Punishment Park (1971) | Why does Peter Watkins’ subversive pseudo-documentary continue to upset America?
Set in a future where America’s war in Vietnam has led to the setting up of detention camps to hold dissidents, director Peter Watkins’ 1971 pseudo-documentary involves a British film crew, led by Watkins himself, following one group of radicals who accept three days in a ‘punishment park’ over a prison sentence. But it’s not going to be easy. The group are on foot, have no food or water, and cannot ask the assistance of the documentary crew as they cross 60-miles of desert to reach their target – an American flag. And standing in their way – squads of law enforcement officers waiting to take them down…
Punishment Park might seem like a dystopian sci-fi in the vein of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four or a futuristic take on the classic adventure The Most Dangerous Game, but it’s actually a despairing indictment of repression in a country that boasts of freedom, liberty and human rights for all.
Mercilessly attacked for being an anti-American paranoid fantasy on its release in 1971, Punishment Park remained virtually unseen in that country for over three decades until it was finally released on DVD in 2005. It’s now available in the UK in a restored version in HD on Blu-ray and DVD (see below).
To fully understand the film, you need to know what was happening to America at the end of the 1960s. As militant elements within the peace movement against the Vietnam War were becoming vocal, the Johnson and Nixon administrations turned to show trials and police force to silence them.
Using an actual piece of US legislation from the 1950s, which provided for the setting up of detention facilities for communist subversives, Watkins structured his pseudo-documentary around the stories of real-life protestors as told by non-actors.
The effect – combined with the brutal desert setting (Bear Mountain in California) and Watkins’ sly investigative reporter – made it all seem real (something he also succeeded in doing in his seminal 1965 BBC TV documentary, The War Game – which gets a BFI Blu-ray release in the UK on 28 March 2016). And it was too real for some, as Danish TV thought it was an actual news report. But there’s certainly no winking to the camera in Watkins’ film. Instead, he challenges the documentary film form, making us (the viewer) complicit in the terrible, brutal acts that unfold.
Post 9/11 and and Punishment Park still makes for uneasy viewing – especially when you consider the abuse, brutality, humiliation and loss of civil liberties that dominate our news bulletins every day. As such, it remains a powerful tour-de-force that needs to be experienced and debated once again.
Punishment Park is available on Dual Format (Blu-ray and DVD) through Eureka!’s The Masters of Cinema Series, and inclues the following features:
• Restored high-definition transfer (shot on 16mm, Punishment Park has been re-mastered from a new 35mm print struck from the restored 35mm blow-up negative held in Paris).
• 30-minute introduction by Peter Watkins, filmed from 2004.
• Audio commentary by Dr Joseph A Gomez (author of the 1979 book Peter Watkins).
• Optional English subtitles.
• Booklet with two essays and reprints by Watkins.
The Honeymoon Killers (1969) | The one-of-a-kind cult true crime classic restored and back on the pull
The gritty black and white 1969 indie crime thriller, The Honeymoon Killers, had all the hallmarks of a truly forgettable film – scratchy sound, incongruous classical music, grainy camerawork, and some dodgy acting – but it all works to create what has become one of the great cult true crime films.
Filmed in a raw, fly-on-the wall style, the film centres on frustrated nurse Martha Beck (Shirley Stoler), who gets signed up her bossy, but well-meaning friend Bunny (Doris Roberts) to a Lonely Hearts club, where she meets Spanish lothario Raymond Fernandez (Tony Lo Bianco). Quickly sussing out Ray’s using the club to swindle mature women out of their savings, the smittened Martha decides to join him on the con, but on one condition – that he never sleeps with any of their intended victims…
Imagine Bonnie & Clyde as though filmed by Paul Morrissey (during his Factory days with Andy Warhol), with a script by John Waters, and a lead actress who could be Divine’s twin sister and you’d have this subversive thriller in a nutshell. Now the scenario is certainly bleak, cynical and cruel, but there’s also bags of humanity thrown into the mix and that’s down to the commanding performances of Stoler and LoBianco who bring to their matronly Martha and the muscular Ray a genuine sense of sympathy. There’s also a subtle touch of comedy, especially in the characterisations of the women being swindled.
Watching the coupling of these sociopaths unfold (as though shot on candid camera) is both gripping and frightening as it makes their amoral deeds (which eventually turn to murder) all more ghastly. But ultimately, you can’t help but feel for Martha, loathsome as she is, who just wanted to be loved.
Famously, the film’s screenwriter Leonard Kastle (who was actually an opera composer) took over as director when the original was fired. Amazingly, that was Martin Scorsese – so you can only imagine how different the film may have looked had he completed it. But I’m rather please that he didn’t…
The Honeymoon Killers is out now on Blu-ray and DVD from Arrow in the UK following a 4K restoration drawn from the the original 35mm camera negative, and includes the original mono audio remastered from the 35mm magnetic track and optional subtitles.
THE BONUS FEATURES
• Love Letters: a video piece featuring actors Tony Lo Bianco and Marilyn Chris and editor Stan Warnow
• Folie à Deux: Director Todd Robinson explores the true story of the Lonely Hearts Killers
• Body Shaming: Todd Robinson explores the film
• Beyond Morality: Fabrice du Welz, director of Alleluia, discusses the film that inspired him
• Booklet featuring an essay on the film and its real-life inspiration, plus archive materials
Welcome to our nightmare!
Three strangers, Sam (Katherine Waterston), Tom (Scott Eastwood) and Jody (Sara Paxton), find themselves at a secluded forest cabin, each with different reasons for arriving. But every time they attempt to leave, something keeps bringing them back to the same spot. As they uncover the reason why, they are shocked to discover they are all connected…
This mystery thriller from producer/director Jack Heller originally came under the title Enter Nowhere when it was screened on the indie film festival circuit back in 2011. It’s now got a new title, The Haunting of Black Wood, which is actually a bit misleading, as it’s not strictly a ghost story – as such.
It is, however, a taunt, well paced, well shot little gem that grips you from start to finish, and has a cracking twist that’s worthy of a Ray Bradbury or a Richard Matheson suspense tale in the The Twilight Zone vein. I’m not going to reveal anything more as that would spoil the surprise, but be prepared for something that you don’t normal get from these kind of low budget American straight-to-home entertainment releases.
Kudos go to the three leads, whose grounded performances give the fantastical story a real sense of believability. Scott Eastwood, son of Clint, is currently filming Oliver Stone’s latest project, while Sara Paxton gave a sterling spooky turn in Ti West’s The Innkeepers (check out my review here), and Katherine Waterson, daughter of Sam, is best known for appearing in Boardwalk Empire.
The Haunting of Black Wood is out on DVD in the UK from Metrodome
It Follows (2014) | Step by step! The gripping American indie teen horror will leave you shivering with fear
A noise in the night, the feel of something unknown coming from nowhere, the ominous presence, the unexplained… these have long been staples of classic horror and they’re used to great effect in It Follows, a stylistic, slickly-shot, indie teen horror.
19-year-old Jay (Maika Monroe) has a casual sexual encounter with a hot stranger Hugh (Jake Weary), who transfers to her the presence of a shape-shifting phantom that will follow and kill her unless she passes the danger on – again through sex. Haunted by the inescapable sense that something is indeed following her, Jay enlists the help of her neighbourhood friends to find a way to escape the thing that seems always to be just one step behind…
From its chilling opening scene of a young woman fleeing an invisible presence in a dark and deserted suburban street to the heart-racing stand-off inside a mausoleum-like swimming pool centre, It Follows is a gripping, sweat-inducing, waking nightmare – and one that marks second-time director David Robert Mitchell as one to watch.
Mitchell’s sophomore feature puts a horror spin on his 2010 first effort, The Myth of the American Sleepover, and shares similarities with Sofia Coppola’s stunning 1999 debut, The Virgin Suicides. Both are dark explorations of teen angst in suburbia (in Detroit, Michigan no less), driven by cool visual aesthetics (check out the 360-degree pans) and a thrilling electronic music score (Rich Vreeland/Disasterpeace’s synth dirge is awesome, and deafening so).
The film’s horror device – a creeping unknown that takes on many faces, walks ever so slowly, and always in a direct line – is simple (it reminded me of those old playground games of ‘tag’ and ‘statues’), but also terrifyingly effective; and a chilling metaphor for STDs. Let’s face it, sex has always equalled death in teen horror film. It Follows takes the classic trope and gives it a contemporary, expressionistic spin; but it also reduces sex to little more than a bargaining chip, something that will save you, but curse your partner as a result. It’s an inventive concept, but also a cynical comment on modern life.
The Other (1972) | Robert Mulligan’s Depression-era set psychological chiller is an unsetting, underrated original
When does the game stop and the terror begin?
It is the summer of 1935 on the Perry farmstead in rural Connecticut, where 10-year-old Niles (Chris Udvarnoky) spends the long days playing games with his mischievous twin Holland (Martin Udvarnoky), while his Russian grandmother Ada (Uta Hagen) helps him hone his gift for astral projection. Still grieving over the recent death of the boys’ father, fragile Alexandra (Diana Muldaur) refuses to leave her room – much to Niles’ annoyance. When a series of mysterious death befall the family, Niles is quick to blame his twin – which comes as a shock to Ada, because Holland died some months before…
There have been all the others, but now there is The Other.
If The Waltons had ever been made into a horror movie, it would probably have looked a lot like this creepy psychological chiller from 1972, based on a best-selling American gothic chiller novel by actor-turned-novelist Thomas Tyron (he was the eponymous alien in I Married a Monster from Outer Space). Featuring richly textured photography from Robert Surtees (of Ben-Hur and The Graduate fame) and ably directed by Robert Mulligan (To Kill a Mockingbird, Summer of ’42), The Other maybe low on full-on frights, but it sure knows how to rack up the tension.
Lulling you into a false sense of security – before the big reveal – is Surtees’ soft-lensed photography, which evokes halcyon days of a carefree rural childhood (I was channelling my inner Tom Sawyer as I watched it). But behind the innocent play something wicked this way comes as Mulligan presents a unnerving depiction of a disturbed childhood. Is there something supernatural going on, one that’s linked to the thing in the tobacco box that Niles clings to or in his ability to astral project? Is he a traumatised innocent or a sociopath in the making? Whatever you glean, The Other greatly echoes imaginative horrors like Cat People and the cryptic chills of The Innocents. It’s also an accomplished, unsetting creeper and an underrated original within the bad seed genre.
Chris and Martin Udvarnoky (in their only screen credit) give wonderfully naturalistic performances as cherubic Niles and cruel twin Holland, while double Tony Award-winning Broadway actress Uta Hagen is the film’s guiding soul, playing the concerned grandmother who, blaming herself for Niles’ state of mind, is forced to take drastic measures to save him. In 2010, Chris Udvarnoky died of polycystic kidney disease; while his brother Marty today works as a massage therapist in New Jersey.
SPECIAL DUAL FORMAT (BLU-RAY + DVD) EDITION:
Eureka! Entertainment presents The Other on Blu-ray as part of a dual format edition in a new transfer of the film in its original aspect ratio, with optional English subtitles. A trailer is included, as well as a booklet, which features an essay on the film and a reprint of a 1972 interview with director Robert Mulligan.
Ganja & Hess (1973) | Hailed and damned and hailed again! Bill Gunn’s cult masterpiece now on Blu-ray in the UK
Some marriages are made in heaven, others are made in hell!
While studying the ancient Mythria tribe of Africa, wealthy anthropologist Dr Hess Green (Duane Jones) is stabbed with a ceremonial dagger by his unstable new assistant George (Bill Gunn), endowing him with immortality and cursing him to drink human blood. Following George’s suicide, his sassy, no-nonsense wife Ganja (Marlene Clark) comes look for answers, but ends up finding a unexpected soul mate in Hess, which results in the couple’s ritualistic union. But when Hess finally decides to seek salvation in a bizarre act of self-exorcism, Ganja isn’t so willing to give up her newly acquired immortality…
‘One of the most literate, allegorical, and evasive of all horror films’
David Walker & Tim Lucas, Video Watchdog
Before you sit down to watch this, be warned! Ganja & Hess is neither a blaxploitation film nor a vampire movie (which it was intended to be). It is, in fact, a hauntingly original, highly-stylised drama about sex, faith, addiction and African American identity. A cult film in the true sense of the word, its fractured history is the stuff of underground cinema legend.
US playwright Bill Gunn was in the right place and the right time when he was handed US$350,000 to make his debut feature. But though he was supposed to have made a blaxploitation horror to ride on the cape and coat-tails of Blacula and its sequel (reviewed here), he ended up giving his producers an enigmatic meditation on addiction with an improvised Bergmanesque bent and an newly-radicalised African American agenda. It earned rave reviews at Cannes, but wasn’t what the producers ordered. They responded by re-editing it (excising all of the arty bits) and releasing it as Blood Couple (as well as Double Possession and Back Vampire amongst others) for the drive-in and grindhouse circuits. Gunn was furious. And so should have been.
Gunn’s marginalised masterpiece ended up fading into obscurity, while the director himself died prematurely in 1989 (from encephalitis). But thanks to film historian David Kalat, a director’s cut of the film was eventually released in 1998, followed by a HD version in the US under the Kino label. Now, the film gets it UK debut on Blu-ray and DVD from Eureka! Entertainment.
An important work in African-American cinema, Ganja & Hess is much more than just a failed horror movie experiment. Inspired by Gunn’s vision, film-maker Spike Lee has even filmed a remake, entitled Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, which hits US cinemas in February 2015.
Ganja & Hess is certainly difficult to digest in one sitting (especially the lengthy monologues), but it’s worth the effort. The images are many and multi-layered, fired by the director’s imagination and intellectual agenda; while the soundtrack is a fusion of soul and gospel, droning psychedelia, and primal screaming. The 16mm and 35mm film stocks used give the images a hazy, dreamlike quality that’s entirely suited to Gunn’s maverick style. And its worth noting that both George Romero’s Martin (1977) and Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction (1995) share its gritty low-budget look and vampiric/addiction themes.
Cult film fans will recognise Duane Jones from Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. He was actually working as a teacher at the time and only did the film as a favour for Gunn; while the guy playing Ganja’s well-endowed lover was in fact a teacher friend of Johnson’s. Ganja & Hess (yes it is a play on the word hash) is a must-have for any serious cult film collection.
THE UK DUAL FORMAT RELEASE
Ganja & Hess is available on Dual Format (Blu-ray & DVD) from 26 January 2015 in the UK from Eureka! Entertainment, and this what you get:
• 1080p high-definition transfer of the original 16mm film elements, presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio
• Optional English subtitles
• Audio commentary, recorded in 1998, with producer Chiz Schultz, actress Marlene Clark, cinematographer James Hinton and composer Sam Waymon . This is hugely informative and very entertaining, and helps fill in those gaps about the what the film is about. It was also included on the 2012 Kino release.
• Select scene commentary with David Kalat
• The Blood of the Thing. David Kalat leads a 29-min interview-based documentary. Very basic, but informative. It also appeared on the Kino release.
• Gunn’s original screenplay available via DVD-Rom and BD-Rom.
• Reversible Sleeve
• 24-page booklet featuring an essay on the history of the film and a vintage letter written by Gunn to the New York Times in 1973.
George A Romero is legendary because of his popular Living Dead horror cycle, but his 1977-released arthouse shocker Martin remains one of my favourites among the director’s films. Too disturbing, bleak and personal to have been a hit at the time of its release, it is now considered a modern horror classic.
John Amplas made his film debut as Martin, a confused teenager who thinks he is an 84-year-old vampire. His grand-uncle Cuda (Lincoln Maazel) – who believes a family curse is responsible for Martin being the reincarnation of the Transylvanian vampire, Nosferatu – only reinforces this. Cuda takes the lad in, but warns Martin that if he tries to harm anyone, he will be destroyed. But Cuda’s old world attempts to rid Martin of his malediction with crosses, garlic and a trip to church merely irritates the boy – who is, in fact, a strictly modern sexual psycho who uses razor blades to drain the blood from his female victims…
The 2010 DVD release from Arrow Video is a dream come true to fans like me as it also includes the Italian-version of the film, Wampyr, a totally-different edit which excels because of the heart-pounding soundtrack by Goblin – the wizards behind many of director Dario Argento’s horror film scores. The English-language version begins with a ferocious account of Martin’s bloodlust in a railway compartment, but this happens mid-way in the Italian version, where the Goblin score makes this scene a standout. Also memorable is a scene set in a swish modernist house where Martin plays cat and mouse with his victims. Martin is certainly tough and ready around the edges, but Romero’s inventive hand-held camerawork, naturalistic lighting and creative editing gives the film a gritty, experimental look, which is quite an achievement considering its low budget.
A true original, Martin was amongt the first features to present the vampire as a supernatural being trying to exist among humans in the modern world (with all the human problems that comes with it like finding love, a job and acceptance). If you think about it, today’s teen-friendly supernatural TV shows just wouldn’t exist without the likes of Martin. It was also one of the first to equate the vampire’s blood thirst with addiction. Something that maverick director Bill Gunn explored in his 1973 indie African-American horror Ganja & Hess, which gets a UK dual format release this month from Eureka! Entertainment.
The special features included in the Arrow UK DVD release also include the documentary Making Martin: A Recounting, TV and radio spots, theatrical trailer, photo gallery, four sleeve art options, double-sided poster, collector’s booklet, and six original poster art postcards. What more could a fan ask for?
Martin is released by Arrow Video in the UK (click here for more info on Amazon)
The Bay (2012) | Barry Levinson’s ecological found-footage horror thriller will make your skin crawl!
Using CCTV, police recordings and webcam diaries, a wannabe reporter Donna (Kether Donohue) reveals how a new species of flesh-eating intestinal parasite infected the population of her Maryland hometown during a July 4th celebration, turning the thriving coastal community into a graveyard in just three days…
In the hands of director Barry Levinson, this found-footage faux documentary is an expertly crafted cautionary tale fusing social commentary with gross-out monsters as a new species of flesh-eating parasite infects the water supply of a thriving Chesapeake Bay community. Like the horsemeat scare which hit the UK back in 2o13, this nightmare scenario is a very real possibility and Levinson’s film only serves as a chilling warning against messing with the food chain.
From Jaws and Day of the Animals to Piranha and Prophecy, I loved getting vicarious thrill from eco-horrors, and The Bay is no exception. It’s also one that WILL get under your skin. The parasites might make you think twice about drinking tap water or eating seafood again, but the film’s real villains are the profit-driven businesses, corrupt officials, ineffectual police and bureaucratic CDC who fail the small town as it is laid waste by the ecological disaster. Now that’s something to think about…
The Bay is available in the UK on Blu-ray, DVD and online (click here) from Momentum Pictures
Ever wondered if Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining was anything more than just a scary movie, and that they were there hidden meanings lurking within each masterfully conceived frame? Well, Room 237 does just that. Director Rodney Ascher takes nine segments of Kubrick’s film adaptation of the Stephen King novel and lets five über-fans present their radical theories, decoding the hidden symbols and messages that have been ‘purposely’ buried in the film by the notoriously meticulous director. The results are… bonkers, to say the least!
Some of the notions are straight out of a media studies course in semiotics (I remember those, thank you John Fiske), some are downright ridiculous, and others are quite convincing. But whether Kubrick was actually making a holocaust film disguised as a horror, commenting on the genocide of Native American Indians, or apologising for taking part in the faking of the 1969 Moon landings, is neither here or there because this documentary is enthralling entertainment.
Stephen King, however, would probably disagree – the author turned it off half way through, according to an interview he gave to Rolling Stone in October, because he felt the filmmakers were ‘reaching for things that weren’t there’. Whatever you choose to believe or not, in the end, this playful deconstruction will give you cause to revisit Kubrick’s chilling masterpiece. Then again, it may be just an elaborate subliminal hoax to get us to do just that?
Worth a mention is the soundtrack by Jonathan Snipes and William Hutson. It’s outstanding, and a must to seek out in its own right as it evokes Goblin and John Carpenter, late 1970s prog rock and early 1980s electronic music (all my favourites). Death Waltz Records in the UK released a limited edition CD in late 2013, and it’s since become quite the collector’s item. If you want to add your theories, check out the film’s official US Facebook page (click here).
With the century-old Yankee Pedlar due to close and few guests to serve, hotel desk attendants Caire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) have little to do than update their paranormal website about the inn’s most famous ghost, Madeline O’Malley, a newlywed who hung herself on her honeymoon, and recording EVP readings in the hotel’s deserted rooms at the dead of night. When a former TV star-turned medium Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis) comes to stay, she convinces Claire that there are actually three ghosts that haunt the hotel, and that they want her to leave. Investigating further, Claire soon finds herself facing her own darkest fears.
I counted only four big shocks in this slow-moving creep-fest, but its all done on purpose as Ti West’s film focuses totally on Claire, an awkward asthma-suffering teen who feels slightly disconnected from the world, but doesn’t really know what she wants from life. West’s film is also a subtle study in how to build suspense, leaving it up to the viewer to decide whether what Claire sees is real, or is in fact just an expression of her fears. Now that’s spooky.