The Skull

The Skull (Freddie Francis, 1965)

 

Amicus Productions–the infamous Hammer rival and nicknamed the “studio that dripped blood”–churned out a raft of above-average horror films during the sixties and seventies, hitting their stride with DOCTOR TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS. An enormously entertaining portmanteau film, DOCTOR TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS would serve as a blueprint to what would become a successful formula for Amicus, with many other anthology films following in the decade to come.

 

Though synonymous with the portmanteau film, Amicus were also responsible for making many a conventional horror film and it must be said, most are lacking the punch of their anthology counterparts, and this is certainly the case with Freddie Francis’ 1965 effort, THE SKULL, which has just been released on Region 1 DVD by Legend Films.

THE SKULL—based on the novel by PSYCHO author Robert Bloch—concerns one Christopher Maitland, collector of all things sinister and macabre who, through an unscrupulous dealer, is offered the skull of the Marquis de Sade. Though declining a potential purchase, Maitland becomes obsessed with infamous Frenchman’s former brain vessel and it’s not long before he is becoming consumed by it, despite being warned by its previous owner, Sir Matthew Phillips (Christopher Lee). Phillips had been overcome by the skull’s otherworldly power but managed to escape its hold after realising evil spirits were harnessing its energy on the first two nights of each new moon. But is it too late for Maitland? Will he manage to resist the heinous artefact once and for all, or will he—like many others before him—succumb to it completely?

So begins THE SKULL, which starts promisingly enough but is soon diluted into a whole that is ultimately unsatisfying. Watching the film, one cannot help but think the film would have worked so much better as a component of one of Amicus’ anthology films, rather than a full length feature. Even though it clocks in at a brisk 83 minutes, the film feels very protracted and padded, with the writers merely going through the motions to sustain a feature running time.

If you can overcome any initial disappointment—and let’s face it, some of Amicus’ other forays into horror are a high benchmark for comparison—there’s still plenty to enjoy and admire. Cushing is wonderful and Christopher Lee adds plenty of prestige to a role that is little more than a cameo. Though Francis’ direction is a little more languid than it is at best—and again this adds yet more weight to my argument—he certainly gets the most out of his cinematographer, John Wilcox, who manages to achieve some truly remarkable and visually arresting compositions. The interior of Maitland’s home, particularly his mauve hallway, and a set-piece involving a death and some stained glass serves as a glimpse to the future world of Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA, a film that would be made some eleven years later.

Legend Films has done a stellar job of creating a pleasing transfer for THE SKULL’s worldwide premiere outing on DVD. The film is framed in anamorphic widescreen, preserving the original 2.35:1 Techniscope ratio. The image is very solid, though there is some grain evident in darker scenes. The films mono soundtrack is also solid and the package comes complete with the film’s original theatrical trailer.

 

Gripes aside, THE SKULL is a pleasing enough addition to the British horror canon but should be judged on its own merits, rather being compared to the genre’s best. This is the first of the discs from a catalogue of titles Legend Films has licenced from Paramount Pictures and it must be said that its presentation bodes well for the rest of them.

(Paul Alaoui)

 

The Deadly Bees

The Deadly Bees (Freddie Francis, 1967)

After collapsing with exhaustion during a music promo shoot, comely pop star Vicki Robbins (the gorgeous Suzanna Leigh) is advised by her doctor to take time out to relax, recommending she spend some recovery time on the secluded Seagull Island, with his friend, Ralph Hargrove (Guy Doleman), a local beekeeper. Arriving on the island, Vicki soon settles in and it isn’t long before she strikes up a friendship with another beekeeper, H.W. Manfred (Frank Finlay) whose calm demeanour is the antithesis of that of the uptight and edgy Hargrove, who spends much of his time verbally sparring with his overbearing Wife, Mary (Catherine Finn). However, the serenity of Vicki’s break is suddenly superseded by anarchy when a swarm of genetically-enhanced bees begin to claim victims; the first of which is Mary’s beloved pet dog; a nosey pooch with “he’ll be the first” written all over him, and it’s not long before the insane insects are stalking human prey…

Directed by Genre veteran Freddie Francis, written by Robert Bloch and hailing from Britain’s “studio that dripped blood”, Amicus Productions (the three of which had previously collaborated on THE SKULL and the excellent portmanteau flick TORTURE GARDEN), THE DEADLY BEES certainly has a pedigree of what would be considered by most genre fans to be sterling credentials, and the former cinematographer certainly orchestrates some nice visuals, fully utilising the secluded island for all its cinematic worth. However, the film suffers from poor writing and characterisation, and it really doesn’t take the brain of Britain to deduce where its surprises are coming from. That said, most genre fans don’t watch horror films for heartfelt performances and Dylan Thomasesque prose; at the end of the day it’s all about the set-pieces, and it is here that the film falls down further. Considering the premise plants the film firmly into the “creature feature” subgenre, one would expect an emphasis on the fear and dread that said creatures create. What we witness is something more akin to comedy than that of horror, with poorly superimposed bees hovering over the surface of the print. The bees were clearly added in post production, and Francis and co made no effort to marry the footage of the actors with the fake foes.

For all its bad points, THE DEADLY BEES remains eminently watchable, probably because it ventures straight into the middle of “so bad it’s actually rather good” territory. Once you come to terms with the fact that the film cannot be read as a serious attempt at fright filmmaking, there’s a lot of fun to be had from its woefully misconceived elements, not least from the hilarity that the bees inspire. With all said and done, most genre fans will want to revisit Francis’ film as it is a thoroughly enjoyable piece, even if it isn’t for the reasons that its makers intended.

The DVD itself is excellent and represents another in a line of releases issued by Legend Films in a licencing deal with Paramount Pictures (which also includes THE SKULL). The film is presented in its original ratio: 1.85:1 and is enhanced for widescreen televisions. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting great things from this disc, as it was the first of Legend’s releases that I viewed upscaled to 1080p on my 46″ TV, but I can categorically state that the image is excellent throughout. Though lacking the depth of field found on HD releases, this standard definition disc does an amazing job, with detail consistently sharp throughout. The close-ups on actors’ faces are marvellous, revealing a level of detail that is exemplary. The colour palette is a little muted, though this is to be expected of a film shot in the sixties and is not a fault of the DVD transfer. The original mono soundtrack is served well by the disc, with dialogue, sound effects and music score clear throughout.

While THE DEADLY BEES falls massively short of ‘horror classic’ status, it’s camp enough to sustain multiple viewings and probably best seen with a bunch of like-minded folk and plenty of beer. The disc itself is another fine example of Legend Film’s commitment providing the highest quality transfers for their catalogue releases. If you’re a fan of the film or goofy sixties’ kitsch, buying this disc is a definite no-brainer.               (Paul Alaoui)

THE DEADLY BEES is sold exclusively through Best Buy’s website and is unattainable to those outside the US. It is recommended that those looking to purchase the disc should keep an eye on eBay and Amazon Marketplace.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Karel Reisz, 1960)

SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING is a landmark in British cinema: a film that almost singlehandedly kick-started the subgenre of films that was affectionately dubbed ‘kitchen sink’, launched the career of Albert Finney (UNDER THE VOLCANO) and became the quintessential film concerning Britain’s disaffected youth. Though some would argue that LOOK BACK IN ANGER (directed by this film’s producer, Tony Richardson) was similar in its depiction of a disillusioned young man, and pre-dates Karel Reisz’s film by two years, it is SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING that set the formula for many other films to follow. Adapted from Alan Sillitoe’s novel by the author himself and directed by Reisz—marking his feature film directorial debut—the film’s central concerns are as relevant and poignant now as they were upon its release almost 50 years ago. It’s also worth pointing out how similar, both in structure and the themes it explores, Reisz’s film is to Lewis Gilbert’s ALFIE, which was adapted from Bill Naughton’s play six years after SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING. In fact, Gilbert’s film comes dangerously close to plagiarising Sillitoe’s novel, though its studio “sheen” and loveable rogue are no match for Reisz’s grittier drama.

Albert Finney plays Arthur, a twentysomething factory worker who has no grasp of responsibility. Living at home with his parents, Arthur lives his life on a day-by-day basis: his existence revolves entirely around spending his earnings in the pub and knocking off the wife of one of his co-workers, with no concern for the consequences of his actions. Fate has a habit if intervening at the most inopportune times though, and just as Arthur strikes up what could be a meaningful courtship with the wholesome Doreen (Shirley Ann Field – who would later star opposite Michael Caine in ALFIE, making her yet another element common to both films), Brenda reveals that she is pregnant with his child.

SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING is an extremely astute slice of life, boasting well-written dialogue that is brilliantly realised by a strong cast. Kudos to Sillitoe and Reisz for creating a scenario that remains believable now, half a century on: one can imagine just how controversial the film was at time of its release. What’s more, and contrary to other films made at the time, the filmmakers never shied away from thorny issues such as adultery and abortion, which resulted in the film being slapped with an ‘X’ rating when it was submitted to the BBFC in July 1960. However, the film was given a ‘PG’ rating when it was classified for video in 1990, which goes to show how times have changed. Such issues are handled both delicately and in a believable manner, a far cry from the sensationalist melodrama that’s associated with films made in during the latter half of the 50s and early 60s. At a brisk 85 minutes, the film is very slick and is never meanders in the way many other ‘kitchen sink’ films do. This can be attributed to both Sillitoe’s punchy script (though his original novel was as equally fast-moving) and Reisz’s taught direction. Freddie Francis’ stark monochrome photography is suitably sumptuous too, capturing the downtrodden streets of working class Nottingham with the same panache he would lend to the Hammer productions for which he made his name. It is also to the film’s benefit that it was filmed in Sillitoe’s native Nottingham and that they resisted the easy option of relocating the events to London where the majority of ‘kitchen sink’ films would be set.

The soon-to-be-released Blu-ray (also available on a remastered DVD the same day – 23rd March) is the best the film has looked on home video. The painstaking restoration and high definition transfer has paid dividends in that the picture quality is exemplary. There are still a few scratches here and there and a little grain can be seen in darker scenes but the level of detail in the image is unbelievable, lending an almost three dimensional look. The sound is presented in mono and is fine, clear of distortion and hiss, and the best one would expect for a film from this era. Though the additional features aren’t plentiful, they’re certainly worthy and a concentration of quality is far better than having oodles of filler. Kicking things off is an illuminating commentary that features Sillitoe, Francis and film historian Robert Murphy. Also included are a booklet and interviews with Shirley Ann Field and Albert Finney. Of most interest to Reisz completists though is the director’s documentary WE ARE THE LAMBETH BOYS. Made a year before SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING, the film focuses on a London youth club. All the extras are also present on the upcoming DVD rerelease too.

A classic of British cinema has now become an essential Blu-ray. The BFI has done a fine job of readying it for its high definition debut and the film’s black and white photography has never looked so stunning. The disc features some insightful and thoughtful special features making this a no-brainer for any self-respecting Brit film collector.

(Paul Alaoui)

 

Tales that Witness Madness Coming to Blu-ray and DVD this June

Olive Films continues to unveil the fruits from its deal with Paramount this June when it releases Freddie Francis’s long lost horror anthology TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS on DVD and Blu-ray.

Olive has been steadily releasing Paramount titles for the best part of a year already, with many coming to disc for the first time.  Previously released titles include Brian Gibson’s BREAKING GLASS, Robert Duvall tough cop drama BADGE 373 and blaxploitation thriller HIT. Olive is also releasing Bernardo Bertollucci’s epic drama 1900 (Novecento) in May.

TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS was made in 1973 at the height of the British film industry’s compulsion to make portmanteau horror films. The film stars Kim Novak, Joan Collins, Donald Pleasence, Suzy Kendall and Jack Hawkins. The forthcoming Olive Films release marks the film’s world premiere on DVD and Blu-ray. It was previously released to the UK VHS rental market by Rank Video in the early 1980s.

The DVD and Blu-ray debut 26th June. The disc specifications have yet to be announced but it’s worth pointing out that Olive’s previous Blu-ray discs have not been region-locked..