October 05, 2014

BLIND TERROR / SEE NO EVIL (1971) - CD soundtrack release

I've updated my review of Blind Terror (UK title) / See No Evil (US title), Richard Fleischer's 1971, blind woman vs psychopath thriller starring Mia Farrow. Unexpectedly, Elmer Bernstein's rousing and beautiful soundtrack has been restored and released on CD.

September 30, 2014

The Making of George A. Romero's DAY OF THE DEAD - a new book!

I wish all my favourite movies had a book like this

George Romero's 1985 Day of the Dead now has a brand new making-of book, full of never-before-seen photos and recent interviews with the cast and crew. Published in October, it's been put together by Lee Karr, who's so keen on Romero's zombie films that he even relocated to Pittsburgh!

Day of the Dead deserved this book in 1985, but as the author notes, any chance of that was eclipsed by the publication of Paul Gagne's 'The Zombies That Ate Pittsburgh - The Films of George A. Romero'. That only had a chapter about the film, but that was the main reason why I got it at the time. It's very good, but gives equal space to every other Romero film that existed up till then. I was so impressed with this film that I was still hungry for much more detail, which is why this book is such a treat. 

It's still hard to decide which I like more, Dawn of the Dead or Day of the Dead. Dawn was more influential, but Day has a better script and a more consistent cast. While the shopping mall was a post-apocalyptic fantasy, the underground shelter is a claustrophobic nightmare. The mall had many escape routes, in the mine, you're trapped. In the dark. With zombies.

I saw both films in the cinema, during their first run in the UK. But the many, bloody shock moments in Dawn of the Dead had been censored, literally cut out of the prints, and it took years before the jigsaw was eventually put back together on home video. But Day of the Dead, I saw on one of the largest screens in the country and it looked uncut. With even more elaborate make-ups and gory effects, the many shock moments made much more of an first impression. 

Thirty years later, I've seen short documentaries and heard a few well-trodden stories, but here is a book full of much more. A complete story of the production of Day of the Dead, from the original rumours of 'a trilogy', through Romero's original vision (there is a lengthy synopsis of his favoured script), to the tortured pre-production process as the budget was pared down. There's a detailed account of how and exactly where everything was filmed, including interviews with the cast and crew, right down to the main zombies of every scene. Featured zombies were often technicians, volunteers or extras - but this was a chance for anyone to get a big screen close-up and a death scene. Something that many actors can only dream of.

Usually, when a film is documented, it's divided up into departments, stunts, special effects, directing, and a choice of all the best stories. In Karr's book, I was apprehensive to start trawling through the lengthiest section, a day-by-day account of the entire shooting schedule! But it proved to be very interesting - here we don't get the best stories, but all the stories. By the end, I felt like I'd been there with the crew for the entire shoot!

Karr doesn't shy away from the raunchier aspects of the young, high-spirited crew and I now see the wizard of gore, Tom Savini, in a slightly different light (!). His constant love of practical jokes distracts many of the crew from a grindingly hard and difficult location, where they were filming for months, though some of the 'gags' end up in hospital! At the same time, Savini tests his effects so thoroughly that it's very rare that any of his effects misfire. He's so conscious of how precious time is to a production schedule.

The film proved to be a training ground for several young crewmembers who'd been drafted in to deal with the huge number of make-ups and effects. Day presents the zombies as starting to rot, whereas in Dawn of the Dead, many of the make-ups were just extras painted green! Greg Nicotero, now a make-up effects supervisor on The Walking Dead, got his professional start on Day of the Dead, (and even had a supporting role). He learnt his trade on this film, though now we know what he actually did...

The book is drawn from over 100 interviews, though the passage of time has dimmed some of the detail. But the book boasts 250 never-before-seen photos (none are shown here), mostly in colour, presenting an eyewitness document of Day of the Dead that can't be beaten.

The paperback has just been published by Plexus and is now available in the UK and USA. Happily, Day of the Dead is now available on blu-ray in the UK and US, but please, please don't confuse George's film with the inferior 2008 'remake' starring Mena Suvari. Please.

September 17, 2014

Underrated Action Adventure movies - my guest post

Just had an article published on another movie blog. So if you go visit...

Rupert Pupkin Speaks - Underrated Action Adventure

... you can read my short list of action adventure movies through the decades, as well as many more sharp, snappy bundles of suggestions by other guest writers.

August 29, 2014

Flashbacks 1982 - Blade Runner, Tron, Poltergeist...

1982 was an incredible year for new movies. But at the time, I was buying fewer of my usual, general film magazines. Here are the only highlights, plus a look at the more specialised publications I was chasing instead...

This Blade Runner cover shows how Ridley Scott's futuristic vision was at odds with the style-less presentation of movie magazines.

Photoplay, October

An 'AA' certificate for the 'European Cut' of Blade Runner that was less censored than the US release. Unfortunately, that toned-down US version was then used as the basis for the 1992 'Director's Cut'.

Photoplay, October

I included this advert for Who Dares Wins because of the details of the release pattern, following TV regions and describing everywhere that isn't London as "provincial cities"!

Photoplay, October

This was a great year for special-effects heavy classics. But these monthly magazines couldn't give me what I really wanted - colour photos from the films and well-researched behind-the-scenes information. In retrospect, they provide valuable information about when and how they were released in the UK.

A great cover, but Films & Filming had no colour pages inside. Couldn't pass up articles about John Milius and David Cronenberg though!

Films & Filming, October

The Entity still has no trouble finding an audience. It was late to the 'possession' horror genre, it's edge came from the claim that it was based on a true story. Surprised to see it appeared in 70mm!

Films & Filming, November

Besides the blockbusters, mid-budget genre films like The Sword and the Sorcerer, which delighted me all through the 1970s, were disappearing from wide cinema release and instead finding their fortune on home video.

That's all I've got to show you from 1982! The reason that I bought so few Photoplays and Film Reviews was because of the blossoming of sci-fi and horror specialist magazines. Film synopses, cheesecake photos and publicity-soaked interviews were no longer enough. I was after hard facts from writers who didn't scoff at my favourite genres! Here's (some of) what I was collecting instead in 1982...

'Cinefantastique' had glossy pages (mostly colour), top reporting on new sci-fi hits, great news coverage of what was coming, and extensive, superbly researched retrospectives of genre classics.

'Cinefex' soon took over from Cinefantastique in chronicling the precise visual effects techniques used in American blockbusters, as well as any groundbreaking techniques used in film or TV, focussing on two or three of the latest movies each issue. In the UK, we could see how they made the movie before we saw had a chance to see it! Thick issues full of startling photos. However, their coverage can dissipate the magic of a movie, by blowing every secret behind the cleverest effects.

'Starlog' rivalled Cinefantastique with it's sci-fi coverage. Published more often, it could scoop it on news and had far more coverage on TV fantasy. At the time, their episode guides were invaluable!

Starlog begat 'Fangoria', with horror movie news and a special interest in the latest make-up effects. Often the clever gory techniques would never make it onto UK screens due to the avid censorship of the time. The colour pics in Fangoria were the only clues we had to what we'd missed.

Yet another American glossy on sci-fi movies, 'Fantastic Films' soon failed to compete, but with great interviews and tons of colour photos, it was essential while it lasted.

This British answer to Starlog was cheaper and timelier than the US mags. Of course 'Starburst' covered more European sci-fi, TV and (gasp) literature. It also sneaked in horror reviews in the absence of any UK mags on the subject.

But. I'm not going to go through these magazines in the same 'flashback' way. Most titles are still publishing, so I'm certainly not reproducing any of their pages. Because... copyright. And because, they still make money from back issues, digital or otherwise.

My flashback articles have focussed on the covers and adverts for the UK release date information. Taken from defunct magazines that predate the scope of internet coverage. The next flashback, 1983, will be my last look back at my UK movie mags from this era.

(There's a list of links to previous Flashback posts, from 1968 onwards, in the sidebar to the right...)

August 10, 2014

THE UFO INCIDENT (1975) - the mother of alien abduction stories

(1975, U.S. TV movie)

First recreation of a reported alien abduction - never been on DVD

This a compelling, well-produced TV movie that features an early conception of what 'grey' visitors look like and introduced the 'alien abduction' to millions of viewers, presenting it as actual events on prime-time. Whether or not all of it's true, the cultural influence of this story is huge. Before it, there'd been documentaries about UFO sightings, but here it's powerfully dramatised. First contact with an extraterrestrial civilisation, presented as a factual possibility.

Betty and Barney Hill were driving home from Montreal to Portsmouth, New Hampshire at night, when they saw an unidentified flying object. A few miles on they heard a beeping sound and both suffered amnesia (an unusual phenomenon in itself) about what happened next, arriving home in a daze two hours later than planned. After two years of nightmares and anxiety-related illness, they sought professional help and, through hypnosis, recovered memories of the lost hours from that night. They remember being stopped in the road and led into an alien spacecraft...

Many films say they're based on a true story, then distort the truth to make a better story. But The UFO Incident doesn't need to invent anything to be a gripping drama. It's based on a book containing many of the actual transcripts of the Hills' hypnosis sessions. The Interrupted Journey (1966) is written by the psychiatrist himself, who saw his job as evaluating what happened to the couple, but mainly to alleviate their anxieties over these repressed memories. The book and the film is open-minded to the possible truths behind their memories. Much of the script is taken word-for-word from their taped psychiatric sessions. As films based on true stories go, this is one of the most faithful there is.

It's up to the viewer to decide what the Hills are remembering under hypnosis. Flashbacks recreate their memories, but are they dreams or experiences? The emotional reactions from them not wanting to remember and the shock realisation over what they saw is down to James Earl Jones' and Estelle Parsons' extraordinary performances, filmed in very long takes.

According to the full-page review in Cinefantastique magazine (volume 5, number 1, 1976), James Earl Jones (above) bought the rights to the story and spent two years trying to get it made as a feature film, before settling for a TV movie. His work isn't reflected in the brief onscreen credits though. Jones even travelled the roads around the abduction site in preparation for the part.

The film packs in as many of the book's highlights and conjectures as possible, but I was clearer about the timeline of events after reading the book as well. It adds some consistent details about the visitors' motives. The aliens have no concept of age or dying (which fits in with extended years of space travel) and are only visiting Earth to collect a few samples - they say they won't be back! Betty's recovered memories are so rich in detail, the internal logic is too good to be from a dream. For instance Betty wants to stay with Barney while he's being examined, but she also wants to leave the spaceship as soon as possible. The alien leader argues that if she is examined at the same time as her husband, she'll be out of there faster!

It's a dramatic, involving and frightening movie that derives its strength from close ups of the couple under hypnosis, far more than what they actually see. Their memories are often seen only in flashes, which also means we don't dwell on the costumes and special effects too much. The budget certainly isn't Close Encounters, but it's better than Project U.F.O. because of the superior performances that sell the shocks. There are some beautiful lighting effects used to infer the pursuit by the ship that I'd love to see clearer (the YouTube files are quite vlurry). Incidentally, Greg Jein, one of the main modelmakers on Close Encounters, built the spaceship forest diorama glimpsed in The UFO Incident (below).

The significance of this case is wide-ranging, and the book and film are definitely important culturally, if not scientifically. This may not be the first reported story of an alien abduction, but because there are two witnesses it was taken more seriously. It fed into a widespread UFO paranoia, predating many similar reports and variations of abductions, and popularised the use of hypnotic regression. It also champions the idea that aliens won't harm us - the view soon to be expressed in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and by 'visitor' cults and religions.

Two years on, Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) turned the tables again and 'abductions', a weird term for an event where you're borrowed for a few hours, turned hostile again. Despite the warm fuzziness of E.T. The Extra-terrestrial, most spaceship interiors signified terrifying experiences, as seen in Communion, Fire In The Sky and The X Files.

So, The UFO Incident is an important milestone of the genre and worth watching as a drama, but is it a true story? The Hills (pictured below) weren't motivated to make this all up for personal gain. Both of them had steady jobs and Barney was also involved in civil rights campaigning. They didn't want the story getting out because of ridicule. They didn't sell their story and worked hard to keep it out of the public eye. The book was only published to set the record straight after the story was leaked to the press.

As with many stories of UFOs, I think the context of human perceptions framed by public knowledge and popular culture holds many answers, possibly revealed in the earlier cultural timeline. The film was made in 1975 but the abduction took place in 1961. (Why did it take so long to become a film?)

Betty and Barney Hill were driving home on September 19th, 1961 when they spotted a light in the sky. The way it was moving ruled out that it was a light aircraft. They thought it might be a helicopter though they couldn't hear a motor. Barney looks at it through binoculars and thinks its a UFO. But their conclusion is already being formed by many earlier reports of UFOs in that area. Betty's sister had already seen one, so they were already primed to conclude that that's what it was. 

The Twilight Zone episode 'Hocus Pocus and Frisby' 
premiered May 1962, between their abduction and hypnosis

On TV, many episodes of The Twilight Zone featured spaceships and alien visitors similar to the ones they describe, not to mention hundreds of pulp novels with imaginative cover art, cartoons and the sci-fi feature films of the previous decade. This Island Earth (1955) and Invaders From Mars (1954) both feature abductions, the latter a table examination with a needle probe. The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) has the same circular corridors and ramp that they described inside the spaceship. These films and TV episodes could all provide a library of visual experiences to be remembered later on. Whether the Hills saw any of these or not, the images might also have been on posters, in newspapers and TV guides.

While they claim amnesia for most of the ride home, Betty had very vivid dreams over the next few weeks, detailing her walking into the spaceship and speaking telepathically with the alien visitors on board. She then writes down these dreams.  I don't know what extra detail she remembers under hypnosis, other than that it was real rather than a dream. She also contacted her sister, who had seen a UFO, and then Project Blue Book takes a statement of their sighting. Those guys may also have quizzed them with leading questions, adding detail to what they could have seen. Barney also read a book about UFO experiences (Donald Keyhoe's 'The Flying Saucer Conspiracy').

All this happens in the two years before the taped hypnotisms, the couple have potentially filled themselves up with memories by December 1963. By which time, The Outer Limits is also on TV - featuring a different alien creature every week! (The episode 'The Bellero Shield' featuring a grey alien with a streamlined head premiered the week before the Hills' second hypnotic session.) Their two missing hours could also be explained by their repeatedly stopping the car and getting lost on the way home.

While their experiences are broadly the same, this could be explained that Betty has been talking about her nightmares with Barney. In any case, the psychiatrist doesn't cross-examine them closely on the details once they're inside the ship (Betty mentions that the examiner took out Barney's false teeth, but the psychiatrist fails to check if Barney also remembered that incident). The opportunity to get two distinct accounts is further tainted when he plays back all their trance-like recordings back to them, once they're awake.

I was struck that their descriptions of the abduction is dreamlike, mirroring their state under hypnosis - they are barely awake when they are dragged into the ship. The aliens also use hypnotic suggestion on them to cooperate. Betty mentions that the aliens talk to her without talking (infering telepathy) but also much like we communicate with characters in our dream.

The psychiatrist questioning Betty parallels the alien leader interrogating her. There's even a moment in the book when Betty is in an alien waiting room while Barney is still being examined (this is when she asks about the star map). A parallel experience with her hypnotism session happening after Barney's.

But these stories are fascinating, and the film and book stress the possible multitude of reasons for their recalled experiences. An extraordinary case dealt with sympathetically though intelligently. The abduction experience overshadows what just happened when they were conscious - a UFO that they observed over several miles that seemed to be following the car. Barney even stares at it through binoculars, observing a window with several figures inside!

I wish it were a true story. But projecting wishes onto what I've seen in this movie is probably the same mechanism that started this all in the first place.

The cover scans I've seen of this on sale online make me think that The UFO Incident has never officially been on DVD. All the art looks like bootleg. Though there's this NTSC VHS sleeve (above) that indicates it had a home video release. But it should really be on DVD, rather than the fuzzy, jumpy TV recordings that are currently on YouTube.