Blu-ray Review​: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2

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The 1974 American horror film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was less than rapturously received by critics but instantly gained a cult following. Pioneering many conventions which are now regarded as de rigueur by fans of slasher movies it was highly profitable despite being banned outright in several territories. A controversial film, it gained a further round of publicity in the UK during an overheated response to “video-nasties” when the BBFC refused to certify it for home entertainment (this decision was reversed in 1999).

The key recipient of the frenzied publicity surrounding The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was its director Tobe Hooper who having proved he was capable of producing a highly profitable movie went on to helm several minor classics for film and TV (Salem’s Lot, Poltergeist, Lifeforce). Twelve years on from the original entry into the franchise he returned with a sequel for Golan and Golobus’ Cannon Films. Consistently generating money in the form of sales and rentals in regions where it was still available, the first film was a proven commodity so greenlighting the second installment was, at least on paper, a shrewd decision for the money men at the studio.

Given a considerable budget in comparison to the paltry sum available for the previous film and armed with a crew possessing a greater arsenal of equipment, Hooper replaced the cinema verite approach with an abundance of black humour and a more fluid cinematographic approach. Released into a crowded marketplace The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 competed against a number of theatrically released and straight to video productions which had been directly influenced by the original so a sequel was, with hindsight, never going to be judged on its own merits. The passage of time and a comprehensive package enables the film to reassessed by a fresh generation which might be more celebratory in its appreciation.

Thirteen years on from Leatherface’s last appearance radio DJ Vanita “Stretch” Brock (Caroline Williams) is pestered during a show by a pair of drunken college students. Unable to disconnect their call, Brock inadvertently broadcasts the chainsaw wielding maniacs return. Lieutenant Boude “Lefty” Enright (Dennis Hopper) has spent years investigating the disappearance of his niece and nephew and soon teams up with Brock hoping to draw out the murderous cannibalistic family (from the first film) into the open.

Bizarrely, despite the increased budget and superior technical facilities, this is a less intense film. The narrative has occasional lapses of logic but this is balanced out by the brilliance of the set pieces. Hopper is delightfully deranged but as this film was made during one of his ‘lost’ periods it’s debatable how much acting was going on.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is available to order from Amazon

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DVD Review: My Amityville Horror

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In November 1973 Ronald Joseph DeFeo, Jr shot and killed six members of his family. The house where this terrible incident took place was 112 Ocean Avenue, Amityville. Whilst DeFeo was incarcerated inside a correctional institute awaiting trial the house was placed on the market. Thirteen months would pass before anybody expressed an interest in buying the property. Despite being greatly reduced to $80,000 locals would not consider moving into the home and so it remained empty until George and Kathy Lutz bought it. The Lutz family may have thought they were embarking on a new chapter but they would flee from the building after twenty-eight days claiming that they had witnessed intense paranormal activity.

The various accounts given by Lutz family soon attracted media interest. After several reports on local and national TV George and Kathy Lutz sold the rights to their story to Jay Anson. Possibly sensing that following the enormous box office success of The Exorcist and The Omen the public might be hungry for more tales of demonic activity, Aston published his greatly embellished account of those twenty-eight days under the disingenuous title The Amityville Horror: A True Story. With copies of the book flying off the shelves, it was inevitable that a Hollywood production company would want to adapt this sensational tale for the big screen, the resultant film was a commercial success despite receiving a critical mauling. To date, nine sequels have been produced with the most recent being The Amityville Asylum.

For parapsychologists, the Lutz account of events which are said to have occurred within those twenty-eight days is deeply problematic. The absence of any independent scientifically verifiable data requires any conclusions about the veracity of the paranormal occurrence to be based solely on the family’s testimony. The published account has been altered in subsequent reprints and as we are unable to access a definitive version of what happened it may have no more claim to validity than other highly contested reportings, e.g; the Enfield Poltergeist.

UK audiences opinions on what, if anything, happened during those twenty-eight days may have been shaped by Stuart Rosenberg’s 1979 film. A sensationalist movie produced by a master of low budget exploitation, Samuel Z. Arkoff, it’s brief absorption into British pop culture was compounded when a canny publisher sensed that a fast buck was to be made and rush-released a mass market paperback of Aston’s book. Across the land branches of Woolworths carried copies of the book ensuring that this highly contested version of events spent a few weeks in the UK best-seller charts.

Since 1979 the Hollywood version has been parodied numerous times in films and TV series. In 1986 Lovebug Starski scored a top twenty hit on the UK charts with a track that referenced events from the film, and threw in impersonations of Boris Karloff and William Shatner against an early Hip Hop backbeat. Whilst the house may have become a brand and generic trope the family at the center of this story drifted into relative obscurity. Forgotten for over thirty years, members of the Lutz clan would be wheeled out for occasional TV features and then return to their daily lives knowing that their moment in the spotlight was over.

At the age of ten Maryland native Eric Walter obtained a copy of Aston’s book. Fascinated with the dark tales of murder and ghoulish goings-on he soon started collating what evidence was in the public domain and shortly after his seventeenth birthday set up a website called The Amity Files that presented whatever factual information was available without prejudice. Visitors to the page were able to access various documents with no attempt by Walter to suggest that the events alleged to have occurred inside that house were genuine or fraudulent.

Three years after directing the horror rom-com The Lumberjack of All Trades, Eric Walter was contacted by a friend of Daniel Lutz. Eager to tell his version of events after more than forty years of misrepresentation, Daniel had engaged an intermediary to see if Eric Walter would be willing to direct a fair and balanced documentary. Timing was crucial as up until 2006 media rights had been strictly controlled by Daniel’s stepfather, George Lutz. Upon the death of Lutz Sr, the rest of the family were now legally free to talk about Amityville to media outlets. Eager to emerge from his step father’s shadow, Daniel wanted to tell anybody who might be interested in his personal experiences of living in that house.

Walter’s feature-length documentary, My Amityville Horror, is an intelligent and emotionally rewarding film. One which skilfully transcends the salacious aspects of the Amityville story and instead delivers a remarkable discussion on the validity of memory and a child’s susceptibility when confronted with destructive familial influences.

No matter how hard he may have tried, Daniel Lutz has never been able to escape from the legacy of events at 112 Ocean Avenue. A lifetime spent living with the spectre of a turbulent past has had a demonstrable effect on him and throughout the documentary it is all too apparent that he is visibly damaged by something but whether the cause of that trauma is spectral, result of childhood abuse or a consequence of years spent living with a lie is something that viewers will have to decide.

Now working as a UPS delivery driver, Daniel is a combative interviewee and in between demonstrations of his prowess as a heavy metal guitarist, he tells imponderable tales of levitation and possession. Appearing to believe very firmly in his testimony he bristles at the mere mention of doubt or having to provide evidence.

Editorial balance is provided by the inclusion of interviews with journalists who were first on the scene back in 1974. Possibly meeting again for the first time in decades, they compare professional experiences about covering the story and what they had learned about Daniel’s stepfather, George. Unable to reach a consensus, their roundtable discussion demonstrates how thoroughly they had investigated the history of the house and the Lutz family background.

Interviews with mental health professionals may make the viewer question how reliable their own memory is. Demonstrating how easily an individual’s process of recall may be tampered by external stimuli we are left to wonder if Daniel’s recollections have been shaped by seeing the various film versions of the story.

The late George Lutz is an ever-present presence throughout the documentary, details about his relationship with Daniel may be the key to unlocking the mystery about the alleged unearthly activeness. A once-mysterious figure, George’s motivations still cause considerable debate amongst aficionados and detractors. Was he the all American father who sought to protect his family from evil forces or did he have an ulterior motive?

An engaging film which will appeal to horror fans. My Amityville Horror makes no definitive claim on the history of 112 Ocean Avenue allowing believers to walk away feeling validated and doubters to also claim a victory. The presentation of evidence and refusal to take a firm stance elevates this film far beyond whatever exploitative documentaries are currently available. Illustrating how eroding it is to live with a personal trauma, the documentary presents a picture of a deeply troubled man and then offers up a multitude of reasons for the cause of the psychological scars.

My Amityville Horror is available to order from Amazon

Maigret on Screen: The Man on the Eiffel Tower

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Simenon’s relationship with his most famous literary creation was filled with contradictions. Resentful at being primarily known as a crime writer he nonetheless enjoyed the royalty cheques that enabled him to travel widely and savour a comfortable lifestyle.

Despite his publicly proclaimed aversion at being solely identified as the author of the Maigret novels, he recognised that securing a film deal would be profile-boosting and offer the promise of long-term financial security. In interviews, Simenon would frequently claim not to have viewed the adaptations of his work before offering a detailed critique of the actors who had played Maigret. Simenon’s public stance of indifference is at odds with the actions of a man who acquired and destroyed prints of adaptations he thought had failed to convey the true essence of his novels. In interviews, he talked of drawing up contracts that specified the adaptation had to be destroyed after a set number of years.

By the late 1940s, the character of Maigret had already appeared on screen in productions starring Pierre Renoir, Abel Tarride, Harry Baur, Albert Prejan, and Maurice Manson. English-speaking audiences were introduced to the character with the release of an American adaptation of The Man on the Eiffel Tower.

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A versatile actor, Charles Laughton is perhaps best remembered for directing the Film Noir The Night of the Hunter. In the late 1940s he was one of British cinema’s most significant screen talents. Accustomed to playing a wide range of parts the acclaimed performer was the first actor to play Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Despite being no stranger to crime drama having also played a gangster in the mould of Al Capone in Edgar Wallace’s play On the Spot his casting as Maigret may have surprised audiences but it pleased Laughton’s bank manager.

When Laughton was initially approached to play the part producer Irving Allen was slated to direct the film. The Man on the Eiffel Tower had previously been filmed in 1933 as La Tête d’un Homme. Erroneously reported as the first English language adaptation of a Simenon novel, the 2013 discovery of previously lost quota quickie film Temptation Harbour based on the short story Newhaven-Dieppe starring Robert Newton and future Doctor Who William Hartnell has forced Simenologists to redraft the author’s screen history. Despite the relegation to second English language adaptation of a Simenon story The Man on the Eiffel Tower still holds the notable distinction of being the first American production based on the author’s work.

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Based on the ninth Maigret novel A Man’s Head the film was a joint American-French co-production. In addition to introducing a new audience to the work of Georges Simenon, the film showcased post-war Paris.

At the time of production Simenon was living in Arizona. Yet to achieve anything resembling mainstream success in America he had a dedicated cult readership. With an acclaimed and bankable star on board, the film may have offered the opportunity to attract a wider audience for his books. Surprisingly, considering the film’s importance in establishing the Maigret novels commercial viability in a previously indifferent territory, Simenon elected to be critical of the central star’s performance.

For several decades The Man on the Eiffel Tower was considered to be a lost film. Reports suggest that Simenon ordered the destruction of all prints. Little known among Laughton aficionados and Simenologists, a false perspective about the film and it’s perceived failings became accepted as fact. UCLA’s discovery of two projection prints enables the film to be studied for the first time since its original release. What was previously a minor entry in the history of post-war cinema takes on a fresh significance in terms of offering previously unknown evidence about the French film industry’s strategy for representing Paris within the context of genre cinema and for how approaches taken by the film have influenced subsequent English language adaptations of the Maigret novels.

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According to biographical accounts, Laughton was financially embarrassed when he was offered the opportunity to play Maigret. His acceptance in all likelihood probably was due to the need for an instant cash injection rather than a fondness for Simenon’s novel. Having agreed to play the part Laughton was thorough and diligent in his preparation. Intensely studying all available translated editions of the Maigret novels he soon gained a sense of the detective and his world. Determined to be truthful to Simenon’s creation, Laughton searched multiple Hollywood costumiers for clothing that would enable him to build an accurate and sympathetic character. Having constructed his version of Maigret before the cameras started rolling Laughton may have anticipated a stress-free shoot. According to contemporary press reports, it was a tortuous production.

Precisely who directed The Man on the Eiffel Tower is far from clear-cut. Producer Irving Allen was originally slated to direct the film. After three days of shooting, he was forced to resign the director’s chair when an enraged Laughton threatened to quit the production. To mollify the lead actor Allen agreed to his request that Burgess Meredith who had already been cast in a supporting role oversee the remainder of filming. More recently, reports have suggested Laughton directed several key sequences without credit. Scholars have also claimed that co-producer Franchot Tone directed scenes which featured Laughton and Meredith in the same frame.

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Promoted as the first American colour production to be filmed in Paris, the screenplay was adjusted to showcase the city’s most famous monument. Throughout filming production was held up due to a variety of unforeseen factors. Weather delayed filming, the co-producer and Laughton argued ferociously, and electrical problems led to frequent blackouts.

Praised by Renoir and warmly but not effusively reviewed by critics, the film fell into relative obscurity and for decades the only available information was found in biographies. UCLA’s discovery of two previously unknown prints has resulted in a reappraisal. Now seen not only in terms of its place within the canon of Simenon screen adaptations, critics have suggested that the film is a rare example of a colour film noir.

The Man on the Eiffel Tower is available to order from Amazon.

DVD Review: Hitchcock/Truffaut

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The story of what happened when two giants of European cinema sat down to discuss their approaches to filmmaking.

In 2012 Sight & Sound published the British Film Institute’s Greatest Film poll. Conducted every ten years, critics, academics, and distributors are surveyed. Bicycle Thieves won the first poll in 1952. Since 1962 Citizen Kane sat in pole position and many thought it would reign supreme as the unbeatable champion. Although it came close to toppling Kane in 2002, news that Vertigo had finally taken the crown in 2012 was met with surprise.  That it had won the poll by a very wide margin suggests it will probably retain the title when the next survey is conducted in 2022.

Vertigo‘s achievement was surprising because it was not always held in such high esteem. Taken out of circulation after it failed to meet expectations at the box office, the only way to see the film until the mid-80s was via illicit screenings of bootleg 16mm prints. Since it’s mid-80s re-release the film and it’s director has undergone a complete critical reevaluation.

61fq3ayehul-_sl1000_Today regarded as one of Europe’s most significant directors, Hitchcock was not always held in such high esteem. Further proof of his continued cultural significance was offered by the BFI who ran a retrospective of his surviving works. In 2013 UNESCO added the nine existing Hitchcock silent films to its archive to represent the UK’s cinematic heritage. Hitchcock’s influence over modern cinema is undeniable and contemporary film fans are often surprised at learning that he was once regarded as a mere peddler of mass entertainment.

French critic and director, François Truffaut regularly visited the Cinémathèque Française as a teenager and was exposed to numerous Hollywood films. Befriending André Bazin  the co-founder of influential film publication Cahiers du cinéma, Truffaut joined the magazine’s writing team and developed the auteur theory which noted the recurrence of themes and techniques in the work of “great directors.” Emphasising the director as author of a film, his theory was initially controversial.

While in France filming To Catch a Thief, Hitchcock was interviewed by Claude Chabrol and François Truffaut for  Cahiers du cinéma. The magazine had published an issue celebrating the director’s work in 1953 and was planning another to be published in the summer of 1956. Challenging the then widely held view that Hitchcock was merely a director-for-hire churning out lurid schlock,  Truffaut and  Cahiers du cinéma helped define the modern sense of  Hitchcock as one cinema’s greatest artists.
American film critic Andrew Sarris applied Truffaut’s Auteur Theory to  an analysis of Hollywood cinema and declared “Hitchcock is the most daring avant-garde filmmaker in America today.”

025-francois-truffaut-tribe-theredlistFeeling that Hitchcock had been evasive in their first meeting, Truffaut wrote to the director and proposed a lengthy interview conducted over several days which would discuss the core elements of a Hitchcock film, approaches to filmmaking, and theories of storytelling. Hitchcock agreed and  Truffaut flew to Hollywood with translator Helen Scott. Eight days of discussion cemented Hitchcock’s critical rehabilitation. The recordings were transcribed and published in France. An English translation was issued in 1967.
Demystifying filmmaking, the book has for decades been regarded as one of the foremost texts of cinema appreciation and analysis. In recent years the authenticity of Hitchcock’s statements has been questioned due to his responses being translated into French and then translated back into English.

Kent Jones enlightening film tells the story of what happened when the Master of Suspense met La Nouvelle Vague’s shining light. Using extracts from the tape-recorded conversations we finally have an unambiguous record of what Hitchcock said over the course of those eight days.

A key moment in the history of film criticism,  Truffaut’s credentials as a director and intimate knowledge of Hitchcock’s work keep the veteran filmmaker on his toes and ensure the interview never descends into effusive gushing. Hard-core Hitchcock enthusiasts and newbies will be educated by this engrossing documentary.

hitchcock-truffaut-2015_t658Analysing key sequences from several Hitchcock films, most notably Vertigo and Psycho. The documentary also includes Hitchcock’s critical comments on a Truffaut’s shot by shot breakdown of a sequence from The 400 Blows.

Recorded when film criticism was still in its infancy, Truffaut’s encyclopaedic knowledge of thematic continuity in Hitchcock’s still stands up today as a superb work of scholarship. It’s easy to forget in the age of DVD and online streaming how hard it was to gain access to films for study purposes back then. Detecting a recurrent thread of Roman Catholic symbolism he verbally pins down Hitchcock until the veteran admits how his formative years are continually woven into his films.

Modern day perspectives from David Fincher, Olivier Assayas, Martin Scorsese, Arnaud Desplechin, Wes Anderson, James Gray, and Richard Linklater highlight why Hitchcock’s fingerprints are all over contemporary cinema.

A must-have DVD for anyone who wants to learn more about the Master of Suspense.

Hitchcock/Truffaut is available to order from Amazon

Blu-ray Review: The Voices

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A purr-fect black comedy

Ryan Reynolds plays a schizophrenic who takes orders from his cat and dog in a dark psychological comedic horror film from director Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis).

Satrapi’s off-kilter take on the serial killer genre plays against expectations and delivers a uniquely twisted view of midwest America that ventures into the realms of Lynchian weirdness via a Brothers Grimm fairytale. Paying homage to her influences, the director blends Hitchcock motifs with Amelie style visuals alongside nods to Joel and Ethan Cohen.

Soon to be seen playing the lead in Marvel’s X-Men spin-off Deadpool, Ryan Reynolds delivers a career-defining performance as a factory worker who believes his pets are talking to him. A socially inept employee in an industrial town. Too eager to please his colleagues Jerry works on the floor assembling bathroom fixtures and is effusive when offered the opportunity to help organise the company’s annual barbecue.

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An acute schizophrenic Jerry sees a court-appointed psychiatrist on a regular basis and is required to take medication. Living alone he neglects to follow his care plan and has relapsed. At the end of each shift, he returns to a low-rent apartment above a bowling alley and chats about the day’s events with his pets.

Without his daily medication, Jerry starts to hear voices and is convinced that his cat Mr. Whiskers and dog Bosco are talking to him. A morality play occurs each night in the front room as the two animals represent the fractured sides of his conscience. Scottish accented feline and a dim-witted canine appear to be influencing Jerry’s behaviour.

Attending a planning meeting for his workplace’s annual barbecue he meets Fiona (Gemma Arterton – Quantum of Solace) and is instantly smitten. Blissfully unaware that she is not interested Jerry invites her for a meal at his favourite Chinese restaurant.

A carefully planned evening turns sour when Fiona decides to join colleagues from the accounts department at a local karaoke bar. Jerry is left alone staring at congealing Oriental cuisine while Elvis and Bruce Lee impersonators perform for disinterested diners.

The night takes a darker turn when Jerry spots a rain-soaked Fiona. Offering her a lift they decide to visit an out of town burger bar. A collision with a wild animal sets in motion a chain of events that tears down Jerry’s tenuous grip on reality.

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Filmed in Berlin, Director Marjane Satrapi’s first English language feature is a genre-defying movie destined for immediate cult status.  Absurd and provocative it delicately balances artifice with flashes of chilling realism. Occasionally taboo-breaking, the film acknowledges preconceptions and then pulls the rug out from beneath the viewer’s feet.

The Voices is an ingenious tragi-comedy. Disturbing and hilarious, it’s uniqueness is rammed home in a musical sequence featuring Jesus driving a fork-lift truck.

An impressive collection of extras has been assembled for this disc including interviews, featurettes, and a prank that has to be seen to be believed.

The Voices is available to order from Amazon.

 

Blu-ray Review: The Night of the Hunter

Simon Callow’s preface to the twenty fifth anniversary edition of Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor notes with some sadness that the performer is rapidly being forgotten by a generation of viewers who perhaps due to increasingly infrequent TV screenings have yet to see and appreciate the magnificence of his craft. Even amongst acting professionals Laughton’s name does not elicit any significant levels of recognition in anyone under 40.

Whilst his multitude of screen performances await reappraisal, Laughton’s sole stab at directing has undergone a complete critical rehabilitation since its release. Treated with scorn by pundits and ignored by audiences, The Night of the Hunter’s stature has steadily grown and this once derided movie is now regarded by cinephiles as being one of the finest examples of Film Noir. Proof that The Night of the Hunter is now celebrated by the very elite which once rejected it was offered in 1992 when the film was selected by the United Sates Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry.

The re-evaluation, particularly with regards cinematography, is somewhat ironic as for decades the film has been presented in an alternate aspect ratio which removed picture information and neutered a carefully constructed cinematic canvas. For the first time since its original release viewers now have the opportunity to view the movie as it was intended thanks to the release on Blu-ray of a restored edition sourced from 35mm film elements.

In 1954 Charles Laughton enjoyed his most significant Broadway success directing Henry Ford in Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny Court Martial. Recognizing his talent and keen for Laughton to forge a career away from acting producer Paul Gregory began actively seeking out projects which might be suitable for a debut behind the camera lens; ‘I wanted to bring Charlie into focus as a top director and have him quit performing; the performances were what was killing him; he needed to find something where he could direct one or two things a year and make all the money he needed. That was the goal I had for Charles. With me producing and him directing, and when he didn’t direct, we’d be co-producers.’ No doubt planning a multimedia empire which would conquer stage and screen, Gregory optioned a best selling novel by Davis Grubb about a murderous preacher. Inspired by the true life story of serial killer Harry Powers who placed adverts in local newspapers fully intending to slay anyone who replied and steal their money, Grubb’s novel was short-listed for the National Book Award.

Armed with development funds from United Artists, Gregory and Laughton recruited James Agee to translate Grubb’s prose into a story that would electrify movie audiences. An influential film critic and author of the screenplay for The African Queen, Agee had descended into a life dominated by alcohol abuse and would be dead within a year of the film’s release. For decades Agee’s authorship of the script has been contested, apocryphal tales have circulated of an elaborate but unfilmable draft which was rejected and replaced by one written in haste by Laughton. Agee’s contribution was further cast into doubt by unverifiable accounts of him being excluded from the set due to drunken behaviour. Additional confusion was caused by the publication of the filmed version in James Agee’s Five Film Scripts. More recent scholarship has substantially restored Agee’s reputation proving beyond all reasonable doubt that he was the author of the screenplay. In 2004 the

More recent scholarship has substantially restored Agee’s reputation proving beyond all reasonable doubt that he was the author of the screenplay. In 2004 the long lost first draft of Agee’s script was discovered and whilst being over-length it is reported to contain each scene present in the finished film and carefully delineates the precise division of acts. Surviving production memorandums suggest a far more cordial relationship with Laughton than has been previously hinted at and a greater presence by Agee throughout the film’s production. Just as Agee’s contribution has been erroneously discredited and then restored, Charles Laughton’s claim to be the sole director became a contentious issue due to statements from Robert Mitchum alleging that he was responsible for several key sequences. Arrow Films’ Blu-ray release of

Just as Agee’s contribution has been erroneously discredited and then restored, Charles Laughton’s claim to be the sole director became a contentious issue due to statements from Robert Mitchum alleging that he was responsible for several key sequences. Arrow Films’ Blu-ray release of The Night of the Hunter accords Laughton his rightful status as the film’s sole director and in doing so shatters many falsehoods which have been reported in biographies and articles over the years.

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Made towards the end of the Film Noir movement, The Night of the Hunter is a dark and twisted nightmarish view of small-town America shot through with black humour and sexual innuendo. Undeniably influenced by German Expressionism in terms of framing and the use of light, shade, and distorted perspectives alongside various techniques accrued during the course of Laughton’s experiences directing for the stage .

During pre-production Laughton (alongside Welles alumni Stanley Cortez) rejected excessive theorizing about stylistic approaches and instead screened whatever D.W.Griffiths films were available. In seeking to learn how to the rules of film grammar through studying a pioneer’s work Laughton was echoing the behaviour of Orson Welles who alongside cinematographer Gregg Toland watched John Ford’s Stagecoach a reported forty times during production of Citizen Kane. The extent to which this parallel with Welles’ own research methodology is coincidental or deliberate is unrecorded.

Set within depression era America, the film combines the tropes of Southern Gothic with themes present in the more grotesque Brothers Grimm folk tales. Ben Harper (Peter Graves) is arrested by police following a bank robbery in which two people were slain. Wishing for his children to avoid the levels of deprivation that were becoming increasingly commonplace during the 1930s Ben conceals the money with daughter Pearl’s (Sally Jane Bruce) ragdoll making her and brother John (Billy Chapin) vow to never reveal the location of the stolen stash. Whilst in prison awaiting execution Ben shares his cell with confidence artist Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) who is eager to get his hand on the on the cash. Upon release from the penitentiary Powell inveigles widow Willa Harper (Shelly Winters) into marrying him and begins a campaign of psychological and physical torture in order to find the proceeds from Ben’s robbery.

During initial conversations about the part Laughton told Mitchum ‘this character I want you to play is a diabolical shit.’ Understanding what the director wanted from him Mitchum gave what may be his most intense screen performance, constantly diabolical and ghoulish whilst a lesser actor might have given a more arch reading of the part.

Told from the perspective of two children Ben and Pearl, The Night of the Hunter‘s macabre flourishes recall Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau, Robert Wiene, and Paul Wegener alonside the aforementioned D.W. Griffiths. Cinematographer Stanley Cortez had already experienced greatness working alongside Welles on The Magnificent Ambersons and would say of his time with Laughton; ‘… the most exciting experience I’ve had in the cinema was with Charles Laughton on Night of the Hunter … every day I consider something new about light, that incredible thing that can’t be described. Of the directors I’ve worked with, only two have understood it: Orson Welles and Charles Laughton.’

Dejected by the critical and commercial disappointment Laughton never again directed a feature film leaving us this solitary glimpse into the promise of genius which might have transformed the cinematic landscape. A deeply personal work informed by the director’s love of cinema (he had a teenage crush on Lillian Gish who appears in this film).

Arrow Films’ package includes an archive interview with Stanley Cortez and a feature length documentary, Charles Laughton Directs “The Night of the Hunter” which is compiled from rushes discovered by Robert Gitt. In several interviews Mitchum diminished Laughton’s contribution, claiming that the director did not get along with the child actors and handed these sequences over to other personnel but thanks to this bonus feature we can see that the reverse is in fact a more accurate account; great care was taken to coax honest performances from the children and throughout the director is in total control of the proceedings.

The Night of the Hunter can be ordered from Amazon

Blu-ray Review: Runaway Train

By the mid 1980s Cannon had become a byword for trashy low to medium budget action films. Its fortunes revolved around several franchises including American Ninja, Death Wish, and Delta Force. The success of these films enabled Canon’s producers to persuade financiers to reinvest their profits with the promise of even greater rewards once its next slate of pictures reached the movie theatres. Before it all came tumbling down, Cannon would release anything between thirty and forty-three films a year. Despite being remembered for such cinematic disasters as Death Wish 3 and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, this American based studio’s output was far more diverse. It introduced a number of foreign language titles into the U.S cult movie market and produced some high-quality films including Andrei Konchalovsky’s Runaway Train, Franco Zeffirelli’s Otello, and Norman Mailler’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance.

Runaway Train is a film that over the years has paradoxically simultaneously transcended and been tainted by Cannon’s legacy. The film premiered at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival but its general release was marred by the marketing department’s inability to see that this movie needed to be screened in specialist cinemas. Although dogged by a flawed distribution strategy the film went on to be nominated in three categories at the Academy Awards ( Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Editing) and a further three at the Golden Globes (Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor).

In the decades since it’s the theatrical release new generations of viewers have discovered this movie either by TV screenings, or VHS and DVD releases and it has accrued the status of a stone-cold cult classic. Jon Voight’s return to the small screen in Ray Donovan has had the unexpected side effect of the film once again coming under critical scrutiny. Several interviews and career retrospectives have referred to Runaway Train in highly complimentary terms so the worldwide Blu-ray premiere of a restored version could not have been more perfectly timed.

Oscar “Manny” Manheim (Jon Voight) is a hard-boiled bank robber who has spent three years in a welded cell. A court ruling orders that he be released from solitary confinement and rehoused within the general prison population. Hailed as a prophet by fellow inmates, Manny is feared and despised by the no-nonsense tough as old boots warden (John P Ryan). From the moment his isolation ends Manny has one thing on his mind, escape. Biding his time he waits for the right moment to abscond. With simple minded Buck (Eric Roberts) in tow, Manny breaks out of Stonehaven and treks across the inhospitable Alaskan terrain searching for transport. Chancing upon a railway yard Manny chooses a goods train to take the pair as far away from Stonehave Prison as possible. When the driver suffers a fatal heart attack Manny and Buck are trapped on a train with no brakes heading out of control at ever-increasing speed towards their doom.

Inspired by a magazine article about a runaway train in Rochester NY Akira Kurosawa drafted a script under the working title Boso kikansha intending for it to be his first English language film. Scheduling conflicts and miscommunication prevented Kurosawa from directing this movie and the script would pass through various hands over the next decade before finding a home at Cannon. Revisions were commissioned from Serbian born Djordje Milicevic (Escape to Victory) and American playwright Paul Zindel before the screenplay  was handed to Eddie Bunker for retooling

Today, Eddie Bunker is probably best known for playing Mr Blue in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs but before entering the film industry he spent over forty years as a career criminal and at one time was on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. Whilst in prison he discovered a love of literature and a talent for writing, his prose received continual encouragement from some of America’s most notorious criminals including Caryl Chessman. A terse and uncompromising writer, Bunker’s work drew from his experiences of correctional institutions and asked existential questions about what made an individual turn to criminality. Upon release from prison, he published the hard-hitting  novel No Beast No Fierce which was adapted for cinema as the Dustin Hoffman starring Straight Time. Two further novels would follow and after sales of his third, Little Boy Blue, didn’t meet publisher expectations Bunker started working in Hollywood as a script doctor.

During his UK public appearances in the 1990s Bunker would frequently talk at length about Runaway Train asserting his claim to be the author of the final draft. Aside from a monologue improvised by Voight, it’s inconceivable that anybody other than Bunker could have so accurately conveyed the criminal experience. Only a man who had spent more than half his life inside a prison cell would truly know just how potent dreams of escape are and how frequently convicts make plans to break out. In addition to script duties Bunker has a small but substantial role in as a mentor to Manny.

Whilst mulling over whether to accept the lead role Voight agreed to sign on the dotted line on the understanding that Russian filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky (Siberiade) was definitely committed to directing the project. A longtime fan of Konchalovsky’s work, Voight’s production company sponsored his initial green card.

Given artistic freedom so long as he remained on schedule and didn’t go over budget Konchalovsky, in tandem with cinematographer Alan Hume (Return of the Jedi, For Your Eyes Only) infused the classic disaster movie template with a visual sensibility inspired by the American New Wave. The pictorial spectacle was accompanied by a focus on psychological realism.

Long rumoured to have been a troubled shoot, former convict turned drugs counselor Danny Trejo visited the set to speak to one of his clients and was spotted by Eddie Bunker who knew him from prison. Bunker had seen Trejo fight several times in tournaments over the years and persuaded the director and producers to hire him to train Eric Roberts for a boxing sequence. After three weeks honing Roberts into shape Trejo was rewarded with his first screen appearance.

The testosterone is balanced out by a magnetic performance from Rebecca De Mornay. Then one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Her character is the fulcrum that sets Manny and Buck free from their self-imposed intellectual and emotional prisons.

 A philosophically clever film that belies its origins as a Cannon production and throws an almighty curve ball at genre expectations. The stunt work is even more thrill making in an era when health and safety executives force producers to use CGI alternatives. Add to that some of the finest and most honest screen performances to come from Voight and Roberts and suddenly Runway Train becomes a Blu-ray that can sit very comfortably in either Action or Screen Classic sections of your local entertainment emporium.

 The disc is rounded out by an impressive set of special features. Good humoured interviews with Jon Voight, Eric Roberts, Andrei Konchalovsky, and Kyle T. Heffner tells us what the film meant to them as individuals and in terms of their careers. Alternative casting suggestions are discussed (Henry Fonda and Peter Falk), the secrets behind some of the incredible stunts are revealed, and the filmmakers talk about their relationship with the infamous producers.

Runaway Train is available to order from Amazon.