Chernobyl • Romance • Cujo • Saint Bernard • Voodoo Man • Used Cars • The Running Man • Nightfall • Night Killer • Robowar
There are just too many films being released that – for one reason or another – are of possible interest to Reprobate readers. So welcome to our new monthly(ish) roundup of recent and forthcoming releases on disc in the UK and US.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you are probably aware of Chernobyl, the sort of event TV that has everyone chattering. Given that it was broadcast by Sky, however, you might not have actually seen it. Thankfully, it is now out on disc, and should you be wondering if it lives up to the hype or is yet another TV show that has the chattering classes gushing but actually turns out to be a load of rubbish, let me reassure you – this is probably the best thing made for television since the third season of Twin Peaks.
Bases, of course, on the nuclear power plant explosion in the then USSR in 1986, this is a dramatic and angry look at what caused the disaster, the sense of denial and then cover up that followed, and the heroic efforts to both deal with the immediate aftermath (when firefighters were unwittingly sent into a highly radioactive situation) and then shut down the plant before its poisonous output destroyed much of Europe. Over five episodes, the story plays out as a mix of political thriller and disaster movie, as scientists led by Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) try to work out how to stop the situation from getting worse while dealing the Soviet bureaucracy and obsessive secrecy. It’s no surprise that Russian nationalists have hated this, as it exposes both the crumbling infrastructure of the Soviet Union and the way it was more concerned about its image as a global power than in actually dealing with the disaster. Stellan Skarsgård plays Boris Shcheringa, the Soviet Deputy Prime Minister who is made to finally see the true horror unfolding and help deal with it, even if it means letting the rest of the world know what has happened.
The series sometimes plays fast and loose with facts, and the fictional scientist character played by Emily Watson seems to have been grafted on to the story to give a female presence beyond the victims, but there is no doubting the wider authentic and righteous fury behind this story, which has more emotional pulls, moments of genuine horror and continual tension than you’ll see anywhere else. Jonas Renck directs with a sensitivity and restraint that allows the story to unfold slowly and terrifyingly, and the sense of despair and selfless heroism shown by those tasked with closing down the reactor is handled with sensitivity, never allowing things to become mawkish. It’s an extraordinary, powerful and breathtaking work that you can barely credit as coming from the same writer – Craig Mazin – as the Hangover film sequels. Your must-have purchase of the month, without question.
Catherine Breillat’s Romance appeared at an interesting time, in 1999 when arthouse filmmakers were just starting to play with the idea of explicit, unstimulated sex scenes in non-porn films. The film passed the British censors at the point when porn films with similar levels of explicitness were still being cut (this was in the middle of the legal battles over R18) and represented some sort of social change; now, of course, these films seem equally unthinkable, as they would be condemned as exploitative in a post #metoo world where filmmakers have to have ‘intimacy co-ordinators’ on set even for the tamest of love scenes.
Like many an arthouse film with explicit scenes, Romance is almost antiseptic in its lack of eroticism for the most part – it’s the story of a woman (played with some bravery by Caroline Ducey) who, frustrated with her boyfriend’s disinterest in sex sets out to find a series of lovers, and there’s a deliberate sense of dissatisfaction even in the most passionate encounters. this is sex without love and love without sex (though what she sees in her shallow and self-absorbed boyfriend is anyone’s guess), and even Ducey’s character seems empty and egotistical. The sexual encounters run from a brief fling with Rocco Siffredi (who provides most of the erections on screen and also – perhaps by instinct – delivers the most passionately believable sex scene) to bondage (shown, thankfully, as normal and not abusive), and although the film is perhaps not quite as graphic as you may have been led to believe, there’s certainly no holding back (this edition includes the cum shot perviously cut by the British censors, who have decided that this is not a ‘sex work’ and so safe for release). It is, of course, very French in the combination of eroticism and ennui, but it’s also an impressive drama – a little too long, perhaps, but artfully shot and well acted by all concerned. An American or British version of this story would probably have Ducey’s character come to a sticky end as punishment for her infidelity and promiscuity; thankfully, there’s no moral square-up moment here beyond a baby birth that is arguably the most graphic moment of this essential film.
My memories of Cujo, from back when it first came out, were not great – I recall a not-especially scary dog in what felt like another disposable 1980s Stephen King adaptation, made when throwaway King adaptations of his bloated and cocaine-driven novels were ten a penny – Children of the Corn, Firestarter and his own appallingly bad Maximum Overdrive were just a few from that period. But time has been kind to the film, and while I’m still not sure it is the classic that Eighties nostalgists would have you believe, it’s a pretty solid affair that certainly had Mrs Reprobate on the edge of her seat.
It’s got a lot of typical King stuff, which isn’t always a good thing – a couple whose marriage is on the skids, grubby rednecks (King seems both fascinated and repulsed by the working class) and a kid who doesn’t seem to have many friends. In this case, it’s Dee Wallace and Vic Trenton having marital issues, while their kid befriends a St Bernard belonging to their mechanic. But when the dog, Cujo, is bitten by a rabid bat (it makes sense in the film), he becomes a slavering beast, and once Wallace’s car breaks down near the mechanic’s home – with her asthmatic child inside with her – all hell breaks loose as the psycho hound tries to get at them. It does take a while to get to this part of the film, but once it kicks in, it’s fairly gripping stuff and doesn’t really let up for a second, and while St Bernard’s are not, perhaps, the dog of choice when casting Hell Hounds, it does a decent job of making Cujo suitably threatening. I’d argue that director Lewis Teague did a better job with his feline King adaptation Cat’s Eye, but all in all, this is a pretty decent horror movie – and one that feels less disposable than much late Eighties genre stuff.
Saint Bernard, on the other hand, is not about a killer dog, though it does feature a St Bernard – or at least the severed head of a St Bernard. It’s carried around in a sack by white suited Bernard (Jason Dugre), a classical conductor who is having a very bad time. There’s probably not much else to say about just what Game Bartalos’ film is about, as it moves from sequence to sequence without having any sense of coherent narrative. It feels more like a series of nightmare situations strung together, and some are more effectively weird and freaky than others. They involve strange looking monsters (Bartalos was an FX man before becoming a director), oddball priests, police stations full of beer bottles, the seductively threatening Miss Roadkill, mutilation, angry legless men, chickens on parachutes, stick figures made of hair, a brief performance by The Damned, Warwick Davies and a lot of blood.
What all this means is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it means nothing. Dugre’s character is the confused innocent who wanders from moment to moment without any sense on understanding, which I guess makes him a surrogate for the viewer. I don’t think that there is any particular meaning at work here, and I don’t think Bartalos is exploring the human condition or trying to put across any sort of message here – it just seems like a trippy, dreamlike journey that makes as much sense as most dreams – namely, none at all. But is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. Other filmmakers – admittedly better filmmakers – have taken this approach, and there’s an argument (one that I have a lot of sympathy with) that film does not need to be a narrative experience – it can just be an experience, full stop. Saint Bernard feels like a piece of experimental art, albeit experimental art made by someone who has a taste for exploitation movies and likes monsters. Its weirdness is certainly a studied weirdness, but in its own way, it works. But if you don’t like experimental filmmaking, then this is not going to make you happy.
Voodoo Man was one of Bela Lugosi‘s last quickies for Monogram pictures, shot in 1944 by the notoriously fast William Beaudine, and it seems an odd choice to emerge on blu-ray, but there it is. A zombie film from the days when zombies where Haitian influenced rather than flesh eating ghouls, it stars Lugosi as a mad doctor – of course – who is kidnapping young women with the aid of the reliable George Zucco in order to transfer their life essences to his dead wife. Lugosi soon has an underground cave full of zombie women, created in lively ceremonies where an enthusiastic John Carradine – a man for whom no role was too embarrassing – bangs away on bongo drums and Zucco engages in occult mumbo jumbo.
At 62 minutes, the film doesn’t really have time to get dull, but like many a zombie film of the era, it’s as plodding and empty as the zombies themselves, and everyone seems to be going through the motions. It’s not terrible by any means – if you are in the right mood, this is a good film to (if you’ll pardon the expression) zombie out to after a busy day. But there’s little atmosphere or excitement on offer, and everyone seems in a hurry to get it over and done with as quickly as possible. There is some amusement in the fact that the hero is a Hollywood screenwriter who, at the end of the film, tells the story to his producer and suggests Bela Lugosi as the star of the film – the sort of self-referential approach we are used to now, but which was pretty unique at the time.
there’a plenty of excitement to be in Used Cars, a 1980 Robert Zemeckis comedy that feels almost as much of a vintage piece as Voodoo Man in many ways – it’s hard to imagine a film as foul-mouthed and crude as this passing muster these days, especially with the gratuitous nudity, striptease sequence and a leading lady (Deborah Harmon) who spends the last third of the film braless and jiggling. But all that just makes it more enjoyable, and while the film is not as hilarious as it seemed to me when I saw it in the cinema (the combination of crowd-based peer pressure, outrageous content and being a more easily-pleased kid doubtless helped), it’s still very entertaining.
Kurt Russell is the surprisingly unlikeable lead, a cynical used care salesman driven to desperation after his boss dies and the man’s unscrupulous rival and brother (both played by Jack Warden) threatens to take over the business. Russell is aided in his shenanigans – which include hacking into a live TV Presidential address and attracting customers with strippers – by Gerritt Graham (who is as entertaining as ever and at one point is involved in a hair-raising stunt) and Frank Mccrae, and they make a pretty good team. The film still pretty wild and moves at a hell of a pace, with something visually arresting, literally explosive and cheerfully offensive every few minutes, and I swear that the final act inspired the finale of Mad Max 2 – the two films are weirdly identical at times. There’s a gleefulness about the film that is quite infectious, and it remains a lot of fun for viewers who are not easily offended by bad taste. In fact, with the crude comedy, bare breasts, constant swearing and wild action scenes, I’d say that this is still probably the perfect film for fourteen-year-old boys, and it’s definitely the best thing that Zemeckis has ever done as far as I’m concerned.
Carol Reed’s The Running Man is perhaps forever doomed to be confused with the better-known 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger science fiction film, but this 1963 film is a rather more interesting and stylish affair. The story of a man (played by Laurence Harvey) who fakes his own death in an insurance fraud and then flees to Malaga with his wife Lee Remick and the £50,000 – which I guess was a lot of money back then. Things become complicated when insurance investigator Alan Bates turns up in Malaga, allegedly on holiday – but is his meeting with Remick really as innocent and coincidental as it seems? The film then develops into a strange love triangle between the three (Harvey by now adopting the persona of an Australian waster), with no one – particularly not the viewer – knowing who knows what or what their motives might be.
It’s a solid little puzzle of a film, albeit one that can’t quite decide if it is a thriller, a drama or some hybrid of both. Harvey is impressively unsavoury as the sort of man you wouldn’t trust to change a fiver for you – even if his motives for the fraud are actually understandable (he was screwed over by the insurance company on a genuine claim previously), while Remick is impressively torn as her husband lapses full time into his new grubby persona, and Bates is suitably ambiguous. It does feel a little slight, and the mystery is allowed to drag on for longer than necessary, but it’s an intriguing mystery that will keep you hooked in.
Insurance investigators also play a role in Jacques Torneur’s Nightfall, shot in 1957. This an impressive slice of noir – even if large chunks of it take place in broad daylight and against a bright, snowy backdrop – as it tells the classic story of a man who meets a girl and gets into trouble. Except in this case, Jim (Aldo Ray) is already in trouble, and the girl (Anne Bancroft) is not a femme fatale. Jim is on the run after being framed for murder by a couple of bank robbers. To complicate things, he’s also made off with their ill-gotten loot, only to lose it in the snows of Wyoming, and finding it is the only way to clear his name. So the couple head off in search of the cash, pursued by both the criminals (Brian Keith and Rudy Bond as a convincingly dangerous and mismatched pair of thugs) and an insurance investigator (James Gregory).
Tourneur shoots the film with his customary style, and mixes dramatic action with suspense, throwing in some genuinely chilling moments of threat along the way. fans of the genre won’t find many surprises here – it’s pretty obvious that the relationship between the bank robbers is on a knife edge and won’t survive the discovery of the money – but the whole thing has a style and pace that pulls you in anyway. Bancroft does well with what might have been a pretty throwaway role, and Ray seems suitably tortured throughout. Although a lesser film in the noir canon, this is well worth checking out for fans of the genre.
Severin Films have been doing a sterling – some might say foolhardy – job of releasing the work of Bruno Mattei and Claudio Fragasso, the latter best known to the world at large as the man responsible for Troll 2, and both Italian hacks of long standing who were still grinding out rubbish long after most of their contemporaries stopped. The latest two are typical of his work – crude, cruddy and oddly fascinating. Fragasso’s 1990 film Night Killer – which was released in Italy as Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3, a title that Severin have amusingly used on the slipcase edition of the film – features a Freddy Kruger lookalike who has been raping and murdering young women, but who seems to have a particular fixation for Melanie Beck, played by Tara Buckman – maybe it’s because of her habit of baring her breasts while on the phone to mysterious obscene callers. Unlike Kruger, this is a masked killer rather than a supernatural force, though the face and finger knives are obviously ripped off from the Nightmare on Elm Street films.
But just as you think the film is settling into a whodunnit (after surviving an attack, Buckman conveniently can’t remember who the killer- who removed his mask – is) where the identity of the murdere is screamingly obvious, the film takes a left-turn as Buckman is stalked and kidnapped by the psychotic Peter Hooten, who clearly decided that if his career was going to consist of rubbish like this, then he’d at least have fun with it. There’s a twist to this, which is so ludicrous as to be wonderful, and a final moment that is just hilarious. Along the way, there’s some sloppy gore, gratuitous nudity and ripe dialogue (I’ll let you discover the context for “granny, what a big schlong you have” is), which is almost – but not quite – enough to make up for the the strangely plodding pace.
Night Killer is a masterpiece compared to Mattei’s1988 effort Robowar, written by Fragasso and partner and regular co-writer Rossella Drudi. Presumably, the writing sessions consisted of watching Predator and Robocop and figuring out how to combine the two while stripping out any sense of excitement from the stories. In this film, we get to watch a collection of bad actors led by Rev Brown playing commando as they wander through the jungle and argue for the best part of half an hour before anything happens. Eventually, they come up against Omega-1, a robot soldier who looks like a mash-up of every 1980s cyborg and sounds like Tweakie from Buck Rogers in the 25th Century as part of some government experiment.
If you like watching sweaty men in vests wandering around in the jungle shouting hysterically while firing off machine guns, then this is definitely the film for you. If, on the other hand, you enjoy minor peripherals like a storyline, passable acting, good dialogue and a director who at least looks as though he’s seen films before, then Robowar will probably be a disappointment. Mattei is one of those odd filmmakers who seemed to get worse the more films he made, and this is pretty dull stuff, without even any gratuitous excess to liven things up.
Reviews by David Flint