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?