Ratings Key



★★★★
= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
★★★
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Flesh and the Fiends, The (1960)

... aka: Fiendish Ghouls, The
... aka: Mania
... aka: Psycho Killers

Directed by:
John Gilling

Unpleasant, extremely atmospheric and very well-acted retelling of the Burke and Hare "West Port Murders" serial killings, which took place in an eighteen month period between 1827 and 1828 in Edinburgh, Scotland. Outwardly-respectable doctor/ anatomy teacher Robert Knox (Peter Cushing) isn't content with only occasionally getting the corpses of executed criminals, so he secretly employs shady Irish grave-robbers Burke (George Rose) and Hare (Donald Pleasence), who go about murdering drunks, bums and prostitutes who frequent a local tavern to procure fresh corpses for their employer. Knox doesn't ask too many questions about where the bodies are actually coming from, nor does he seem to particularly care where they're coming from, but his assistant Dr. Geoffrey Mitchell (Dermot Walsh), who has just begun dating Knox's niece Martha (June Laverick), begins to voice suspicions that fall on deaf ears. John Cairney co-stars as a flunky med school student involved in a doomed romance with a brassy bar girl played by Billie Whitelaw (that evil nanny from The Omen, in an early role) and Renee Houston plays Hare's sour wife, who casually assists the men in the killings. Though the horror fan in me wants to single out Cushing and Pleasence's contributions to this film, it's futile to do so since everyone listed above does equally fine work here and it's really the entire ensemble that drives home this material.

Another of the films great strengths is its evocative period detail, with John Elphick's elaborate art direction, Monty Berman's sharply dark / inky photography and Laura Nightingale's costuming combining to create a seedy, grimy, impoverished environment; a believable breeding ground for casual killings for profit. The contrast between the elite few of the upper class and science community with the depressing living conditions of your everyday average Joe is well played, and the film raises issue to some interesting topics involving medical ethics and whom one might deem worthless or disposable within a given society.

The Burke and Hare incident would go on to inspire many books, stories and films over the years. The first known TV adaptation was a 1939 BBC production titled The Anatomist. Later episodes of the American TV shows Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone were also dedicated to the same subject. The first theatrical film to directly take on the real-incident was 1948's Crimes of Burke and Hare, starring Tod Slaughter. Unfortunately, the British Board of Censors rejected the film and forced the filmmakers to re-dub and remove all references to Burke and Hare before it would issue a release certificate. The film was then re-titled The Greed of William Hart in the UK and Horror Maniacs in the US. Following that were THE ANATOMIST in 1956 (part of the ITV Play of the Week TV series in the UK), The Horrors of Burke and Hare in 1972, The Doctor and the Devils (a virtual remake of Flesh and the Fiends) in 1985 and others. In addition, Burke and Hare inspired Robert Louis Stevenson's short story "The Body Snatcher," which itself would be filmed several times, most notably in 1945 by Robert Wise (which was produced by Val Lewton and starred Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi).

Copyright date for this film is 1959; though it wasn't released until 1960 (the U.S. theatrical title was Mania). It will be making its debut on my Top 10 list for 1960 at #9.

★★★

Ai sha (1981)

...aka: Love Massacre

Directed by:
Patrick Tam

I've never seen the point of always using white subtitles. Why can't they use yellow or neon green or some other color instead? Sure, white is fine for darkly shot films and sure, it might look less tacky than a more gaudy color, but for films like this one - which mostly takes place in the daytime and features characters constantly wearing white clothing and cropped shots with white pillows and white tableclothes constantly showing up at the bottom of the screen - using white subs is an extremely poor choice. On the plus side, this one's not hard to follow even when you miss some of the dialogue. It's your garden variety "psycho lover" flick; a subgenre of horror that features a protagonist dating, marrying and/or having sex with a seemingly normal person who turns out to be a psycho who then terrorizes them. Clint Eastwood's PLAY MISTY FOR ME (1971), about a radio being stalked by an unstable former listener/lover, is one of the earliest contemporary examples of this subgenre. Years later we'd have such box office hits as FATAL ATTRACTION (1987) and BASIC INSTINCT (1992), which then spearheaded a huge amount of direct-to-video or cable "erotic thrillers" with almost identical plotlines. LOVE MASSACRE is a fairly early example of this kind of film. It's a Hong Kong production that was filmed in the United States in 1981. There's no nudity or eroticism like in the later films, but there is a decent amount of violence if you can wade past the incredibly slow first hour.

Emotionally disturbed college student Joy slashes her wrists when her boyfriend breaks up with her. She recovers from the attempted suicide, but suffers from bad headaches and fainting spells and seems to strongly disapprove of her friend Ivy (Brigitte Lin), who attends the same California college she does, dating her brother Chiu Chung (Guozhu Zhang). Joy is killed in a car accident and Chiu Chung tells Ivy he needs to return to Hong Kong for an extended stay but will be back. While he's gone, Ivy learns some surprising things about her new boyfriend. For starters, he forgot to tell her that he's already married and has a child back in Taiwan. He also forgot to mention that he and his sister were institutionalized at one point and both suffer from a "hereditary" psycho disorder. Ivy reads in the Hong Kong paper than an unemployed engineer had killed his wife and then disappeared. Putting two and two together, she comes to the conclusion that Chiu Chung is the nutjob responsible. Unfortunately for her, he's already headed back to the U.S. to ask for her hand in marriage.

Chiu Chung shows up, starts acting psycho and confesses he'd killed his family so he can be with her. Ivy flees and goes and visits her photographer friend Louie (Charlie Chin). Meanwhile, Chiu Chung decides to break into Ivy's dorm. When he discovers she's not there he decides to pass the time by grabbing a kitchen knife and slaughtering all of her housemates. He gathers them all up, ties and gags them, then begins killing them one by one. One is slashed to death in bed, another gets her head slammed in a door, a throat is slashed, a neck is snapped and a face gets stabbed through a pillow. I don't know if I got ahold of a cut version or this or not, but the camera seems to cut away each time the murders threaten to get too violent. You'll see the beginning of each kill, but then it quickly cuts away before it can get gory. The editing in these scenes is terrible. Ivy eventually shows up and encounters a blood-soaked Chiu Chung on the rooftop for the big finale.

It's a seldom-seen film here in the States, but I definitely wouldn't go out of my way to acquire a copy of this one. The acting's mediocre, the premise is worn out and this thing takes forever to get going. In fact, the big dorm massacre doesn't take place until the last 20 minutes. The rest of the time is spent setting up the fact that the boyfriend is a psycho, which is something pretty evident early on in the film. The director and cameraman do at least try to be artistic at times, and occasionally manage to spice up this otherwise ordinary film, just not nearly often for this to be of much interest.

The cast includes Patrick Kong Lung (who also co-produced the film) and Ann Hui (who'd go to an acclaimed career as an award-winning director). I also need to point out that the other websites I visited list this as being solely a drama, when it's most definitely a horror/thriller.

★★
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