Friday, 17 May 2019

The Quake (Norway 2018: Dir John Andreas Andersen)

"I can't even imagine the nightmare you have been through. But that doesn't mean disasters follow you." Sadly for Kristian Eikjord (Kristoffer Joner) - but happily for the viewer - that's not the case here. Fans of disaster movies will hopefully have caught Roar Uthaug's 2015 movie The Wave, which depicted the story of the 85 foot high tsunami that swept through the Norwegian fjord town of Geiranger taking the lives of 248 people, and was remarkable not only for its special effects but also the care taken to depict, with levels of integrity not normally seen in this genre, the world of the characters affected by the event.

The Quake is set three years after the Geiranger disaster. Eikjord, the worried geologist who had predicted the arrival of the tsunami in The Wave, returns, with his wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp), son Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro) and daughter Julia (Edith Haagenrud-Sande). However the family are not together. Idun and the kids have relocated to Oslo, while Kristian, clearly suffering from PTSD, has remained in Geiranger 310 kilometres away, still finding it difficult to come to terms with the human loss of the tsunami, even though he was responsible for saving the lives of many, including his family.

When his friend and fellow geologist Konrad Linblom dies in a tunnel collapse just outside the city, Kristian travels to Oslo, and finds in Lindblom's apartment both his daughter Marit (Kathrine Thorborg Johansen) and a huge amount of research, which concludes that the Norwegian capital is about to experience a massive earthquake. Kristian's recent mental health issues mean that - surprise, surprise - his protestations about imminent disaster fall on deaf ears with the authorities. Kristian reunites with his family just in time for them to be separated again as disaster strikes the city.

The quake hits in, er, The Quake
Like The Wave before it, the actual disaster in The Quake is relatively brief, but unlike the previous movie, which became a little hesitant post tsunami, this film builds on the tension of the earthquake and never lets up for a minute afterwards. The Quake has all the standard elements of the disaster movie; the maverick who was right all along; the authorities who don't want to believe him; the sacrificial expert whose death is the key to the unfolding of events; the estranged family reunited over tragedy. But Andersen handles these cliches expertly, making them crucial elements of the movie rather than a series of eye rolling moments.

Kristoffer Joner is suitably addled as Eikjord, his unswerving conviction about his theories believably battling with the need to be with his family (there a lovely scene near the beginning of the film where Julia comes to stay, only to be sent home again as Kristian realises that he's not fit to be a parent to her). The family are all well cast but special praise must be given to Edith Haagenrud-Sande as Julia; her wide eyed and artless performance, capturing in her face what it means to live with separated parents, is exceptional.

And when disaster strikes, the special effects are phenomenal, made more spectacular by the sparing use of them. Andersen knows that shots of collapsing office blocks, parks and streets will only have a lasting impact if they're framed by very human stories, and this he achieves. The Quake may not have the ending you were expecting; it's a disaster movie that doesn't always play by the rules, which makes it unmissable.

The Quake is out on HD and DVD from 20th May 2019.

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Highlights of Paracinema Festival, Derby, May 2019: Reviews of Zeroes (USA 2018), Fuck You All: the Uwe Boll Story (Canada/USA 2018), Knife + Heart (France/Mexico/Switzerland 2018), Diamantino (Portugal/France/Brazil 2018), Bearkittens (Germany 2018), Fornacis (Réunion/France 2019), Far from the Apple Tree (UK 2019) and Book of Monsters (UK 2018)


Derby's Paracinema Festival is now in its second year (it was previously held under the 'Fantastiq' banner), although this is the first time it has cut anchor from the main Derby Film Festival, of which it used to be a part. Paracinema is, as the programming team describe it, "dedicated to films and genres outside the mainstream." Here are some of the new films that screened at the Festival this year.

Zeroes (USA 2018: Dir Charles Smith) The city of Philadelphia is no stranger to being utilised as a movie location, not least in the eponymous 1993 movie by Jonathan Demme. The latest film to use the US's sixth most populous city - and to capture some of its quirky feel - is Charles Smith's Zeroes, an frequently funny and sometimes hilarious send up of superhero movies, which feels like a less misanthropic version of James (Guardians of the Galaxy) Gunn's 2010 outing Super.

Friends Ray and Kenneth (John McKeever and Ryan Farrell) find themselves drunk in a convenience store after leaving a costume party, dressed identically as ninjas. Somehow they manage to foil a hold up in the shop, and their clumsy but effective disarming of the robber ends up on the local TV station, where local newsreader Kate (Katrina Law) mistakenly identifies the pair as Muslim women via CCTV footage. Deciding, with the aid of Kenneth's workmate Gary (Ely Henry) - who just happens to be loaded - to become crime fighters (aided by costumes put together from accessories half inched from the Sports shop where Ray works), they decide to track down the elusive Shuylkill Strangler who has been offing people across the city. But they cut their teeth dealing with more minor misdemeanors, including public urination and a supposed vehicle attack which turns out to be a couple enjoying noisy car sex. And all the while Kate, who has an on/off relationship with Kenneth, is trying to identify the identities of Philadelphia's masked crime fighters, not knowing how near to home she needs to look.

Zeroes hits the ground running and rarely pauses for breath; some sharp characterisation - McKeever, Farrell and Henry are a superb mix of silliness and charm, tempered by Law's careerist TV anchor - and rather wicked sideswipes at Philadelphia life complement a script that is as witty verbally as its frequent sight gags. Ok it's not exactly pushing the envelope concept wise (probably best not to mention the Kick-Ass movies) but it's more often than not laugh out loud funny and I can't wait to see it again; the good news is that Smith has put together financing for his next movie, also a comedy, and I'll be in line for that too.

Fuck You All: The Uwe Boll Story (Canada/USA 2018: Dir Sean Patrick Shaul) My mother told me that swearing wasn't big or clever; it seems that Mr Boll never received similar parental advice, and judging by the character that comes across in this documentary, about one of cinema's most loathed directors, even if he did he would have told his folks where to stick it.

For even the most die hard fans of exploitation film, the mention of Uwe Boll's name is likely to strike fear into the heart; his reputation is such that there was once an on line petition to get him to stop making movies. Shaul's documentary was the chance to present a different face of the director to an audience who perhaps want to believe he can't be all bad. Sadly I think he is, despite the protestations from his wife that he's a pussycat really. Well not bad exactly - there are plenty of testimonials from actors and crew that respected his no-nonsense ways - but there is an overriding frustration from those interviewed that he makes a better producer (ie dealmaker) than director. It's tempting to comment that the clips of his films are selected to look bad out of context of the whole movie, but having sat through more than my fair share of Boll-ocks that just isn't the case. I'd heard that his more recent output, to which I've not been exposed, is more competent, but the documentary clips of his 2011 film Auschwitz, which seems to make The Producers look like an exercise in good taste, left me unconvinced (I've since seen the film and it's putrid).

I'm not entirely sure why this documentary exists; it does nothing to improve Boll's image, and I may be getting old, but offensive is offensive. The inclusion of a section from the infamous 2006 'Boll Boxes His Critics' may be seen as funny (and what were they thinking, getting in the ring with a known pugilist?)  but by the end of Fuck You All, I just wanted him to fuck off.

Knife + Heart (France/Mexico/Switzerland 2018: Dir Yann Gonzalez) Vanessa Paradis has been landing some great roles in recent years, finally shrugging off the 'Joe Le Taxi' years with quirky performances in films like The Key (2007), Fading Gigolo (2013) and Frost (2017). Here Paradis plays Anne Parèze, a director of gay porn films in late 1970s (ie pre HIV) Paris. Anne is still reeling from a rejection by her ex lover Lois over her drinking, and forms a relationship of sorts with Nans, a construction worker who she wants to star in her films. However Lois is also her editor - awkward - and so Anne is still constantly in contact with her.

Meanwhile a masked, black gloved killer is despatching various of Anne's cast in porn-y ways (an enormous black dildo/flick knife for example), which gives her an idea for a new film, 'Homocidal' and a plan to track down the killer.

Gonzalez's film is, as the description above probably indicates, wholly in thrall to giallo movies, The movie is bathed in red and blues, and both the killer and their modus operandi are straight from the cinematic pages of Lamberto Bava and Dario Argento. Clearly the movie wants to be edgy, with its gay porn setting, but content wise it's less shocking than it thinks it is. Paradis' character is really something though; a lesbian maker of gay porn whose obsession with her ex lover taints everything that she does. Like some of the films from which it takes its influences, it's rather a case of style over substance, but its stunningly shot and its sinuous camera prowls the sets in true giallo style.

Diamantino (Portugal/France/Brazil 2018: Dir Gabriel Abrantes, Daniel Schmidt) 'Astonishingly confident, funny and visually outrageous' were the first words I jotted down after leaving the screening of Abrantes and Schmidt's first collaborative directorial effort.

Carloto Cotta, in a stunning performance that will be hard to be beat this year, plays dim as ditchwater but uber talented football player Diamantino Matamouros, a Portuguese star striker who critically misses a penalty in a cup final and becomes a national whipping boy as a result. Things are no better at home either, as grasping Shakespearean evil twin sisters Sonia and Natasha (Anabela Moreira and Margarida Moreira) castigate him for cutting off their money supply, accidentally killing their father in a fit of pique while raging at their ill luck. Diamantino meanwhile looks mournfully to his future, the only bright points in life being his cat Mittens and his involvement in the rescue of a boat full of refugees while out on his yacht, which triggers a decision that he'd like to adopt a 'fugee' of his own.

A pair of Secret Service personnel who just happen to be lesbian lovers, Lucia and Aisha (Maria Leite and Cleo Tavares), are charged with looking into Diamantino's financial affairs. They concoct a plan to insert Aisha, who is black, into his home by posing as a (male) refugee up for adoption, although the relationship between the two looks set to be more than friendship. Meanwhile Sonia and Natasha have done a deal with a chem company, in exchange for hard cash, to offer up Diamantino in a cloning experiment with the hope that multiple versions of the football player will act as spokespersons for a 'leave the EU' campaign!

Diamantino is an explosion of genres and styles that appears camp and flimsy but betrays a more steely heart. It's both knowing and naive, its over-the-topness redolent of classic Almdovar. Visually the film is sumptuous and the quirks, from Diamantino's spirit dogs who run with him on the pitch in a pink fog, to the breasts that grow on the football player as a by-product of the cloning process (which corresponds with Aisha strapping herself in to pass herself off as male), the movie frequently threatens to fall apart but the directorial hands are steady; Diamantino is never less than a joy to watch, and if the ending isn't perhaps as polymorphously perverse as one might like, it's otherwise pretty close to genius.

Bearkittens (Germany 2018: Dir Lars Henriks) Henriks' (real surname Kokemüller) last movie, 2017's Leon Must Die, was a surprise hit of last year's Paracinema Festival, a sci-fiesque two hander (with co-writer and partner Nisan Arkan) which I described as The Terminator meets Before Sunrise. The pair are now back with the more ambitious Bearkittens, featuring an all female cast who are in reality mainly students of Kokemüller's film class.

Petra is a newbie team leader responsible for taking a group of young delinquent girls, all doing community service, on a big litter pick in the forest. As well as the 'Keep Germany Tidy' aim of the weekend, it's also a chance for the girls to bond with each other - they'll be camping out under the stars. Of course none of the troop want to be there and Petra's well meaning attempts to encourage the girls to get along fail dismally. It can only be a matter of time before disaster strikes.

Bearkittens aims for quite a bit in its slender 72 minute running time. The characters of the seven girls are developed carefully (including a backstory for each that tells us how they got to be doing community service), in addition to which is Bearkittens' own storyline, where the delinquents have to pull together to cover up an accidental death. The comedy is more character driven than pratfall derived, and Arkan's script does well to avoid the cast feeling a little, well, generic.

But the standout performance of the piece is Stefanie Borbe as Petra. She's a great comic creation, a team leader who we know from the beginning of the movie, via an interview with her employer, probably isn't tough enough to handle her charges and is most likely in the wrong job. But Petra remains optimistic, driven by self help books and a big dollop of niceness. Borbe captures the character perfectly, her mouth smiling constantly as her eyes narrow in panic, totally out of her depth as she tries to encourage everyone to get along. She is the best thing in this; Kokemüller and Arkan are definitely a partnership to watch, and Bearkittens is fun while it lasts.

Fornacis (Reunion/France 2019: Dir Aurélia Mengin) Whoa, this is a toughie. Inspired by the loss of a friend of the director, who is also the central character, Fornacis is overridingly the study of grief, and the state after the loss of a loved one where time stands still and the world takes on an unreal feeling.

Anya (Mengin) is a woman in the depths of grief, bereft at the loss of an unnamed woman (glimpsed throughout the film) who may have been a lover or a close friend. Anya hangs out in bars (the 'Fornacis' of the title), drives aimlessly around the countryside, and has meaningless sex while in her numbed state; her only companion on these journeys is an urn, presumably containing her friends' ashes. Scenes where little happens extend to breaking point; audience patience is severely tested. there's no conclusion as such, although Anya starts to grow what looks like a protective rock type covering on her skin. She ends up splayed on the side of a volcano where she finally seems to be at peace.

Mengin is best known for her short films - Fornacis is her first feature - and is certainly a challenging watch (it was the only film of the festival where I witnessed walkouts). Mengin is a visual artist and she uses her body as an extension of her grief; the film is largely silent. Fornacis has an eighties feel in its colour palette and use of neon, nodding to more modern giallo movies, but it's infinitely stranger than that. It's been a huge hit at many European film festivals and its undeniably a work of great passion. Perhaps it just sat a little too awkwardly with the rest of the Paracinema programme, but I found the whole thing a little too self consciously artistic and pompous, even though I didn't doubt the sincerity of the filmmaker.

Far From the Apple Tree (UK 2019: Dir Grant McPhee) McPhee's first features were his 2013 movie Sarah's Room and 2017's Night Kaleidoscope, both rather arty affairs with elliptical plots. His latest is a little more narratively coherent, old fashioned even, while still maintaining his trademark oddness. It's the story of  Judith (Sorcha Groundsell), a young artist just starting off in her career, who gets noticed at a gallery opening by the artist whose works are on display. The artist in question is Roberta Roslyn (Victoria Ridelle) and before we know it, Roberta has asked Judith to give it all up and come and work for her as a live in archivist.

Given free access to the house, it's not long after Judith begins documenting the enormous amount of film and media objects collected by Roslyn that she notices the image of a strange woman on some strips of celluloid. She finds out that this is the artist's daughter, missing presumed dead and who, oddly, looks uncannily like Judith. Despite Roslyn's protestations that it's merely coincidence, Judith comes to concludes that there is more to her employment than she first thinks.

There are hints of Rebecca and even Gaslight in From the Apple Tree's narrative; the ingenue artist, the controlling superficially polite houseowner; hell there's even a sinister housekeeper. The accumulation of media, offering a fractured account of Roslyn's real story, feels terribly on point (there's a Pixelvision camera offering a heavily distorted view of the world, a device I last saw 25 years ago in Michael Almereyda's 1994 movie Nadja) but this is really just window dressing to mask the rather overcooked story underneath. I never really bought the fact that Judith was seemingly unable to escape the house, making the ending, with its hints of inevitability and even circularity, a little hard to take. But Far from the Apple Tree is elegantly made, well acted if all rather polite. It's like a team time TV serial from the 1970s with a little added peril.

VIPCO The Untold Story (UK 2019: Dir Jason Impey). I know that this is a 2019 film because the director had only finished the (two hour) cut of the film two nights before it was due to be screened at the Festival.

Impey's documentary is arguably more interesting because of its context to it and the circumstances of its filming. Video Instant Picture Company (or VIPCO for short) were one of the first companies - along with Guild Home Video and Go Video, to exploit the incredible rise in popularity of the VHS recorder at the beginning of the 1980s. The head of the 'company' (originally just one young man and a couple of mates) was Michael Lee, a wheeler dealer who'd already had one or two brushes with the law over pirating issues, who set up VIPCO to feed public demand for video cassettes.

This period of home viewing history is popularly called the 'wild west' years, before the spectre of the 1984 Video Recordings Act, when companies would flood the market with a range of titles obtained from various borderline legal sources; ironically Lee was pursuing the entrepreneurial vision espoused by Margaret thatcher's Conservative party at the time - he'd just chosen the 'wrong' product.  Lee had happened upon a number of horror imports (including Abel Ferrara's Driller KillerPsychic Killer and The Slayer), in which he personally didn't have much interest. He converted them to VHS, added some lurid imagery to the box, and sold them on at inflated prices to video shops who were happy to pay the high purchase price because they could make their money back, and then some, on rental costs. Lee's empire grew inexorably to the point where in his third trading year he was driving round in a sports car, having bought sets of wheels for his growing sales force. The bottom fell out of the business during the 'video nasties' scandal, Lee avoiding a custodial sentence by the skin of his teeth, but he'd already made so much money that it was just a case of riding the storm. Sadly Lee didn't have a feel (or interest) in his product, so when he finally resurfaced in the early 2000s, reissuing his films on DVD, very often cut to comply with the BBFC rating now required on every release (but without cleaning up the prints), he was out of step with an increasing interest among collectors wanting better quality releases - the world had moved on.

Impey's slightly rough and ready documentary - he knows that more work is needed and at two hours includes a lot of repetition which could be excised - is nevertheless a fascinating story. Sadly its principal character now has Alzheimer's so recollections were patchy - a personal tragedy which led to the closedown of the business in 2007 has also taken its toll. The rest of the doc is fleshed out with various talking heads, mostly from academia, who were often too young to have been born or old enough to remember the golden days of video.

But it's a uniquely British rags to riches story of someone who was in the right place at the right time. Lee wasn't an expert but as a working class guy he was happy to deal in a media form that was very much frowned upon by the middle classes at the time but which netted him colossal profits and, as a 26 year old in business, gave him a life that he could never have expected. And the bigger story here is that Lee, and other companies like VIPCO, introduced Euro horror to a wider audience without perhaps really knowing what they were importing. Without Lee and his fellow entrepreneurs, who knows what the horror landscape would be like now?

Book of Monsters (UK 2018: Dir Stewart Sparke) Well they saved the best till last then. Sparke's UK update of Buffy the Vampire Slayer also plays like Hollyoaks meets Evil Dead II.

Young Sophie is turning 18 and wants to hold a small party for herself and a few mates. But her more socially adroit friends Mona and Beth have other ideas, and so after the whole school receives an invitation, her birthday party becomes Project X lite with Sophie's house creaking at the seams with guests she doesn't recognise; one of these is a sultry woman in a red dress who grabs the nearest virginal looking boy and takes him to one of the bedrooms.

You guessed it (or maybe you didn't); the lady in red is the latest bodily incarnation of a shape shifting demon who swaps bodies like other people change underwear, and she's about to sacrifice a virgin to unleash a deadly force. Up until now, Sophie's biggest problem is how to let her friend and classmate Jess know that she fancies her, but now she has to contend with a house full of monsters. But we know from a prologue that Sophie has been groomed for monster battler status, courtesy of 'The Book of Monsters,' an ancient tome owned and passed on by her mother (also a demon vanquisher) which contains details of what she'll have to face and how to smite her foes.

Book of Monsters moves at a breakneck pace and rarely lets up. It's funny in a broad way, the action is well choreographed and Sparke does well to keep up the tension while largely focusing the action in a Leeds semi detached. The creature battling sails very close to some of the set pieces in Gremlins, but there are some great bitchy put downs throughout which always brings the movie back to its cast of resourceful Northern teens (well teenish), and a bevy of great practical effects.

I'll not spoil the ending, but let's just say that a sequel is doable, but I'd got further than that and say 'essential' (and I'm generally not one for sequels). Lyndsey Craine, who was in Sparke's first feature The Creature Below back in 2016, is excellent as the resourceful Sophie, and there's admirable support from Michaela Longden and Lizzie Stanton as Mona and Beth. Great fun.

Saturday, 11 May 2019

Birds of Passage aka Pájaros de verano (Colombia 2018: Dir Ciro Guerra, Cristina Gallego)

Guerra and Gallego's last film, as director and producer respectively, was 2015's Embrace of the Serpent, a fabulous magic realist search along the Amazon for a healing plant. The luminous black and white of that movie has been replaced by a more vivid colour palette, and Gallego has moved to joint director duties for their latest feature.

Spanning a twelve year period between 1968 and 1980 and with their usual mix of professional and non-professional actors, Birds of Passage tells the apparently true (not quite) rags to (gaudy) riches story of two tribes in northern Colombia, and the impact on their traditions and beliefs as the result of an influx of money. The cause of the sudden wealth growth is drugs - initially entrepreneurially trafficked to satisfy the needs of visiting entitled young Americans, it soon becomes a lucrative industry which brings with it waves of paranoia among the gun wielding distributors.

At the heart of this story is Rapayet (Jose Acosta) who when we first meet him has expressed an interest in marrying Zaida (Natalia Reyes), a girl from the Wayúu tribe. Zaida's mother Úrsula (Carmiña Martínez), unimpressed with the proposed match, insists on a hefty dowry of goats, cows and necklaces - presumably to put him off. Rapayet, who has no means of meeting the requirement, happens on a plan to raise cash, when some young Americans visiting the country as part of the Peace Corps look to score some cannabis. Rapayet calls in some favours to supply the drugs, and before you know it, he's the head of a narcotics operation that introduces money - and guns - to the previously relatively poor but stable communities, along with his reckless friend Moisés (Jhon Narváez).

We follow Rapayet and Zaida as their empire grows; the clothes get swankier, and the argent flows freely, while tensions between the families escalate. Respect is increasingly called into question, until the increasingly jittery Moises believes that the people buying the drugs are also dealing with some of their competitors, and so kills them. This leads to a quick escalation of all out war between the tribes, murder being forbidden among their members.

Told in five 'cantos' covering the period of the film, it's the impact of the sudden injection of wealth into the families over nearly a decade that fuels the movie, and the souring of traditional values in pursuit of respect, that has led some critics to offer comparisons to The Godfather. It's an interesting one, and I can see the relevance - both films deal with structured families who struggle to reconcile wealth and prosperity with the ties of kinship - but this movie also recalls Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas in its story of people whose material aspirations outstrip their morality, and who lose the sense of themselves in the pursuit of wealth, while also filtering a Spaghetti Western use of arid landscape, and even elements of Greek tragedy in its storytelling.

The strongest elements of Birds of Passage are those where mysticism meets modernity, with some of Embrace's strong imagery showing through once again. It's unfair to compare both movies, but I found this film's collapsing of time a little forced within its two hours, and the trademark 70s threads as emblems of wealth a little obvious. Guerra and Gallego's latest is well told and often gripping, but it sometimes lacks the finesse and wonder of their previous effort.

Monday, 29 April 2019

Supermarket Sweep #7: Reviews of The Exorcism of Karen Walker (UK 2018), St Agatha (USA 2018), West of Hell (USA 2018), Curse of the Witch's Doll (UK 2018), The Haunting of Borley Rectory (UK 2019) and Unholy (UK 2015)

The Exorcism of Karen Walker (UK 2019: Dir Steve Lawson) Steve Lawson has previously been a reliable budget genre director, bringing us movies like Survival Instinct, The Haunting of Annie Dyer and Hellriser. This time round he's a gun for hire director for a story devised by Jonathan Sothcott and financed by Sothcott's Hereford Films; their first production. This means that Sothcott's missus Janine Nerissa Sothcott is in it which, for anyone who's seen her acting in other shorts and features, is not a good idea.

Originally called 'Aura,' this is one of those movies that tries desperately to convince the audience that it's set in the US, by including an American car in an otherwise obviously English setting, then having its cast try (and mostly fail) to adopt American accents. Mitch and Diane - who is pregnant - move into a house previously occupied by Mitch's dark arts dabbling uncle, much to the disgust of his fundamental Christian mum. Mitch's sister Karen has been incarcerated in a mental health facility for many years, since an incident at the house when she was found tied to a chair in the basement with her uncle present. Mitch springs his sister from the facility and brings her home to the house that caused the trauma. He engages the services of a psychic, Ada (Rula Lenska, the best thing here) and attempts an exorcism to rid Karen of the entity that has taken his sister away.

The budget for The Exorcism of Anna Walker is definitely higher than Steve Lawson is used to, but the rather cliched premise makes me long for his earlier, less ambitious (but more successful) films. There is a lot of talking in the movie, but the final exorcism sequence builds some tension, and Denise Moreno is quite creepy as the disturbed, possessed Karen. The real star here is Lenska, who has to carry the narrative of the film and makes it a classier production as a result, despite her awful American accent. Sothcott and Lawson have combined forces again on the as yet unreleased Pentagram, starring Nicholas (Hazell) Ball; there's enough potential here to make that movie worth investigating, but only just.

St Agatha (USA 2018: Dir Darren Lynn Bousman) Now this just isn't cricket. Regular readers of the Supermarket Sweep strand will know that of necessity expectations are set very low. So what this extremely tense, moving and gruelling bit of catholixploitation is doing in the pile beats me.

Nuns are of course big at the moment - I could do a whole Supermarket Sweep item on the current crop of deadly - or just plain dead - nun films (see posts passim) but St Agatha draws more on the real life horrors of Peter Mullan's 2002 The Magdalene Sisters for its frights, and to some extent last year's brilliant The Devil's Doorway, directed by Aislinn Clarke.

It's 1957, and plucky Mary finds herself pregnant by her well meaning but rather feckless boyfriend, and keen to escape from her drunken violent father. She admits herself to a convent run by the Sisters of Divinty, a group of nuns that will care for Mary up to and after her baby is born. On first appearance the nuns come across as firm but fair, but it's only when Mary has fully moved in that she witnesses the scale of the cruelties meted out to the other girls (one poor wretch is forced to remain at the dinner table even though she has just been sick, and is required by the nuns to eat her own vomit so as not to waste food). Mary's own mental subjugation is a slow process of chipping away at her resolve, culminating in her accepting a renaming to Agatha (the patron saint who suffered rape, imprisonment and torture for her faith).

The Mother Superior of this outfit (Carolyn Hennesy, suitably deranged) is the brains behind the pain, and it turns out she's been excommunicated but still keeps up the pretense of running a convent even though the Vatican have pulled the funding. So she acquires money courtesy of donors, who end up getting their pick of the new babies. It's all rather sordid.

As you'd expect from the director of movies like Saw II, III and IV, the torture is both mental and physical; you're never far from a wince inducing moment featuring vices applied to legs in stirrups, a bear trap in the woods, salt water applied to a wound, and Mary stumbling on an already broken leg. But Mary and her fellow inmates convince in their torment, and the final come uppance had this reviewer rooting for a lengthy demise for all the women of the cloth involved in the girls' persecution. Intense and excoriating, if a little overlong, this is a must see.

West of Hell (USA 2018: Dir Michael Steves) As a film critic it's probably not very wise to confess that I'm pretty antipathetic towards the Western. I could count on the fingers of three fingers the number of Westerns that I've liked. Criminal ain't it? I needn't have worried; although West of Hell dresses itself up as a Wild West tale, beyond a few hats, bonnets and firearms, it's really a story about a deal with the devil, set on a train in the 19th century, which reminded me more of the 1964 Amicus portmanteau movie Dr Terror's House of Horrors than anything else.

A disparate group of individuals find themselves sharing a carriage on an overnight train to Atlanta; they include Jericho Whitfield (Tony Todd, doing his lizard eyed growling shtick), out for revenge over the death of his enslaved family at the hands of a white man; specifically the father of fellow traveller Annie Hargraves (Jennifer Laporte) who is herself being chaperoned to safe passage by mercenary Roland Bursley (Michael Eklund). There's a $1000 bounty on Whitfeld's head, and before you know it there's cross and double cross as the various occupants of the train try to outsmart each other. But then it all gets a bit weird; as the assembled characters find out more about each other, it turns out that the whole train is headed for hell, and a final reckoning, delivered in a number of Saw like tasks which sort out the eternally damned from the saved.

Nearly all the reviews of West of Hell (that I've seen anyway) do exactly what I've done - give you an account of the movie up until the point where I have no idea in the name of all that's holy what's going on. I think it's about how the damned can't escape their fate (hence the Dr Terror's... mention). A sprightly Lance Henricksen turns up in a blonde 'do as the Devil; if the production could have afforded an autocue I swear he was reading off of it. The cheapness of the thing restricts most of the movie to one sparsely decorated railway carriage and hell to, well, darkness and a few torches. There's some darkly lit gore and one or two of the performances are worth catching, particularly Todd who gets quite a meaty part here - sadly a rarity in a CV as long as his. West of Hell might be trying to do something different, but it's an overambitious failure.

Curse of the Witch's Doll (UK 2018: Dir Lawrence Fowler) Fowler's feature debut - as writer, producer and director - is very much from the low budget stable of filmmakers like Andrew Jones and Steve Lawson (he even borrows Lawson's go to scream queen Helen Crevel for his female lead) but sadly bites off more than he can chew.

During the second world war Adeline Gray (Crevel) and her daughter Chloe (Layla Watts) are moved out to a country mansion after their Kent home is bombed: Gray's husband is missing in action. The house is owned by Arthur Harper (Philip Ridout) who appears benevolent. But when Chloe discovers an ugly doll in the house, Adeline starts to doubt how safe she and her daughter are, and when Chloe goes missing, she is convinced that her life is in danger. But how much of what she believes is actually real?

Curse of the Witch's Doll does a brave thing, plot wise; about halfway through the film it offers a plot twist that most directors would have saved for the final reveal. The decision is an interesting one; up until this point, the viewer is wondering just how much more footage can be tolerated of an anxious young woman walking the rooms of a large house looking perplexed. But the movie's second half, which turns the story on its head, is really no more interesting than the first, and at just over an hour and a half long the whole thing could have done with more judicious editing. There is quite a clever story here (the legacy of a a 17th century witch, who curses a doll to wreak revenge through the centuries, being suppressed by a megalomaniac doctor) but both the budget and the directorial vision get in the way of it being told effectively.

Helen Crevel, usually quite reliable in stuff like this, seems a little out of her depth here, and if both she and Philip Ridout offer wooden performances for a specific purpose, it doesn't get over the fact that we have to watch them do this. There's both a 1660s prologue and a final scene set 75 years after the events in the movie which feel like Fowler is just trying to cram in too much content. And to top it all the movie boasts one of those string synth soundtracks which threaten to cloak everything in mournful symphonic washes. Too ambitious, too long, and too inconsequential. The animatronic doll's quite good value though.

The Haunting of Borley Rectory (UK 2019: Dir Steven M. Smith) The subject of the ghosts of Borley Rectory in Essex, and its accompanying church, have fuelled the imagination of writers and filmmakers alike for close on a century now (I remember as a kid devouring the various stories about the history of the place, even though most of the events that inspired the accounts had taken place well over 30 years before I was born). I sometimes wonder whether the Brits see Borley as their own Amityville (albeit a rather Miss Marple version) and want to exploit the legend as much as the US do their own famous haunted house. Anyhow after a quiet period Borley has been back in the news, perhaps prompted by Neil Spring's disappointing 2013 novel 'The Ghost Hunters' (the Borley story was also successfully debunked in Roger Clarke's 2012 book 'A Natural History of Ghosts'). Filmmakers have also risen to the challenge of the Borley story revival. So we've had Andrew Jones' 2015 movie A Haunting at the Rectory and Ashley Thorpe's dreamlike animated account of the story, Borley Rectory. The latest is Steven M. Smith's The Haunting of Borley Rectory (original shooting title just Borley).

Smith's film is set in 1944, a few years after the Rectory had largely burnt to the ground, but when visions of the spectre of a nun were still being witnessed. Zach Clifford is Robert, an American soldier assigned to the UK and stationed in a cottage on the edge of the Rectory ruins, listening for German coded transmissions; he's shell shocked after sustaining an injury while on the front line, and in a bad way. Forming a friendship with Laura, a girl from the village, he learns from her the history of the site. His own visions of the nun seem to be part of an increasingly disassociative state. Eventually, at his wits end, Robert calls back Harry Price, the famous ghost hunter who chronicled the Borley hauntings, to help him. He also meets Marianne Foyster, who previously lived in the Rectory, to whom he becomes close.

I honestly have no idea what Smith was attempting with The Haunting of Borley. It's ruminative at best, turgid if I'm being unkind, and limps on for 90 minutes with little point to it. I was perhaps expecting a different take on the Borley story, but the director manipulates the facts to suit his own ends (Marianne for example was married, but had an affair with the stable boy, and supposedly concocted the haunting to cover up her own 'bumps in the night'). If you know about the Borley story, or indeed if you don't, you'll be equally baffled. A very poor film, which aims for a bucolic dream state but ends up a confusing and uninteresting mess.

Unholy: The Thornton Heath Poltergeist (UK 2015: Dir Anthony M. Winson) Micro budget horror films have a tendency to base themselves wholly or partly on their more respectably financed counterparts to encourage DVD sales, and on paper Unholy is no different; its mid 1970s setting and supernatural themes recall When the Lights Went Out (2012), The Conjuring 2 (2016) and indeed the 2015 TV series which documented the inspiration for the latter movie, The Enfield Haunting.

Unholy reaches back further than Enfield's activities and uses the infamous (in paranormal circles anyway) early 1970s Thornton Heath poltergeist for its story. Unlike the Enfield Poltergeist, neither the parties involved nor the actual address have ever been disclosed in relation to the events in Thorton Heath (a south London suburb), which took place over a period of about nine years during the decade that taste forgot.

Director Anthony M. Winson seems to have capitalised on these vagaries and moved the whole thing up to Nottingham - certainly the location in Unholy looks nothing like London and most of the cast have suspiciously Nottingham/Derby accents.

Newlyweds Margaret and Peter Eastwood (Kellie Goudie and Simon Crudginton, both excellent) move into a modern (and very 1970s looking) home, with great plans for the future. Peter is away on business a lot, and much of the first part of the film shows Margaret going about her daily housekeeping duties. But from an early point Mrs Eastwood feels that something isn't right in the house; she feels watched, doors close by themselves and she hears things that don't chime with her being alone in the property. Neighbour Christine and her daughter clearly know something of the history of the house but keep mum; events soon escalate and before long Peter and Margaret and visiting friends have all experienced unaccountable activity. Things become so bad that they rope in a local medium and psychic - the inevitable seance is organised, which flushes out the demonic presence inhabiting the house - and then the real problems start.

There are several things that elevate Unholy above the run of the mill DTV fodder that I usually cover in the Supermarket Sweep strand. The first is the look of the thing. Winson has gone to great pains to get the feel of the mid 1970s bang on (and I should know: reader I lived through them); the clothes, the layout of the house, and indeed the flat feel of the photography (a skill also achieved in last year's brilliant 60s set film The Devil's Doorway) conjures up a real sense of (albeit relatively recent) history. Kellie Goudie in particular is excellent as Margaret, who convinces as a rather plain, everyday woman who simply wants to keep her house respectable and becomes increasingly violated by knowing she is no longer safe there. For most of Unholy little happens, but Winson does a first rate job of slowly ratcheting up the terror.

The director also does some amazing things with his camera. A very plain semi is turned into a veritable house of horrors with little more than creepy camerawork, a bit of sleight of hand and some subtle CGI shadows. And for those expecting an ending that involves the characters increasing the volume of their screams in place of last act tension, Winson pulls it out of the bag with a final sequence involving some deft modelwork and, to paraphrase the classification warning given to some movies, more than mild peril. Unholy is an excellent film which I would urge you to see.

Monday, 22 April 2019

The Witch - Part1 - The Subversion (2018 South Korea: Dir Hoon-jung Park)

In action director and screenwriter (he wrote the script for I Saw the Devil) Hoon-jung Park's latest movie, a girl escapes from a medical facility and is taken in by a middle aged couple. The girl has no memory and cannot remember her name; the couple call her Koo Ja-yoon. Ten years later Ja-yoon is a bright young woman who excels in her school studies and has a chirpy best friend, Myung-hee, who encourages her to participate in a TV talent show called 'Birth of a Star.' Ja-yoon is so good she automatically goes through to the quarter finals, but she inches ahead of the competition by supposedly performing some magic tricks, which the viewer does not see.

But things aren't all good in her world; her adopted parents are getting older, and her 'mother' has early onset Alzheimers. More worryingly, a threatening young man accosts Ja-yoon on a train, appearing to know her from the past. She's also suffering from increasingly frequent searing headaches, giving her brief glimpses of her supposed lost memories. For it appears that the people in charge of the facility from which Ja-yoon escaped are keen for her to return, but she has one or two tricks up her sleeve which they weren't expecting.

Part 1 of The Witch, which previewed at Glasgow FrightFest earlier this year, may be advertised as mining John Wick and The X Men films for its thrills, but it also has a jolly good plunder of The Matrix, Scanners, The Fury, Hanna and The Girl With All the Gifts. But like his Korean stablemate Chan-wook Park, director Park is known for dark subject matter, so while this film could have been a fairly straightforward superhero(ine) movie, he instead delivers an intense story of revenge which sits at the opposite end of the dramatic spectrum to most of the caped crusader 'universe' movies.

True it has its fair share of cartoonish bad'uns, not least programme director Dr Baek (Min-soo Jo), a woman so relentlessly mean that she should have been provided with her own moustache to twiddle, but the film's overall tightness and economy of storytelling (even at just over two hours) keeps things focused and resists a descent into cliche.

Da-mi Kim delivers an outstanding performance as Ja-yoon, whether playing the shy schoolgirl of the first half or the full on warrior required in the movie's spectacular final sequences, but without ever sacrificing an essential vulnerability rendered by her odd upbringing (the scene when she first turns the tables on her aggressors is truly shocking). The action scenes are superbly choreographed and, in true Asian cinema style, brutal and graphic, but for once the story is kept fairly uncluttered plot wise. The film's title suggests a franchise in the offing, although my understanding is that no sequels are currently planned. That's a shame because I'd be really keen on seeing this story developed further. Pretty good then.

Sunday, 21 April 2019

Goof on the Loose - the Films of Ray Dennis Steckler - Part 2 - the 'Las Vegas' Years

Welcome back to Part 2 of the Ray Dennis Steckler story - you can read Part 1 here.

Sinthia: The Devil's Doll (1970) At the end of Part 1 we left Steckler just after he had completed his gumshoe thriller Body Fever. The following year - 1970 - he wrote and directed his first straight out horror film, Sinthia: The Devil's Doll. Although things aren't quite as simple as that, for Sinthia's sets, again filmed in the director's LA basement, are pretty similar to some of the setups used in Body Fever; many of the actors feature in both films and several of the nightclub shots in his earlier movie are also used in this one - so it's likely that a lot of Sinthia was filmed contemporaneously with Body Fever, maybe as early as 1968 - certainly it sat on the shelf for a while until its US release in June of 1970.

Photographed, co-written and directed by Steckler, this is the first movie where he used an alias he would employ in many later films - and also as occasional nom de porn - Sven Christian (a name he may have in part taken from Sven Johannsen, a character in a film he briefly worked on, also in 1968, called Sappho Darling, directed by Gunnar Steele). Body Fever had included (brief) nudity for the first time in one of his movies, and in the DVD commentary for that flick he hinted that those scenes were included against his better judgement, but because audiences demanded it. As this doesn't seem to square with Ray's oft stated objective to film strictly on his own terms, it can only be explained by his understanding that skin meant bucks in terms of box office - something he was to learn well, but at personal cost. But Body Fever's tone also denoted a move to darker themes which Steckler would pursue throughout most of the rest of his career, in contrast to his earlier, more lighthearted films. It was Texan executive producer Dorothy Sonney who approached Steckler with the idea to make "something weird" with a lot of nudity, and boy did he succeed with Sinthia.

Working from a script by Steckler and his go to guy Herb Robins (who also appears in the film as Lucifer) Sinthia is a dense and often impenetrable work by anyone's standards. Like a case from Freud's notebooks shot through with Kenneth Anger's filmic sensibilities, it's the story of Cynthia Kane, who, as a 12 year old, killed both her parents after witnessing them making love, and burned their house to the ground. Too young to be prosecuted, she grew up into an attractive 20 year old who is plagued with nightmares of her earlier deeds and a pronounced daddy fixation. Under the care of a psychiatrist, Cynthia is encouraged to face her demons and eventually kill herself in a dream state to rid her mind of its terrible persecutions.

Sinthia is unlike anything else that Steckler had made thus far; often maligned for its repetition and slow pace (this is Steckler we're talking about), it exerts a Last Year in Marienbad style hypnotic state in the viewer, and its dream within a dream logic, containing then very fashionable kaleidoscope effects and coloured gels - which would not be out of place in any of the more arty movies of the period - once again shows that Ray (who photographed the thing) knew what he was doing behind the camera.

As Cynthia ("Synthia" in the credits and on the poster), Shula Roan (real name Bonnie Allison) is interesting if limited in range, which is not surprising since she was a Sunday school teacher, not an actress. Introduced to Ray by Ted Roter (better known as Peter Balakoff, although credited as Boris Balakoff in this movie), the director was immediately impressed and, if stories are correct, cast her on the spot (he had been looking at actresses for the character of Cynthia for weeks) - a typically Steckler thing to do. Roan is given some rather ripe lines which would lead to accusations of overacting in a thespian of a higher calibre; as well as her frequent cries of "Daddy! Daddy!!" she's asked to utter dialogue like "Flesh upon flesh; my mother, my father and I" and "The devil is living in my brain!" The scenes of Cynthia's descent into hell ("Go where you will and Lucifer's disciple will reclaim you!") are rather Edward D. Woodian, but Roan does well to carry the movie, in that as a non actress she's in pretty much every scene.

Others in the cast included: Playboy model Diane Webber as 'The Housewife,' who had previously done quite a lot of TV (including an episode of Alfred Hitchock Presents in 1961; maybe that's how she met Steckler?); Brett Zeller, as Carol, who had also starred in Body Fever - and as a keen artist provided the paintings for both movies; and Gary Kent, playing Cynthia's father (another Steckler regular who had appeared in The Thrill Killers and Body Fever).

Sinthia was released in the UK as Where the Devil Toils on a double bill with the hilariously named softcore comedy One Million AC/DC (scripted by one Edward D. Wood Jr, fact fans) at the private Tatler chain of cinemas. It also had a later video release as Teenage She Devil.

Blood Shack aka The Chooper (1970/71) At the beginning of the 1970s, Ray had separated from Carolyn Brandt, moved away from Los Angeles and set up camp in Las Vegas. The reasons for the move, given in various interviews, ranged from not being able to find anywhere to park in California, the smog in the city which affected his allergies, to the need to escape from Hollywood, a place that had always turned its back on the director. I'm also willing to bet that his split from Carolyn had something to do with it - we know that she separated from him - although, as we'll see, the couple were somehow able to separate their personal and professional lives to allow them to keep working together. Whatever the reason, when he relocated to Vegas he was an unknown quantity once again. What we do know is that he opened up a furniture store with Ron Haydock, and was pretty cash strapped. Nevertheless he managed to scrape together $500, rented a remote shack in Death Valley for three months, and started work on a new movie, The Chooper.

The Chooper is a different movie again for Steckler. It's actually a bit of a mess, not helped by having to pad the thing out with extraneous rodeo footage - shot in Pahrump, Nevada - to get the feature up to 70 minutes, which was the minimum running length to ensure theatrical distribution (a shorter version, running at slightly less than an hour and entitled Blood Shack, was also released). Steckler gave himself the pseudonym of Wolgang Schmidt - named after Wolfschmidt vodka that he had been drinking at a party - because, as he explained, no-one wanted to see Ray Dennis Steckler movies!

Working to a sort of script penned by Haydock and Steckler, The Chooper opens, after some stunning ghoulish credits by Larry Fisher, with Brandt in voiceover explaining the origin of the strange ninja type phantom haunting an old barn in the Nevada desert (the explanation - and sadly Fisher's credits - are both dropped in Blood Shack), which is actually the vengeful spirit from an old Indian tribe; an alternative name for the film was The Curse of the Evil Spirit. Brandt plays, well, Carolyn Brandt - that's actually her character name, not a slight on her acting skills - a disenchanted actress who has inherited the barn from a relative and has come out to the desert to get back in touch with nature. Here she meets Daniel (Jason Wayne), a kind of caretaker, who has a side job in getting rid of The Chooper's victims, and Tim (Haydock) who is very insistent that Brandt should sell the barn to him. We see a young girl (Laurel Spring) killed by The Chooper after she dares to stay in the barn on her own - later her boyfriend comes looking for her and he too is offed, shortly followed by a portly sheriff, investigating the disappearance of both - reliable Daniel disposes of the bodies, a service he continues to perform until he too is Choopered. After an awful lot of stomping about (and that rodeo footage) it transpires that Tim is actually the killer, having vowed to do in anyone who sets foot in his beloved barn.

Steckler made The Chooper/Blood Shack in part to prove to himself that, although based in a new part of the US, he was still first and foremost a filmmaker. I also see this as a love letter to Carolyn. She's in pretty much every scene and the camera (and its operator - Steckler himself) seems to almost physicallly yearn for her. Steckler's kids Linda and Laura are both in it, and the scenes where Carolyn interacts with them take on a tragic aspect. Her first person narration of the admittedly rather daft events in Blood Shack is perhaps the film's most compelling feature, and the whole thing has a mournful and at times elegiac quality, enhanced by beautiful footage of the Nevada mountains and the vistas of Death Valley. The film played in one theatre in Denver, Colorado, before finding its real audience on home video.

Steckler reportedly made a serial killer film right after The Chooper called Bloody Jack, with Herb Robins, Carolyn and Ray all appearing in it (the latter as Charlie Smith, reprising his gumshoe role from 1969's Body Fever). Although completed, it has never seen the light of day.

Steckler's Porn Years

By 1971, now firmly ensconced in Las Vegas and with divorce to Brandt imminent, things were clearly tough. Las Vegas opened up new business opportunities for the filmmaker, but The Chooper was the last Steckler movie to get theatrical distribution. It was around this time that he was apparently approached for The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant (whether as director or in front of the camera, I'm not sure), but turned it down.

Ray's move into hard core porn, was, for all we know about him, driven purely by the need to turn a buck; one thing that's obvious about his porn output is that it's in no way enjoyable - the films almost feel like they were made under duress, but their themes also point the way towards his future features. The director always denied his involvement in the adult film world - and indeed became quite hostile to interviewers who tried to raise the subject. However the fact that he used his non porn pseudonyms in the credits of some of these films - not to mention the continued use of Carolyn Brandt in the movies and a re-release of two of them many years later with the sex scenes excised - suggests otherwise.

Steckler started 'soft' - he was director of photography on the 1971 movie Pinocchio (sometimes referred to as The Erotic Adventures of Pinocchio), a first feature directed by Corey Allen who almost exclusively worked in TV before and since the film. Pinocchio had an impressive cast, including Dyanne (Ilsa) Thorne, Monica (The Stewardesses) Gayle, and in uncredited roles Uschi Digard and of course Carolyn Brandt. It was rumoured that a hardcore version of the movie was filmed and then trimmed to obtain wider theatrical distribution later in the 1970s, although this seems unlikely given the cast members involved, unless of course the scenes were inserts. After this there followed a large number of hard core sex films over the next seven years, all filmed under various pseudonyms or with Ray uncredited. Some of these utilised horror themes either to provide a flimsy story element prior to the action, or more integrally to the plot, and show traces of Steckler's DIY imagination.

In 1971 Steckler made three such movies. As Michel J. Rogers, he directed and produced Sacrilege. A witch in plain clothes, Cassandra (adult star Jane Tsentas, who appeared in a few horror themed shorts), brings a bookish young man back to her apartment, and seduces him in witch form. Cassandra has a cat, Lucifer, who transforms into the devil on occasion, much to the annoyance of the bookish man. The same year, as Sven Christian (the pseudonym he'd first tried out as cinematographer in Sinthia: The Devil's Doll and Blood Shack) he directed The Mad Love Life of a Hot Vampire. Carolyn Brandt, credited as Jane Bond, appears at various stages of the film as Elena, wife of Dracula, telling the story of the Count (played by Jim Parker, surprisingly as he was a top rated Las Vegas TV horror host at the time trading under the name 'Vegas Vampire'), who sends his female servants out to seduce male victims and bring back their blood. I can't help thinking that the rather unsavoury scenes of men screaming while the servants bite their dicks off after a hot night of sex may be Steckler's internal two fingers up at the adult film industry. The 50 minute short also features a portly Dr Van Helsing who plans to track Dracula down and kill him with a silver implement that looks suspiciously like a knitting needle. The Count is eventually exposed to the Las Vegas sun and disappears, leaving his hunchback assistant to grieve goofily - this is a film that has Steckler's filmic footprints all over it. Finally in 1971 came (oh stop it) The Horny Vampire, which starred Jerry Delony (an adult actor who would go on to have parts in Ilsa Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheikhs (1976) and Richard Linklater's 1990 movie Slacker) as a vampire, Victor Alexander, on the streets of Las Vegas picking up tips on how to seduce women by reading a book called, er,  '1001 Ways to Seduce Women.'

The next movie of note from this part of Steckler's career is 1973's Peeping Tom. Also known as The Creeper, it was directed by Steckler using his Sven Christian pseudonym again, with the director also providing the narration. A grubby looking guy hangs around the streets of Las Vegas, and spies on different households in various sexual situations. Of note is the first couple he sees, where the man is played by Jason Wayne (Daniel from Blood Shack), part of a couple who trade insults at each other as part of their sexual pleasure. Around this time he also carried out some camera duties for Doris Wishman, shooting all the Las Vegas scene for the infamous Deadly Weapons, starring 'Chesty' Morgan.

1974 was the year which saw Steckler write, produce and direct two films which could be seen as the apotheosis - or nadir depending on your viewpoint - of his adult filmmaking.

The first, Fire Down Below aka Perverted Passions, created under a couple of  pseudonyms - Cindy Lou Sutters and Hans B. Andersen - is important in Steckler's story because it allows us to 'read' his state of mind at this time, particularly as it's also possible that he photographed it under the fake Andersen name; it was pretty much all his movie.

We are first introduced to an unnamed man (Will Long, also in The Mad Love Life of a Hot Vampire, who according to one source, died during the filming of the movie), recently released from a mental institution, who is driving the streets of downtown LA looking for women. The movie's first narrator is the guy's probation officer who tells us that this "ordinary guy," as he's described, is out in the community because of dumb ass Americans who voted to cut Government spending and thus reduce resources to keep people locked up. The camera moves from documenting the sleaze holes of the city to showing us the guy's peeping tom activities, but the officer's narration suggests that peeping is only the tip of his weird iceberg. The next voice we hear is the man himself (unmistakably voiced by Steckler, who's expletive ridden monologues are quite a surprise for those who have viewed him as a genial family guy). The camera follows the man as he progresses from watching others to procuring the services of a prostitute. In one of the least glamorous sequences of any of Steckler's movies we watch as, naked, overweight and very sweaty, he's fellated by a prostitute before strangling her, while the probation officer returns to inform the audience that many of the man's problems stem from the small size of his penis. This leads to more strangulations, including a brief sequence where Carolyn Brandt falls victim to the murderer's hands.

Steckler introduces a second recidivist into the movie. Another unnamed guy who - the probation officer informs us - has sprung from prison, for the same fiscal reasons as the first guy. This bloke is merely a robber though - he doesn't seem interested in sex - but he sure loves to ride around on motorbikes. It's only a matter of time before the two criminals run into one another, with guy one being shot by guy two who promptly rides off into the desert, before falling off his chopper and presumably dying on the process. This final confrontation scene will be a hallmark of Steckler's future output.

There is something about the combination of ugly sex, the shots of LA theatres playing XXX double bills, and the sweaty criminals, which tells me that Steckler was in a very dark place. His voiceover of Long's character seems authentically troubled and angry, and footage of the strangler killing his ex wife...well it's just too Freudian for words.

As a postscript to this, Steckler re-cut Fire Down Below in 2003, removing all of the hardcore shots, bringing it down to a 30 minute short, retitled Faces of Evil. Not only did this action pretty much confirm that Steckler was the man behind these adult films, but also that he was keen to distance himself from the sex part of the film, while still seeing value in the violence/social commentary elements.

The second movie of 1974 was directed under another pseudonym. One 'Sven Hellstrom' was responsible for The Sexorcist aka The Sexorcist's Devil aka Undressed to Kill (a later release, timed to cash in on the success of Dressed to Kill, with the director now credited as Max Miller). This movie, which also runs about an hour, was narrated by and stars Carolyn Brandt (credited as Eva Gaulant) as freelance reporter Janice Lightning. Recently separated from her husband, but still wearing her wedding ring ("I just can't get him out of my mind," she explains), she's writing an article on Professor Ernest Von Kleinsmidt who has discovered a parchment in a swamp, which when translated and read aloud brings back the devil's disciple, Volta. Volta seduces prostitute Diane (Janice's roommate) and, now under his spell, takes the life of a client, her pimp and finally her friend Janice. Von Kleinsmidt comes to the rescue, after having worked out the evil that he had unwittingly unleashed, but evil triumphs when Diane stabs him too. Turns out that the devil commanded his disciple to get Von Kleinsmidt out of the way. Mission accomplished, the now free Volta walks back into the swamp, ready to do the devil's bidding.

About half of this movie is the usual hardcore action (although Diane is the only woman involved) but it's interesting firstly because it's probably Steckler's bloodiest film - the knife attacks aren't realistic but there's no shortage of the red stuff - and secondly, aside from the sex scenes, this is probably one of his most straightforward horror movies. It is Brandt that takes the front seat here though - she gets more screen time than in any other of his films, and the line about Lightning continuing to wear her wedding ring has a note of sadness that may just have reflected their off screen relationship.

Red Heat (1976) Again made under the Cindy Lou Sutters/Hans B Andersen monikers, here's another film which develops themes that Steckler would return to in his next 'mainstream' features. Narrated by Carolyn Brandt, who confusingly credits herself as being adult filmmaker Sutters, and tells audiences that she and her horny cameraman came from LA to Las Vegas to shoot raunchy films. Following a similar pattern to 1974's Fire Down Below - perhaps even a sequel - Red Heat's title is the name given by Brandt (as Sutters) to a red-headed model called Mary (Lovey Goldmine, a former Las Vegas burlesque dancer), who she fancies would do well in porn films. But Red has different plans; starting with knifing her two timing violent boyfriend in the shower, then roaming the streets of Las Vegas looking for victims. Interestingly Mary doesn't have sex with any of the men she kills, seducing them with the possibility of going all the way before stabbing them - again, all rather Freudian. Red Heat's other storyline follows a bike riding gun toting hoodlum who robs from people and shops, seemingly without a care in the world. The biker is almost exactly the same as the one in Fire Down Below - could these movies have been made at the same time? Brandt's laconic voice over offers no judgement - that's saved for the end when Red and the biker briefly get together before they're killed by a drunk truck driver who takes his eyes off the road; crime does not pay, suggests Sutters/Steckler.

The other plus of this movie is the extensive footage of the streets of Las Vegas, a mid 1970s celluloid time capsule. If our eyes are to be believed everyone was playing on the Strip at the time of filming, from Joan Rivers, through to Frank Sinatra Jr, Tina Turner and Village People! But what makes this film really interesting is Brandt's voice over. It's quite plausible that Stecker and Brandt's marriage ended because of their financial hard times and the director's move into the porn market, but here's Carolyn providing an ongoing narration to the on screen activities that leaves very little to the imagination, and has you wondering just how much involvement Brandt (who frequently narrated his porn output) had in Steckler's adult works?

Like Fire Down Below before it, Steckler re-cut Red Heat as Slashed... in 2003, removing the hardcore elements, reducing it to a half hour movie.

The Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher (1979). We now fast forward to 1979. By this point Steckler had behind him some twenty odd porn features and shorts, and it was time time to return to mainstream film making - well mainstream for Steckler anyhow. In interview Steckler said about this movie; "I just wanted to make an unusual, silent film." The flick could be seen as the third in the quadrilogy of 'Las Vegas killer' films from the director, starting with Fire Down Below and continuing with Red Heat. In some ways this is one of Steckler's most straightforward movies. Johnathan Click (named after Mad Dog Click in The Thrill Killers perhaps?) is The Hollywood Strangler, and that's pretty much all he does; identifying young models to throttle, either finding them through ads in sex newspapers or picking them up on the street. Click seemingly isn't able to have sex with these women, but is clearly aroused by act of killing them.

The Strangler himself is played by Pierre Agostini, originally from Brazil, who renewed a 10 year friendship with Steckler when they were both selected - and then turned down - for jury service in 1979. Agostini, whose previous acting roles had included a serial rapist and a hunchback, had also been in Red Heat as Mary's violent boyfriend; while he, like everyone else in the film speaks no lines (Steckler once again recording on his trusty non sound Bolex) his subconscious thoughts are heard in the movie as he goes about his strangling business; and interestingly it's Steckler's voice, not Agostini's. The only thing we know about Click is that a woman called Marsha once seriously did him wrong, and he's out for random revenge

Click sets his sights on a red haired woman who owns a local bookstore. Little does he know that she is in fact the Skid Row Slasher (Carolyn Brandt), a woman who stalks and kills winos (Steckler was presumably originally going to leave the audience guessing as to the identity of the killer but then blows it as he can't stop filming his ex wife). Eventually of course Strangler and Slasher meet, and the mutual destruction is assured. One vaguely interesting fact is that Brandt's character gradually changes her look as the film progresses and her kills mount, from rather downbeat shop worker at the beginning to full on long legged vamp at the end - who says that crime doesn't pay?

Filmed in various Las Vegas locations (including Steckler's own home) and using his home turf of Hollywood for some of the exteriors, the movie features the usual shots of LA and Vegas streets, with accompanying sleazy and easy stock music. There's more nudity than in any of Steckler's previous non porn movies - including a topless roller disco sequence - but as mentioned before a decided slide into misogyny which one can only suppose resulted as a psychological effect of the porn years. As a suitable location backdrop, some scenes are filmed outside Las Vegas's legendary 'Flick' cinema, which reputedly showed Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones continually for ten years. Steckler tried to get theatrical distribution for his movie (he even paid to have it blown up to 35mm) but couldn't create any interest.

In 1986 Steckler got married again - to Katherine, and had two daughters with her; Morgan (named after his producer and friend George Morgan) and Bailey. At this time Ray was also Professor of Film at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, and taught there for a number of years, before leaving following a disagreement. In the same year he landed a rare late acting role as a college professor in Dale Trevillion's comedy movie Las Vegas Weekend, rather a lost movie. A year later he started work on a movie called Angel of Vengeance, but was apparently sacked as director after three days of filming by producer Jeffrey C Hogue, in a dispute with the legendary Ted V. Mikels who was serving as Director of Photography on the project. Mikels was Ray's friend, and although Steckler is uncredited in the film, two of the characters wear T Shirts sporting the 'The Thrill Killers' logo - which is probably Ted's way of saying sorry to Ray for what happened.

Las Vegas Serial Killer (1986) After a further 14 or so porn shorts and features, Steckler would return to the Johnathan Click character for his next 'mainstream' film. Now credited as Johnathan Glick, Pierre Agostini reprises his role as the wandering murderer. At the end of The Hollywood Strangler... it seemed that Click had met his end at the hand of the Skid Row Slasher. But in a move redolent of those 1940s serials so beloved by Steckler, it turns out this was a cliffhanger ending; Click/Glick is alive and well, having just been paroled from a life sentence because the prosecutors could only found evidence of one of his supposed seven murders. Huh?

So while Johnathan returns to the mean and murky streets of Las Vegas, two other hoodlums are headed to the same city. They are Clarence (played by Ron Jason, who according to Steckler, in a story more apocryphal than truthful, he had met when Jason came to fix his air conditioning) and Jack (ex policeman Chris Cave). These two ne'er-do-wells are basically muggers, preying on the unsuspecting citizens of Sin City.

Johnathan's first victim is a guest at a celebrity party thrown for the actor Cash Flagg (Steckler's alter ego, although he doesn't appear in the film). She's played by Linda Savage, who would go on to co-run Mascot Video with Ray. From there on in the body count rises, as the newly dubbed Las Vegas Serial Killer works his way through Vegas's lowest rent models and showgirls. Initially gaining access to homes via a job as a pizza delivery man, he steals a camera from one of his victims which enables him to resume his previous method of murder, inviting young girls to photo shoots then strangling them.

It's inevitable that the Strangler and Clarence and Jack will run into each other; their first almost meeting is one of the high points of the film; our hoodlums hold up an executive in his office, steal his money and abduct his secretary, locking her in the boot of his car so she can't blab. Along comes Johnathan, hears the noise of someone locked in a car, opens the boot and strangles the secretary!

Steckler's film has interest value mainly for the extensive street shots of a now largely vanished Las Vegas, filmed when the city was less dense and populated than it is now. Unfortunately the movie is bogged down by some more rodeo footage, lengthy scenes from the Eldorado street parade and a vintage airplane show. Eventually the hoodlums and the Strangler meet - when he gets in the way of one of their robberies and is gunned down as a result - and there is almost an air of Greek tragedy in the inevitability of the confrontation; something shared with Steckler's previous Las Vegas features. The final shot shows Clarence and Jack discarding the murder weapon in a dumpster, only for the pistol to be retrieved by two passing kids, who hold the weapon covetously. Could they grow up to be criminals of the future, poses Steckler?

As well as using the usual Sven Christian/Wolfgang Schmidt pseudonyms, another credit on the film proudly announces Ray's new wife Katherine as producer (she also appears in the movie and does some of the voice over duties). While this suggests that Brandt was now out of the picture, literally and metaphorically, Carolyn would continue to work with Steckler; she narrated three more pornos although remained uncredited on all of them, before retiring from the business altogether in 1983 and rediscovering her first love of dancing. In 1994 Steckler made Carolyn Brandt: Queen of Cult, a 60 minute documentary celebrating his ex wife's career.

Steckler started a third 'Strangler' film with Agostini, possibly to be called 'The Return of the Hollywood Strangler,' but abandoned it less than halfway through as Pierre's heart wasn't in it - presumably he went back to his drywall business. A fourth and fifth were planned but uncompleted;  'The Son of the Hollywood Strangler' and 'The Las Vegas Thrill Killers,' which utilised some of the cast from The Las Vegas Serial Killer.

In the 1980s Steckler also opened Mascot Video, acquiring two stores in Las Vegas, which he used as a base for selling his movies (the shops were named after one of his favourite movie companies). It became a bit of a haunt for fans (and also one of the only places to actually pick up Steckler movies and memorabilia) before he sold it on in 1995. Steckler continued to sell his movies on line until his death, along with taped compilations of actresses and dancers, often nude, culled from audition footage.

As the years wore on Steckler's output diminished. He appeared (uncredited) in another Ted V. Mikels film, Dimension in Fear (1997), which starred Ron Jason. The same year he made the little seen Summer of Fun. Apparently the idea for this movie dated back to the 1960s, when Ray and Ron Haydock came up with the idea of a film featuring two detective characters called 'Flip' and 'Flop.' The detective element was ditched but the character names remained in the movie, a 62 minute silent family film shot around Lake Tahoe, which looked back to the more innocent years of Rat Pfink A Boo Boo and The Lemon Grove Kids, but which very few have actually seen. The cast, assembled by his long time friend and associate Herb Robins, included the then Miss Mississippi, later to make the finals of Miss America as well as his daughter Bailey (drafted in at the last minute while on vacation in the area when the lead cast for the part walked shortly before shooting was due to start).

If Summer Fun is hard to see, then his next movie Long Road Home, 'made' in 2005, is impossible, if it even exists (in fact the only reference I can find to it is a mention in Anthony Curtis's 'Las Vegas Adviser' website, where the film is described as a 'wholesome opus' about 'a couple of old-timers trying to find their way in life.' And on YouTube, credited two years after (2007) there are some shots from a supposed eight part series called Reading, Pennsylvania, a documentary where Steckler interviews people from his past in his home town. In one interview Steckler had also talked about making a forty years on sequel to The Thrill Killers, where Mad Dog Click retires to Reading, but encounters a cop, a relative of one of Click's victims, who wants to frame him for murder. But that one never came to light.

In 2007 Steckler got his final acting credit, as 'The Voice' in a short film Hooligan's Valley, which went on to be included in a feature length collection of shorts called Visions of Horror. Hooligan's Valley was summarised by one critic as featuring "a town chock-full of odd characters and bizarre creatures. Itchy and Lobo must save Kitty from the evil Primo. The story unfolds like an old film noir movie, but one gleefully brimming with clowns, wrestlers, zombies, pirates, and alligator people."

One More Time aka The Incredibly Strange Creatures 2 (2008) Steckler's last film, made just a year before his death, was described by the director as an 'extension' of his first major work, Incredibly Strange Creatures... Despite its rather disjointed story, thrown together approach and threadbare budget (it was filmed using two Digital 8 cameras on a budget of $3,800) it's a poignant film, which in looking back at Ray's most famous work, offers a typically idiosyncratic farewell letter to moviemaking.

Steckler returns to the role of Jerry from Incredibly Strange Creatures... (credited as Cash Flagg, natch). Now 70, Jerry has been having dreams (flashbacks?) which allow him to utilise large chunks of the original film. He confides in a psychiatrist (John G. Waite), who seems to know all about the characters in Incredibly Strange Creatures... and the threat that they may pose to Jerry. Jerry visits a psychic who gives him a tarot reading but also hypnotises him, returning him to the murderous state that was his undoing in the 1964 movie. After a killing spree, Jerry is seated in a pizza restaurant where he's visited by a young woman - Natasha - who is the granddaughter of Marge Nielsen (killed by Jerry in the original movie) and revenges her mother's death by stabbing Jerry.

But then another Natasha turns up, excited about being cast in the remake of Incredibly Strange Creatures... She even thinks that Nicolas Cage would make a good Jerry (an in joke about their facial similarity). So it appears that the flashbacks may have been a fantasy in Ray's brain as he struggles to get the money together for a remake of the 1964 movie.

There's something terribly sad about One More Time, almost as if Steckler knew he wasn't long for this world, and wanted to revisit a happier time. The scenes of an older and out of breath Steckler walking around a Californian funfair, similar to those of his youth, are very poignant. Rockabilly band 'The A Bones' provide a soundtrack which utilises songs associated with Steckler's career, including the Frank Zappa penned theme from The World's Greatest Sinner and Ron Haydock's 'You're a Rat Pfink' from Rat Pfink a Boo Boo. The inclusion of Haydock's 'I Stand Alone' from Rat Pfink takes on a new poignancy watching Ray walking, looking a little lost, while a younger generation enjoy the fair, seemingly without a care in the world.

But perhaps the most touching scene comes towards the end of the movie. Ray has been trying to raise funds for his film, and although a friend has offered him $500, he feels that a trip to Las Vegas with some of his family may provide the project with additional funds he requires. What happens is that, in a piece of unstaged footage, his family wins big on the slot machines to the tune of $5,000. There's no question that the money will be used to give the Stecklers a great Christmas, but if Ray had only been given the funds he could have delivered his remake.

Ray Dennis Steckler, in the final frame of his final film,
One More Time
Ray Dennis Steckler died of cardiac arrest  at the age of 70 after battling heart disease for over 10 years. He is buried in Palm Memorial Park, Las Vegas, Clark County Nevada.

One of Ray's many unrealised projects was a video documentary series on the cast of the B western movies of the 1930s and 1940s. Ray was endlessly fascinated with the directors and actors who made and featured in these low budget quickies. In an interview with 'Cult Movies & Video' magazine, Steckler referred to one of these, Nat Levine, producer at Mascot Pictures, who made over 100 movies between 1921 and 1946. "He worked out of his pocket," explained Steckler. "What made...Levine what he was at Mascot was being an independent. Whatever he had, he knew how to make use of it...everything he did was one of a kind, good, bad or indifferent.The thing is there's a certain magic to all of them...I think a lot of my little movies have that. They'll just keep going on and on and on."

Rest in Peace Ray.