Doom Asylum (1988)

A charmingly ramshackle horror comedy that never really works as either. Shot on film but finished on video – no matter what format you watch it on, the title card will always appear in hazy SD resolution – Doom Asylum is from the pits of the DTV horror hey-day. Regardless, the film has enjoyed a resilient shelf-life, no-doubt due in part to an early performance from Sex and the City‘s Kristin Davis and a few other familiar faces from the annals of horror, but also because rubbery make-up, silly gore gags and a compromised production tale will never not find an audience.

Shot in a genuine abandoned asylum, adjourned with genuine graffiti and mostly shot at day to accommodate the minimal lighting budget. Much of the runtime is also padded out by clips of the killer watching Tod Slaughter comedies as the initial cut fell short of the minimum 77 minutes required to qualify as a feature. Everything here is frugal and skeletal but the wisecracking tone as well as the amount of 80s-era signifiers, pop-artifacts, plus one or two satisfying murder effects, keep it fun and lively.

In broad strokes, there’s nothing here you haven’t seen before, over and over again but there’s always comfort in these kinds of silly movies in the same way there’s comfort in Ed Wood’s movies. These movies live on because somewhere at some time, enough people cared enough about this stupid shit to actually make it into a reality. The results aren’t great, nor even good, but you know, bless them, they tried. Kinda.

Watched on Arrow blu-ray

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The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (1988)

Anyone unfamiliar with Vincent Ward – perhaps best known as the initial director for Alien 3 – do yourself a favour and check out his first film Vigil; one of the muddiest, psychotronic art-dirges I’ve seen. The Navigator is his follow-up, which is equally tactile and stubbornly artful with an opening thirty minutes consisting of a black and white voyage through a black plague-infested 14th century England. Then the film switches gears as our voyagers tunnel so deep into the monochromatic countryside that they emerge in 1980s New Zealand. Yep, this is a time travel movie.

Most impressively, while not entirely forgoing the fish-out-of-water comedic potential of the material, Ward manages to sustain the mystic-horror tone of the film’s first third. The contemporary surroundings are experienced from the POV of the travellers, transforming highways, factories and architecture into an awe-inspiring industrial landscape of roaring metallic beasts and oppressive monoliths.

Where Terry Gilliam followed a similar muse and created the entirely Gilliamesque black-comedy Time Bandits, Ward, less of a sketchbook to scrapbook filmmaker than Gilliam, more of a pencil-sketch to renaissance painting man, stages a gorgeous realist-fantasy display that is haunted by a level of ambiguity that keeps the film anchored in a netherworld between the real and the unreal. The possibility that either side of the tunnel could be an imagined reality is never entirely dispelled meaning The Navigator can’t be simplified down to its surface pleasures alone, but it can also be enjoyed if taken completely at face-value.

Having seen Vigil last year and now The Navigator, Vincent Ward has become one of the most curious, offbeat talents I’ve discovered recently. His brief but striking filmography raises more questions than it answers but you can see the potential of unrealised projects by description and the strength of these first two movies alone. The Navigator especially shows an incredibly gifted image-maker flexing his muscles with an eye towards commercial-appeal keeping him from falling into passages of self-indulgence, an impulse he shares with fellow Alien-maker Ridley Scott. If the right set of circumstances occurred you could imagine Ward sharing a career trajectory with Scott, but alas only a handful of Ward’s transmissions arrived. Extra props go to Arrow and their lovely restorations for keeping these oddities alive.

Watched on Arrow blu-ray

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Body Double (1984)

With every rewatch (and there have been many) Body Double inches closer and closer to being my favourite De Palma movie. Maybe it’s because this is very much a Greatest Hits collection, combining and elaborating on all of De Palma’s obsessions, desires, visual motifs and set-pieces up to this point and displaying them as gorgeous, lurid splash pages in a porno-snuff magazine. The cinematography is so slick, capturing an art-deco-rendered 80s LA as both sun-bleached city of plastic dreams and nocturnally black netherworld of nightmares and debauchery. No amount of hammy acting can take away from De Palma’s A-grade craft and note-perfect B-movie satire. This deranged vision of genre-bled Hollywood horror that also finds time for a porn-flick rendition of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax” – presented as a music video no less – might just be my cinematic ideal.

Watched on Indicator blu-ray

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Top of the Lake: China Girl (2017)

Messier, darker, stranger than season one. Less concise and coherent but full of unforgettable images, askew characterisation and observations.

Campion really leans into her instincts as sardonic dreamweaver this time around. There are a bunch of grotesque leaps in narrative logic that nevertheless enhance the overall feeling of being constantly caught off guard. The attack in episode three is absurd, sure, but it doesn’t make it any less nightmarish and is emotionally in line with Robin’s psyche.

I totally get why many weren’t as on board with this but I thought it was a troubling and beautiful ode to motherhood in all its forms. This is also probably my favourite Elisabeth Moss performance. I love when Campion indulges in the more eccentric fringes of her imagination. Hopefully in time people will pull an In the Cut and come around on this maddening piece of femme cine-poetry. China Girl > Top of the Lake. SORRY.

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Punishment Park (1971)

A feral display of documentary techniques in service of a truly nightmarish dystopian vision. This feels white knuckle-terrifying at every turn. Bulging eyes, sweat everywhere, the landscape and film grain rough like sandpaper, the whole film resembles a cigarette burn. Immediate, visceral and, unfortunately, as timely as ever. Finally crossing this off the watchlist was as thrilling, and affecting, as I had hoped.

Watched on Eureka Masters of Cinema blu-ray

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Man of Violence (1970)

Man of Violence aka Moon is a scrappy little 60s brit exploitation movie by famed scuzz-master Andy Milligan made just before he concentrated all his skills on horror pictures. While yes this was released in 1971, it is nevertheless animated through and through by the colour and attitudes of the 60s. All the men are suited geezers, all the women are buxom sex bunnies and it’s full of softcore smut and blood so red and paint-like you could decorate a bordello with it. All that stuff is a lot of fun, as is Milligan’s lo-fi resourcefulness. A shootout in a graveyard – a sparse British graveyard with crumbling gravestones no less – is an aesthetic highlight in that it reminds you of the crew behind the camera running and gunning it in the service of cheap genre thrills.

The plot is unnecessarily convoluted, twisting and turning itself so out of shape that I just gave up following it by a certain point, but the swagger of the whole thing keeps you engaged. A change of locale in the last act is a welcome shock to the senses as Milligan trades the gritty London pavements for a dusty dry foreign landscape with our main character suddenly decked out in a white suit, immediately bringing to mind Warren Oates in Sam Peckinpah’s similarly purgatorial thriller Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. There’s a lot to be charmed by. It’s certainly nasty, and while the sexist, racist vernacular of the time hasn’t aged well but it’d be a fools errand to expect anything less as you can’t really get much lower than the kind of gutter-level entertainment Milligan was trying to deliver here. The actresses are all gorgeous and there’s a curious bisexual element to the main character casually dropped in to ensure this avoids being totally hampered by the bigoted ideals of the time in which it was made.

Watched on BFI blu-ray

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Privilege (1967)

What a striking blast of inventive technique this is. Nobody could wield a documentary approach for fictional purposes like Peter Watkins. This story of the creation of a pop messiah for the purposes of political totalitarianism is wildly ahead of its time and bracing. It’s always jarring when a film this bold, unique and stylish can remain obscure enough to feel like a titanic discovery for whoever watches it. It’s the kind of film that throws you through a wide-eyed experience and leaves you wondering: why isn’t everybody talking about this movie all the time? Only thing that would make it better is a “This Film Should Be Played Loud!” title card at the start. Good advice for an assaultive movie that demands to be heard at full volume.

Sidenote: I read an interview recently with Brady Corbet where he says he considered using Peter Watkins to narrate Vox Lux before he approached Willem Dafoe. Oh how I wish he followed through on that impulse. In the meantime there’s Privilege which more than doubles up as Peter Watkins’ Vox Lux.

Watched on BFI blu-ray

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Jubilee (1978)

“As long as the music’s loud enough, we won’t hear the world falling apart”

Like the concrete and graffiti that fills its frames, Jubilee combines grit with a scrappy graphic artistry to render the burgeoning UK punk scene on celluloid. It’s successful for the most part, capturing not just the eccentric fashion statements but the entire attitude of punk with a blistering immediacy and playfulness. As to be expected with Jarman, it has a classy formalism to offset the grime, feeling at times like a regally-dressed shopfront rather than a genuinely vandalised Britain of the future. It becomes a tad tiresome as it goes along, but the imagination, performances and novelty of seeing this moment in time captured so vividly carries you through.

Watched on BFI blu-ray

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In the Cut (2003)

Criminally misunderstood and rejected upon release, this is a groundbreaking dissection of feminine sexuality personified by Meg Ryan, at 42, owning every inch of her age and maturity to heighten an already-incredible performance. Grisly, lurid and soaked in fluids, part-urban horror, part-erotic thriller but filtered through Campion’s unique lens it becomes something wholly new, severe and emotionally visceral. The explicit and frank discussions about sex and body parts, the threat of extreme violence bubbling in every scene, the hot-blooded visuals and the spiralling dream-cum-nightmare aura – there’s so much to process. This is the kind of film that makes you feel naughty for watching it. I’m actually shook.

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Opera (1987)

One of Argento’s best and a personal favourite. Opera benefits greatly from being so straight-forward and direct with its themes and visual concepts but naturally, this being 80s Argento after all, he can’t help but get in his own dumbass way with that unbelievably dumb epilogue. Thankfully the overall damage is minimal. Here are some of the finest set-pieces of Argento’s career electrified by dizzying camerawork and a welcome streak of cruelty to the violence, preventing you from having too good a time with all that nastiness. A lot of Argento movies from this period have a tendency to make you roll your eyes. Opera forces you to never look away. Even better the second time.

Watched on blu-ray.

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