Mr. Sardonicus (1961)

Easily the grisliest William Castle film of the initial four I’m working through, this feels at once like his take on Hammer horror and the Dracula mythos. In each subsequent film you can feel Castle pushing the envelope that little bit further with what he can get away with, while also pushing his own skills as a filmmaker. The gothic stylings and sadistic undertones are especially strong in Mr. Sardonicus even if the film’s dumbass plot and bland lead leave a lot to be desired not to mention the gimmicks, which are really starting to feel tired. None of Castle’s films lack a sense of play though, and they are all alive with a twisted and camp sense of humour that I really love. Oskar Homolka especially makes chewing gum out of the scenery. Visiting William Castle’s universe for the first time has been one of 2019’s great new-to-me pleasures, and as this is the final film in this particular box set I’m sad to leave it for a while, at least until I snap up Volume 2. Can’t wait.

Watched on Indicator blu-ray

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Halloween II (2009)

Rewatching these films has become a bit of a habit, always binged back-to-back for the ultimate experience. They are now deep, personal favourites of mine. This time around I especially loved how Zombie revisits the spaces of the first film – the strip club, the houses – but they now all feel either desolate and abandoned or barricaded for an incoming storm. This Haddonfield is plagued by hostilities, battered and bruised. The open wound from the first film has now scabbed over, unhealed. So much writing about Halloween II focuses on its explicit portrayal of Laurie’s trauma, and yet people are quick to forget or ignore that Michael is essentially promoted to co-lead, with his own visions, nightmares and trauma fully represented and explored. A truly radical move on Zombie’s part. Everyone is screaming, everyone is frayed. One of cinema’s great unflinching, visceral hangovers.

Watched on blu-ray

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Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)

This is where the Rambo persona and brand was fully set in stone. Or rather the block of stone that was First Blood was chiseled into the form of Stallone’s beefcake physique, had a bandana slapped on its head and promoted the character’s name to the title. This is where Rambo is re-configured from an avatar for all PTSD-suffering vets abandoned by their country into representing all the brouhaha war boys beating their chests for some payback. An 80s action icon is born.

Arriving slap-bang in the middle of the decade, it’s pretty wild at how many 80s action tropes are present and accounted for in Rambo: First Blood Part II. Not only is it a total dry-run for Predator among others, but it contains a gamut of formative images; Rambo tooling up, firing big guns, taking on armies, flexing his muscles. There might be forebearers to individual elements, but I can’t think of an action movie which predates this that holds so many tropes in one place, though Commando was hot on its heels. Regardless, this was definitely a template-setter for testosterone-fuelled filmmaking moving forward.

There’s also a murderer’s row of craftsmen behind the scenes. James Cameron on screenplay duties is one thing (while heavily re-written, this is clearly from the mind that would dream up Aliens a few years later) but Jack Cardiff in charge of cinematography? Add to that Jerry Goldsmith’s awesome score, brilliantly embodying all of the film’s warfare physicality and primal mentality. That’s what I call a tasty burger.

Admittedly, I’ve never been a big fan of the Rambo franchise but I always had a soft spot for First Blood. Unfortunately, the sequel makes literal what that film hinted at or subverted, and it carries over none of its covert pathos. Still, it does have a dude being shot with an explosive arrow. One of those undeniable movies that just blows shit up real good.

Watched on blu-ray

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Homicidal (1961)

At first glance this can’t help but feel like William Castle’s shameless riff on Psycho but it slowly distorts into something else entirely. Freakier, stranger, more lurid and more violent than Hitchcock would ever allow himself to go, Homicidal also isn’t afraid to directly engage with the queer and sexual undertones that arise from the material, making it a rich and rewarding text that is complex beyond its years in ways Hitchcock’s seminal film isn’t.

Castle’s B-shocker might be painted on a postcard canvas of sleepy towns, quaint diners and sunny pharmacies but the whole thing simmers with a nervous, twitching energy that occasionally jolts into bursts of sudden violence, both emotional and physical. It’s a tale populated by dark and broken people, who look at one another with faces plagued by suspicion or fear. Characters are scarred by trauma, confined in wheelchairs or fall prey to sexual desire. By the end, the plot has risen to such heightened levels of hysteria that Castle’s “Fright Break” gimmick, as silly and cheap as it is, might actually be justified. At the very least, there wouldn’t be a ride on a stair lift this deadly until Gremlins over twenty years later.

I’m only a handful of films into his filmography, but I’ve no doubt Homicidal will prove to be one of Castle’s most satisfying and unpredictable efforts, existing in the same horrors-hidden-behind-white-picket-fences milieu that David Lynch would one day explore so artfully in Blue Velvet. This is a fucking wild ride into netherworld Americana.

Watched on Indicator blu-ray

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13 Ghosts (1960)

While the interactive “Ghost Viewer” gimmick of 13 Ghosts is stronger than Tingler‘s “Percepto”, the film it animates is a lot less inspiring. Basically a bunch of bad people trying to get a payout with occasional appearances from the titular ghosts, rather blandly represented by coloured opticals. All the surrounding domestic stuff is a bit of slog too and instantly fades from memory. Love Margaret Hamilton’s crooked performance though and all the sly winks to her wicked witch from Wizard of Oz. Doesn’t quite work with home viewing.

Watched on Indicator blu-ray

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The Tingler (1959)

My first William Castle! Not the inept Hitchcock knockoff nor shoddy 50s creature feature I was expecting, but a totally unique crackpot horror invention all of its own. Featuring one of the most pleasurably convoluted plots I’ve ever encountered, The Tingler constantly twists, turns, writhes and coils itself out of shape before snapping back into coherence in service of Castle’s ballyhoo theatrics.

In this world you’re never quite sure of who’s good and who’s bad and it takes a minute to adjust to the shifting character relationships, but it all adds to the aura of confusion and the sense that something otherworldly could occur at any moment. It also helps that everything is animated by the giddy tone which strikes a balance between cruelty and camp effortlessly, making it the perfect starring vehicle for Vincent Price.

It’s hard to go into just how much unfolds in Castle’s breakneck 82 minutes. Every scene seems to have its own whiplash arc, setting up or cutting off endless possibilities of where the film could go and choosing to pursue avenues that are still surprising. There’s an astounding set-piece featuring a mute woman encountering a bathtub full of blood, with the blood itself being presented in gorgeous colour while the rest of the image remains monochrome, that really took my breath away. Beyond that The Tingler also boasts the first on-screen LSD trip (before Corman no less) and has enough bug-nuts body horror puppetry to make Shivers-era Cronenberg envious.

I loved this so much and would kill to see it in a cinema with the original “Percepto” experience intact. Might be the ultimate 50s B-Movie, and one that now feels borderline experimental in its melding of entertainment and audience participation. Less of a gimmicky cash-grab on film stock than a living breathing funhouse transmitted live onto a cinema screen. A wacky, oddball work of outsider art.

Watched on Indicator blu-ray

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The Dark (2018)

Striking adolescent horror film which comes at a tired narrative from a curious new angle. It engages with plenty of upsetting ideas and the visual of an undead girl paired with an abused boy is the stuff of dark, twisted fairy tales. The film doesn’t skimp on its violence either. It’s tough and bracing, only hampered by some un-convincing make-up effects and just-about-good-enough performances of the young leads. Another sad melancholic horror about the ripples of past trauma, clearly echoes of early del Toro but never quite reaches that level.

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Too Old to Die Young (2019)

“I think I might have to kill her, man”

Refn’s commitment to his own muse, his own metronome, his own fetishes and indulgences across this sprawling, neon-mirror LA canvas is, if nothing else, incredibly inspiring. Submerging myself into Too Old to Die Young over the past few days has been such a trippy, challenging, exhilarating experience. On multiple occasions it had me ruminating on the basic rules and requirements of narrative and aesthetic storytelling. The stranger and more singular it became, the more in awe I was of its stubborn desire to be nothing other than what it wanted to be.

Sometimes a piece of work transcends being merely “good” or “bad” just by being so intensely its own thing at all costs, by any means necessary. How can you quantify if a scene goes on too long, if a narrative thread is unnecessary or if a performance is too minimal or too over the top if every single one of those creative choices is exactly as intended? Nothing here is a mistake, everything is a decision that was absolutely seen through to the end. That’s something you don’t see very often, least of all on this scale. This isn’t entertainment. It is genre, maximised and minimised. Glacial. Shocking. Moving images staged as still life photography. An exorcism of ideas, visual and otherwise, from the imagination that dreamed it up. Lurid, sexual, cruel and grotesquely funny. This is art for art’s sake. My favourite thing of 2019 so far.

Watched on Amazon Prime

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The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire (1971)

Watched this a week ago and I’ve already forgotten most of it. The puzzling Dublin setting, convoluted plotting – even by classic giallo standards – and ludicrous finale certainly give it oddball selling points though. Big fan of movies that end with a dude jumping out of a window and crashing onto a car below. Oh and Dagmar Lassander, of course. It also features maybe the most convincing bald cap I’ve ever seen </sarcasm>.

Watched the Arrow blu-ray

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The Secret of the Grain aka Couscous (2007)

It’s quite remarkable how much this sucks you in to the world of these people and their plight. A humanistic epic coloured by an eclectic array of faces, voices and interactions which all feel achingly genuine. The working class backdrop and how passions for food, flavour and dance ignites so many sequences really won me over. It reminded me of Mike Leigh, in that I could imagine an entire lifetime happening to these characters before and after the events in the film. I loved spending time with this family and wanted so much for them to succeed. Did Hafsia Herzi become a superstar after this or what?

Watched on Artificial Eye blu-ray

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