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Cul-de-sac (1966) | When Roman Polanski went rogue on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne – and won!

cul-de-sac

Plagued with production problems, director Roman Polanski’s 1966 black comedy Cul-de-sac should never have worked – but it did and remains a critical high-point of his early career. Having won plaudits and good box-office receipts for his first British-backed film, the psychological horror Repulsion (starring France’s new star Catherine Deneuve), Polanski was given free reign for his follow-up which is now available in a restored HD transfer edition as part of The Criterion Collection.

Cul de sac

Set on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne on the Northumberland coastline, Polanski fashioned a morbidly absurdist bourgeois-baiting tale with his long-time collaborator Gérard Brach.

Happening upon an castle on the coastline, wounded American gangster Richard (Lionel Stander) and his gravely ill accomplice Albert (Jack MacGowran) decide it an ideal hide and so take hostage its owners – retired businessman George (Donald Pleasence) and his restless French wife Teresa (Françoise Dorleac).

But the claustrophobic setting and long wait for help to arrive sets in motion increasingly disturbing games involving sexual and emotional humiliation between captor and couple that escalates into terrible violence…

Cul de sac

When Cul-de-sac was released in the UK in 1966 (check out the premiere clip below), audiences really didn’t take to the film (probably on account it was too bleak and not the psychological horror that they had hoped). But when it then won the Golden Bear at the 16th Berlin International Film Festival, it quickly gained a new appreciation – and so it should.

Cul de sac

From its outset, Polanski had faith in bringing his bleak comedy of manners to the big-screen and against the odds and by going rogue he achieved it.

A typically British summer (rain, snow and storms) and the wrong tides held up shooting, while method actors Stander and Pleasence caused ructions on set, and Polanski was accused of driving his cast and crew to exhaustion, hypothermia (MacGowran) and near death (Dorleac almost drowned) in order to finish the film to his exacting standards. Even the locals began to resent Polanski and co’s presence (especially in the local pubs).

Meanwhile, the film’s fed-up backers (Compton Films’ Tony Tenser and Michael Klinger) eventually shut down production after it overrun its budget– but not before Polanski had the film’s powerful 8-minute one-shot climax involving a Tiger Moth plane in the can.

Cul de sac

Donald Pleasence is in his element as the dotty fed-up George, and his performance ranks as one of his best (alongside his alcoholic doctor in 1971’s Wake in Fright). Françoise Dorleac is also perfectly cast (also at the last minute) as the hippy-like Teresa – and her character is the total anti-thesis of her sister Catherine Deneuve’s sexually repressive character in Repulsion. Then there’s the gravel-voiced Lionel Stander (who’d go onto play Max in TV’s Hart to Hart), who is outstandingly repellent as the chief thug. Tragically, Dorleac died in a car accident a year after appearing in the film.

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The other star of the film is Holy Island and the surrounding landscape, made luminous by Gilbert Taylor’s stark black-and-white photography – and the inclement weather (those skies are divine, especially when shot day for night).

And alongside the rich visuals is Krzysztof Komeda’s jaunty score that lends the film a sense of carnival and menace, two elements that are that the heart of this caustic satire (which would look terrific if it were adapted for the stage like Polanski’s follow-up film, Dance of the Vampires). Watch for Jacqueline (billed as Jackie) Bisset, briefly on screen in one of her earliest roles.

THE CRITERION COLLECTION RELEASE
• Restored high-definition digital transfer, approved by director Roman Polanski, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
Two Gangsters and an Island: the 23-minute 2003 Blue Underground documentary (23min) about the making of the film, featuring interviews with Polanski, producers Gene Gutowski and Tony Tenser, and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor. Also participating are production designer Voyek, continuity Dee Vaughn and actor William Franklyn
• Archive TV interview with Polanski from 1967 (this is a fascinating insight into the young director’s cinematic vision about alienation, sex and his genuine dislike for the bourgeoisie)
• Theatrical trailers
• Plus, booklet featuring an essay by film critic David Thompson

 

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The Babadook (2014) | This frighteningly brilliant Australian Grimm fairytale will scare the life out of you!

The Babadook

RUMBLE! RUMBLE! RUMBLE!
When troubled six-year-old Samuel (Noah Wiseman) finds a pop-up book called The Babadook on his bookshelf, his widowed mum Amelia (Essie Davis) makes it his new bedtime story. But the book exerts a bad influence on Sam, who becomes convinced The Babadook is coming to get them. At first Amelia suspects Sam’s disruptive behaviour is in response to her resentment of him (she blames him for his father’s death), but then she starts seeing glimpses of the sinister storybook presence herself! Is it just a figment of her imagination brought on by her insomnia, or is there a very real monster in the closet?

The Babadook

THERE’S SOMETHING IN THE HOUSE!
Justifiably earning rave reviews from critics and audiences alike, The Babadook is probably the best Aussie horror since 2005’s sleeper hit Wolf Creek. Making her feature debut here, writer/director Jennifer Kent has conjured up a contemporary suburban Grimm fairytale exploring grief, loneliness and guilt to reveal the monster that potentially lurks inside us all.

The Babadook (2014)

Taunt, tense and dripping in claustrophobic atmosphere, Kent’s walking nightmare certainly shares its psychological horror DNA with Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), which it has be compared to – but also Andrzej Żuławski’s 1981 horror hybrid Possession, as witnessed in the manifested malevolent entity (brought on by Amelia and Sam’s unresolved traumas).

The Babadook

But it’s Kent’s themes of parental guilt that really sets this film apart, while the spooky Gorey-esque stop-motion monster effects are chillingly effective. A nice touch are the clips from Mario Bava’s 1960s shocker Black Sabbath and the 1980s possession classic The Amityville Horror, which pop up while Amelia is TV channel hopping (they also inform Kent’s creepfest); while Aussie viewers will certainly chuckle over the scene in which Amelia lovingly devours a bar of Cherry Ripe (an iconic Australian chocolate confection).

The Babadook (2014)

Essie Davis gives a captivating performance as the increasingly unhinged Amelia, trapped in a maelstrom of grief and terror, while young Noah Wiseman brings real depth to the troubled Sam who, armed with his homemade weapons, goes from frightened to fearless as the film’s dark events take hold and both son and mum are propelled into the very heart of darkness.

This frightening brilliant horror certainly gets under your skin, and marks Kent as an emerging new talent that’s one to watch.

The Babadook premieres on Film4 today at 9pm

 

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The Tragedy of Macbeth (1971) | Did Roman Polanski’s bloody adaptation inspire TV’s Game of Thrones

The Tragedy of Macbeth (1971)

If ever there was a cinematic Shakespeare adaptation that would click with audiences today, it has to be Roman Polanski’s controversial 1971 interpretation of ‘the Scottish play’. Featuring hangings, bludgeonings, stabbings, rape, infanticide and decapitation, it’s certainly a bloody affair, but no more than you’d get in an episode of Game of Thrones. It also brings Shakespeare’s drama to vivid, believeable, life with its accessible, engaging translation of the Bard’s verse.

And this is thanks to Polanski and his co-writer, the London theatre critic, Kenneth Tynan, and a cast of young actors who speak the words in a totally naturalistic way.  These include Jon Finch (whom John Gieglud praised for his delivery) as the power-hungry chieftain Macbeth, Francesca Annis as his co-conspirator Lady Macbeth, and Martin Shaw as Banquo, the one-time friend that Macbeth murders in order to keep his unsteady crown.

The Tragedy of Macbeth (1971)

Adding to the film’s realism is Gilbert Taylor’s dramatic, moody photography and the striking use of the stark landscapes and real-life castles in Wales and Northumberland. Watching it today, you can’t help but compare it again with Games of Thrones, as the settings could easily be located anywhere in Westeros. And since Shakespeare’s The War of the Roses history plays are said to have been George RR Martin’s inspiration for his novels, Polanski’s masterpiece could very well have played a role in the look of the TV show.

While much of the film’s darkness could be read as Polanski’s way of dealing with the tragic murder of his wife Sharon Tate and his unborn child at the hands of the Manson Family, if his intention was to create an adaptation that captured the true essence of Shakespeare’s bleak classic tragedy then he certainly succeeded, and with an atmosphere as thick as the witches’ brew that features in one of the film’s most memorable scenes.

Boasting Anthony Mendleson’s Bafta-winning period costumes and a sparring, evocative score from Third Ear Band, this compelling modern interpretation is something very special indeed and should be required viewing for anyone studying the Bard. Thank heavens Hugh Hefner’s Playboy company came to the rescue when they did, as we’d never have this cinematic masterpiece to vent its sound and fury all over again on Blu-ray.

The Tragedy of Macbeth (1971)

Roman Polanski’s The Tragedy of Macbeth is out on Blu-ray as part of the first wave of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment’s launch of The Criterion Collection in the UK.

The director-approved edition features the 4k digital restoration of the film transferred 35mm original camera negative and a new 3.0 surround soundtrack, that was created for the US Criterion release (and it looks absoultely fantastic) and it also includes the same bonus features:

Toil and Trouble: Making Macbeth: This 60-minute 2014 documentary features Roman Polanski, producer Andrew Braunsberg, former Playboy executive Victor Lowner, and actors Martin Shaw and Francesca Annis discussing the film’s production history. Catch a sneak peek below.
Polanski Meets Macbeth: Frank Simon’s 48-min 1971 documentary is a must-see as it features Polanski and the cast and crew at work and on location.
Dick Cavett and Kenneth Tynan: An archive TV interview from 7 May, 1971.
Two Macbeths: A 31-minute segment from Aquarius (27 January 1972) in which director Polanski explains talks about his inspiration for making the film.
• Trailers

 

Annabelle (2014) | Rosemary’s Baby meets Chucky in the 1970’s-set prequel to the hit horror chiller The Conjuring

Annabelle (2014)

What do you get if you fuse elements of Rosemary’s Baby with Chucky, the possessed doll from the Child’s Play movies? Annabelle, that’s what. This 1970’s-set prequel to the hit horror The Conjuring sees young church-going Californian couple, Mia (Annabelle Wallis) and John (Ward Horton), coming under supernatural attack after a satanic cult member gives demonic life to a vintage doll.

Annabelle (2014)

Let’s face it, dolls are creepy-looking at the best of times (as are clowns in my book), but Annabelle is particularly so. First glimpsed at in The Conjuring, where she was locked up inside a glass case at an occult museum, Annabelle (who looks like Chucky in period drag) gets her own chilling back story in this modestly budgeted horror, which opens with a very disturbing home invasion scene that eerily echoes the infamous 1969 murder of actress Sharon Tate at the hands of Charles Manson’s cult members (whose trial takes place on TV in the movie).

Annabelle (2014)

Tate, of course, was married to Roman Polanski, the director of the superior 1968 satanic suspenser, Rosemary’s Baby, which this film borrows heavily from. And the connections are plain to see: Wallis’ character is named after Mia Farrow (aka Rosemary), and it’s set in an apartment not unlike The Dakota that’s featured in Polanski’s film (it even features the same noises from the upstairs neighbours). Elsewhere, Alfre Woodard’s Evelyn is essentially a female version of Maurice Evans’ Hutch (Rosemary’s friend who believes her wild tale about devil worship), and there’s another occult tome (The Devil’s Welcome) that reveals all about the satanic cult (called the Disciples of the Ram in this movie) that Mia suspects is out to steal her young daughter’s soul.

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And the classic horror links continue: the house catching fire in the beginning is identical to the one in Halloween, while Tony Amendola‘s Father Perez is cut from the same clerical cloth as those ministers of arcane knowledge in The Omen, The Exorcist and the like. And let’s not forget the twist ending, which also has parallels to another Polanski thriller, The Tenant.

Annabelle (2014)

But while it lacks the genuine frights that made The Conjuring so memorable, Annabelle is a modestly effective chiller with a solid cast and at least two genuine shocks; and the real scares on offer are in what you don’t see – which is always a plus in my books.

Annabelle screens on Sky Movies Premiere from Friday 24 July 2015 and is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Amazon (click here)

The Conjuring is also available to rent on YouTube (click here)

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