Saturday, 20 June 2009

The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey

Vincent Ward’s excellent if not entirely successful medieval adventure story is set in Scottish village in the 14 century as the Black Death is ravaging its way across Europe. A teenage boy experiences a prophetic dream vision of deliverance from the plague – a brave band of explorers must journey to a distant land and mount a spire on top of a church, and with this offering to God, sparing the village from certain doom. Their quest involves tunneling deep into the earth where they rather ingeniously emerge out into modern day New Zealand.

The idea of characters displaced in time is hardly new - Les Visiteurs had Jean Reno play a 12th century knight lost in 20th century France, while Time After Time flung HG Wells and Jack the Ripper into modern day San Francisco – but The Navigator uses this premise with intelligence and restraint. There’s not much in the way of knockabout comedy (like the crew of the Enterprise in Star Trek IV, arriving in 20th century California to be confronted by a punk and a beat box) and most of the action set in New Zealand takes place at night. One sequence has the strangers in a strange land negotiate a busy highway, but it’s a poignant rather than comic scene as one their men is left behind, too afraid to make the crossing.

Occasionally Ward’s ambitious vision runs ahead of the film – a boat journey across a harbor, encountering a surfacing submarine (which the hapless explorers attack with their spears and rocks), doesn’t quite come off, but still it’s a minor complaint in an otherwise wonderful heartfelt adventure story. Fans of Bergman and Tarkovsky should seek this one out as The Seventh Seal and Andrei Rublev were no doubt a visual influence on Ward who shot the sequences in the snowy Scottish village in luminous black and white. Ward’s direction is stylish and compliments nicely the mystical mood of the film. One wonders what Ward could have done with Alien³ which he was attached to briefly before David Fincher came on board.

If you can still find it, the best presentation of The Navigator on DVD remains Australia’s Madman edition which sports a very fine transfer of the film, if not a whole lot of extras. Also available from Madman is Ward’s 1984 film Vigil which is a fine companion piece to The Navigator.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Lucio Fulci's Four of the Apocalypse

Four of the Apocalypse made in 1975 was to be the second western Lucio Fulci would direct, appearing between Massacre Time (1966) and Silver Saddle (1978). In comparison with the director's other westerns Apocalypse is far less conventional and easily the best of the three. The story begins in the town of Salt Flat, where the Sheriff (a nice little cameo by Donald O'Brien) decides to clean house of the town's misfits and undesirables. Four strangers are exiled from the town to wander the wilderness in search of a new home. They are Stubby, a card-shark conman, Bunny a pregnant hooker, Clem, a washed-up drunk and Sam, an eccentric African slave. Along the way they meet Chaco a seemingly friendly gunslinger, who provides them with food courtesy of his sharp shooting. But soon things take a darker twist as the gunslinger turns out to be anything but benevolent...

Four of the Apocalypse has long been considered something of a bloodthirsty, savage western with scenes of torture and rape. Even Fulci manages to factor in some cannibalism at one point. But surprisingly Apocalypse turns out to the one of Fulci's most optimistic films, at least in the final bitter sweet act of the film where the birth of a baby brings new hope to a town on the edge of oblivion. Its one of Fulci's most leftfield plot turns considering he rarely allows his characters to get away unscathed before the credits of his films roll. Despite the obvious western genre iconography, Fulci's film could easily be refitted as a post apocalyptic sci-fi drama, with the characters lost in a harsh unforgiving landscape stalked by a sinister scavenger of the wastelands, and carrying with them the promise of a new beginning for a doomed civilization.

Four of the Apocalypse is one of Fulci's most enjoyable films of the 70's. Of the eclectic cast two of the more interesting faces include Lynne Frederick who plays the long suffering Bunny - even through the canned dub she turns in a good, gutsy performance, and Michael J. Pollard playing the bumptious alcoholic Clem is, well Michael J. Pollard. Its the two leads that really deliver here - Fabio Testi playing Stubby with depth and sensitivity, and Tomas Milian playing the sinister gunslinger, his role pitched somewhere between Rasputin and Charles Manson. It’s a leisurely paced film, and Sergio Salvati’s soft focus cinematography further adds to the strange ethereal nature of the film. Worth mentioning also, the soundtrack with its soft pastoral folky rock. Its been known to grate the nerves of some viewers but it’s not nearly as brazen as the music of Keoma or Mannaja.

Anchor Bay's edition of Four of the Apocalypse (later appropriated by Blue Underground) sports a fine presentation of the film, framed around 1.85 and featuring an English audio track which switches to Italian (with English subs) for portions of the film that were not originally dubbed into English. Extras include interviews with Fabio Testi and Tomas Milian. For Fulci fans, the film remains required viewing and for the more adventurous western fan, the film certainly deserves a look.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Plutonium Shores Mix Tape Vol. 1 - Horror Soundtracks

This compilation I put together last year is mostly well known classics and one or two personal favourites that I snuck on (like Manhunter and two selections from The Burning), plus a snippet of dialogue from Halloween. I hope everyone downloads a copy and has a listen...I specifically made it CD lenght so it can be copies onto a CD-R, so a lot of good stuff didn't make the final cut, so a second volume is promised....

The album is in a zip file, and uploaded to Mediafire... Anyone unfamiliar with Mediafire, simply follow the link below and enter the captcha if prompted. Zip is about 88M, and is tagged and numbered for mp3 players....

Whispers In The Dark - A Plutonium Shores Compilation

The blood on the tracks...

01 The Burning - Campfire Story - Composed by Rick Wakeman
02 Deep Red - Main Titles - Composed By Goblin
03 Phantasm - Main Titles - Composed By Fred Myrow and Malcom Seagrave
04 Manhunter - Coelocanth - Composed by Coelocanth
05 Nosferatu - On the Way - Composed by Popol Vuh
06 Halloween - Dialogue by Donald Pleasance
07 A Nightmare on Elm Street - Main Titles - Composed by Charles Bernstein
08 Hellraiser - Resurrection - Composed by Christopher Young
09 The Beyond - Main Titles - Composed by Fabio Frizzi
10 The Shining - Main Titles - Composed by Wendy Carlos
11 Cannibal Holocaust - Main Titles - Riz Ortolani
12 The Burning - End Titles - Composed by Rick Wakeman
13 Suspiria - Main Titles - Composed by Goblin
14 The Thing - Humanity Part 1 - Composed by Ennio Morricone
15 Night of the Living Dead - End Titles - library music
16 Theme from 2000 Maniacs - Composed by HG Lewis
17 Videodrome - 801 A/B - Composed by Howard Shore
18 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre - End Titles - Composed by Tobe Hooper and Wayne Bell

Friday, 5 June 2009

Boxcar Bertha

Boxcar Bertha is something of a lost Martin Scorsese film these days, its certainly the least celebrated film of his dazzling run of pictures from the 70’s even more so than the underrated New York New York. Until I got hold of the MGM DVD the film had eluded me for years – it rarely turned up on network TV, and in my years of collecting VHS I never managed to unearth a copy. The film made in 1972, and set in rural America during the Depression was another Roger Corman cash-in on the success of Bonnie & Clyde (1967, and followed Corman’s own Depression era exploitation film Bloody Mama, 1970), and stars a fresh faced Barbara Hershey and David Carradine as the outlaw lovers holding up the railroad company and giving the loot over to the railroad union.

For a Scorsese film of this vintage, Boxcar Bertha is remarkably restrained – it has neither the wild experimental style of Scorsese’s 1967 debut feature Who’s That Knocking At My Door, or the stylistic brilliance of Mean Streets, but is simply a competent exploitation film, complete with violence, sex, and the standard car chases (which Corman insisted upon). Scorsese interjects the film with some style here and there but overall it has a journeyman quality to it. Its possibly down to Corman’s ruthless shooting schedule – a frugal 24-days, but perhaps Scorsese was putting his head down after his sacking from The Honeymoon Killers production in 1968 for making an art film out of something considerably more down and dirty. Still, it’s a well shot film and the performances are great – especially Barbara Hershey. Hershey and Carradine were a couple at the time and the loves scenes have a real warmth. Also among the cast is the great John Carradine as the railroad boss.

Boxcar Bertha may suffer from a sense of anonymity, but Scorsese fans will surely enjoy one of the climatic scenes where a character is crucified against a railroad car – the reverse angle shot of the nails splitting the wood looks forward to an almost identical shot in The Last Temptation of Christ some 16 years later, which of course included Barbara Hershey who played Mary Magdalene. Furthermore, it was Barbara Hershey who, during the course of shooting Boxcar Bertha, introduced Scorsese to Nikos Kazantzakis' great novel.

Postscript: In between writing this review and posting it here, I found out that David Carradine has passed away. I kept the review as it was, I didn’t want to rethink the film in the shadow of Carradine’s death. Carradine, while never an actor I truly loved left behind an eclectic and interesting body of work, appearing in among others Mean Streets (1973), Death Race 2000 (1975), Ingmar Bergman’s The Serpent’s Egg (1977), Larry Cohen’s Q The Winged Serpent (1982) and of course the eponymous character from Tarantino’s Kill Bill (2003/4)