevie B.

And in the UK... Saviour's Day by Cliff Richard. Remember what I said about wholesomeness? But to be fair, it only lasted until December the 30th before being knocked off the top spot by Iron Maiden with Bring Your Daughter... to the Slaughter so it's not all bad.


I tried very hard to find some sort of definitive 'Top Selling Christmas Toys Year by Year' list on the Internet, but to no avail. There are many lists out there but they are all culled from different sources while some seem to be purely made up. At the risk of doing the same, I decided to trawl through a few catalogues and articles and come up with a few examples of what was hot for Christmas in 1990.

The Gameboy
Released in Japan and the US in 1989 to huge success, Nintendo's Gameboy made its way to European shores in 1990. This was huge. Hopelessly obsolete in light of today's technological advancements obviously, the Gameboy was unbelievably popular in its day with its 8-bit graphics and 'green' colour scheme. A common sight in the early '90s was a group of kids crowding around a single Gameboy held in the sweaty hands of a comrade, watching over his shoulders in attentive silence as he tried to beat that tricky level on Super Mario Land. And woe betide any joker who thought it was funny to flip the 'off' switch when somebody was mid-game. No way to save your games in those days, kids. Each time you switched it on, you had to start from the beginning.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
The Turtles were everywhere in the early '90s. The first movie came out in March of that year and the cartoon show was still going strong on Saturday morning television. Of course in the UK, they were called 'Hero' Turtles instead of 'Ninja' Turtles as some nanny-state enthusiasts decided that if British kids heard the word 'ninja' they would instantly start killing each other with nunchuks and shuriken. I can't say that this deterrent worked however, as I have clear memories of leaping around the living room as a kid wielding homemade nunchucks fashioned from toilet roll tubes and string.

The Turtles figures began in 1988 and the new additions to the line in time for Christmas 1990 were variants of the main characters such as 'Leo the Sewer Samurai', 'Raph the Space Cadet', 'Don the Undercover Turtle' and 'Mike the Sewer Surfer'.

Power Drencher
Super Soakers were a huge part of childhood in the '90s. These high-pressure water guns made hot summers a war zone for kids with a seemingly endless variety of armaments from small pistol type things right up to gargantuan rifles that actually stung when you got hit by them.

But the famous Super Soaker brand didn't come until 1991. In 1990, the very first Super Soaker was named the 'Power Drencher' and was later re branded the 'Super Soaker 50' the following year. The bright neon (and so very '90s) colour scheme and top-mounted reservoir was a staple from the beginning and totally changed the game for summertime water fights.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Movie Review: Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)

It seems like only last week that I was doing posts on Halloween, and yet here comes Christmas already. I'm still kind of in 'horror movie mode' and so what better way to make the transition than with Silent Night, Deadly Night?

Released the same month as A Nightmare on Elm Street, this less influential slasher flick was understandably overshadowed by Wes Craven's more inventive project. But Silent Night, Deadly Night outdid Freddie Kruger in one respect - parents and religious organisations really hated it! The idea of Santa Claus going on a killing spree was not one relished by many and the film was banned for a good while.

The story revolves around a youngster called Billy who, after a Christmas visit to his senile old grandpa (who warns him that Santa punishes naughty children) sees the murder of his parents by a felon dressed as the jolly man in red. Understandably this traumatises him no end, a fact that has little effect on the iron-handed Mother Superior of the orphanage he winds up in - a woman whose method of raising kids is thrashing the living daylights out of them with a leather belt.

Flash forward a few years and Billy is all grown up and working in a toy store. Things are going well for him until Christmas time comes around and he is asked to suit up in the dreaded red costume and be nice to kids. At an after hours party in the store, Billy (still in his Santa suit) sees the female co-worker he has a crush on getting manhandled by a fellow employee. This pushes him over the edge and he kills them both before embarking on a rampage across town that will eventually lead him back to the orphanage for a confrontation with the old Mother Superior.

I can't not mention the toy store in this movie which is a great snapshot of 1980s childhood. Many people have spotted treasured items from their own past on the shelves in the background and I'm no different. Jabba the Hutt action figures! He-Man and Battle-cat (on some sort of kite)!

Anyway, back to the movie. What makes this one different from most other slashers is that it is played out from the point of view of the killer. Most entries in this genre begin by establishing a group of teenagers who will eventually be picked off, one by one by a masked killer as the film progresses. Silent Night, Deadly Night spends the first half of its running time establishing the killer! In fact, I can't really remember any of the victims, except the ways in which they are killed. And there are some great ways including impalement by deer's antlers, strangulation by fairy lights and my personal favorite - a swinging chop of an axe that decapitates some young miscreant as he hurtles down a slope in his sleigh (incidentally the film's working title was 'Slay Ride').

But the 45 minutes spent setting up the killer's motive still doesn't quite warrant his sudden turn into a zombie-like killer of all 'naughty children'. Sure, he's got more motive than the likes of Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees, but the film still falls into the trap of almost every slasher - there is never enough credibility to make us believe that somebody would really go out and do this stuff. But never mind. A noble and entertaining entry in the genre nevertheless.