January 27, 2013

THE BIRDS (1963) - restored for blu-ray and cinema

(1963, USA)

They're attacking again...

To try and top his previous hit, Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock undertook his most technically complex movie, with the most visual effects he'd used on a film and the presence of hundreds of live birds on some of the sets.

While his most influential horror film remains Psycho, I was (and still am) far more impressed by The Birds. It often used to play on TV in the early and mid-1970s, beating Psycho to the small screen in the UK. I think the BBC were worried about showing Psycho and daren't cut it, out of respectThis delay meant that I impatiently spoiled all the twists and shocks by looking at the Psycho fotonovel. But I'd only seen a few photos from The Birds and experienced it quite young. The shock moments are as raw as Psycho, but it also has an apocalyptic theme and was my early experience of an animal attack film, before I'd even seen Jaws.

As a young teenager, I felt like I'd experienced the story of The Birds rather than just watched it. The open-ending left me up in the air too (Mum, what happens next?). I didn't develop a fear of birds, the same way people avoided showers after Psycho, but the story certainly went in deep.

Last October, we took the opportunity to see The Birds at an AMPAS cinema in Los Angeles. The Samuel Goldwyn Theatre was hosting a season of Universal horror films running up to Halloween.

Only $5 a seat, and there was a lavish display of scripts, artwork, photos and posters from this and many other classic Universal Horrors, plus, there were two special guests in attendance to be interviewed before the screening. The auditorium was rather imposing, with two giant golden Oscar statues either side of the screen. But it was fantastic to hear from two stars of the film, Tippi Hedren  herself, and Veronica Cartwright who played the little girl in the film, but went on to star in Alien, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) and The Witches of Eastwick...

Veronica told the story of how she was invited to be interviewed by the director for this role. She'd already appeared in two TV episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but thinks he cast her because he saw The Children's Hour. She went into his office and he talked to her about wines and steak! Because she was born in Bristol, where one of his favourite wines originated. The fact that she was still only 12 didn't seem to faze him. She recalled the most difficult day of the shoot being when she was trapped in a house with hundreds of small birds. Of course this had to happen on her birthday. She was asked if the theme of the film was at all unsuitably adult for her, but she replied it was far less adult than The Children's Hour.

This was Tippi Hedren's first movie. She'd been placed under contract with Universal after being spotted in a TV advert. There's an in-joke replay of that ad (for Sego) when she first appears in the film. To become an actress, she had to quit her job with the modelling agency where she worked steadily. She loved appearing in the bird shop scene the best, flirting with Rod Taylor while pretending to be a shop assistant. Naturally she hated the loft scene the most. She recalled the assistant director, Jim, coming in and saying that the mechanical birds weren't working and she'd have to shoot it all with live ones. As she walked on set, it had all been rigged for live birds, betraying that it couldn't have been a last minute decision.

(More photos of Tippi and Veronica taken at this event on the AMPAS website...)

Blu-ray screengrab from DVD Beaver
The Birds has just had an extensive, expensive restoration for its high-definition debut on blu-ray (as part of the Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection, the U.S. boxset is shown below). I was already concerned that the layers of optical compositing, used in many scenes, was going to be too distracting for a modern, critical audience. I was already annoyed by the tell-tale dark matte lines around many of the animals when I first saw it on TV in the 1970s! How would it look now on a high-resolution cinema projection?

This was also my first chance to see the film with an audience. I like to half-forget movies before rewatching them, and The Birds was ripe for a revisit.

During the opening titles, the AMPAS audience applauded some names and not others. They would also clap when a new actor appeared onscreen, a similar custom with audiences of stage plays. The volume of applause is a telling barometer of popularity, keenly related to which celebrities are present in the audience.

Blu-ray screengrab from DVD Beaver
It starts in San Francisco, Melanie Daniels (Tippi) goes into a pet shop and is drawn into a case of mistaken identity when a handsome young man (Rod Taylor) tries to buy a pair of rare (MacGuffin) birds. Because of his teasing, she then plans an elaborate practical joke back on him, by personally delivering the birds to his very doorstep, anonymously.

She speeds up Highway 1 in her sports car to Bodega Bay, using tricks and double talk to execute her plan, but ends up being bloodied by a seagull, without provocation. Over the next few days, this isolated incident is only the beginning of a pattern of attacks of increasing ferocity. This high society socialite has ended up in a small town that's almost defenceless...

Hitch on set, directing 'The Gull'
The original idea is credited to Daphne Du Maurier's 1952 short story, set in Cornwall in an isolated community, a family fending off the attacking birds without knowing the cause. Then they hear the news on the radio that it's happening all over the country. The story and the film prefigures the siege aspect of Night of the Living Dead, down to makeshift carpentry being the last line of defence.

Just as important to the script were two incidents that made local headlines in America (also mentioned in the film) of disorientated seagulls smashing into two coastal California towns.

The story was then developed in collaboration with scriptwriter Evan Hunter, organically grown around fictional characters in real locations. Once Bodega Bay had been suggested, Hitchcock and his production design team visited, took photographs, made sketches and imagined how the town could be used both for filming locations and settings for the story.

For instance, the bay itself, that stretches around from the town, immediately suggests the scene where Mitch drives around the bay while Melanie cuts across it by boat. The location preceded the script, suggesting this scene. Similarly the church and schoolhouse on the hill, and its distance from the town centre, suggests the schoolchildren hurrying down the hill. This process is described by the production designers themselves as they revisit the location in the recent documentary Something's Gonna Live (2010).

But watching it again, the meticulous plotting and setting the scene felt far too long. Now that this is an infamous 'animal attack' movie, we're not going to fall for the director's original ploy that this is going to be a screwball comedy. I felt uncomfortable that the real business was a long time coming, and only relaxed once the birds finally showed their nasty side.

Another sign of age, was the pointed staging of characters to demonstrate their relationships. Mitch's mother is very protective of him and positively distraught that he might be attracted to Melanie. In one scene his mother is framed moving inbetween them, visually symbolising her blockading their possible romance, but to a movie-literate audience this is no longer subtle, and was getting laughs.

This total control on framing the image for psychological reasons, and staging the story in his head beforehand, is beginning to look like overplanning. Maybe it's not subtle enough. Maybe film studies have clued us all in. Even his editing has been decided beforehand - Hitch started doing this, only filming what was needed, so that studios couldn't recut his films later. He didn't catch everything on a master shot, he only shot the part of the scene that he needed.

But this pre-planning isn't as organic as the preparation work for his story, and he's stuck with his original mind's eye in the edit suite. One scene I've never fallen for is the inter-cutting of the travelling flame and the reactions of the people in the diner. As he cuts back to them, their heads are static, like stop motion characters frozen for a frame. It's a wonderfully stylised moment that doesn't work. I love that he did it - it's mad. It just doesn't work. It might if they were a frozen still frame, but we can see that they're posed, moving slightly.

Blu-ray screengrab from DVD Beaver
Admittedly, if his methods didn't work out in editing, Hitchcock would reshoot the scene. Apparently even taking trees back from the location in order to recreate exterior scenes in obsessive detail in the studio. Again, his eye for continuity is far more critical than his bold use of back projection and matte paintings. Another unintentional laugh was the jarring cut between Mitch and Mel walking in the back garden by Bodega Bay, then talking atop a sand dune in a studio. He may be perfectly controlling the light for the situation, but it's now lost all believability. Even for small snatches of conversation, a scene might suddenly flashback to the studio for a close up.

It was getting more laughs than I'd expect from movie-lovers. But I love it when an audience is deriding a film and then a moment comes that still totally works, takes them by surprise and shuts them up. That the film still has the power to unsettle and shock, despite its age.

The Birds is at its best when dishing out peril and suspense. While much has been made of Tippi's bird attacks, particularly recently in The Girl, Rod Taylor also seemed to be suffering in the scene where he defends the family home. I'm sure there are several live bird scenes that looked unfakeable.

Another great scene is in the town diner, where a cross-section of the public interpret what's happening to them by way of hysterical arguing. It's a concise, funny, doomladen scene that pre-empts the much longer situation in Frank Darabont's The Mist. I was surprised that he expanded that scenario to almost the whole length of the film!

The digital restoration troubled me. Despite being forewarned that this wasn't being shown on 35mm, I was certainly never under the impression that I was looking at film. The grain is no longer pin sharp, and now swims around a little. The image is beautifully colour saturated, but no longer pin sharp.

Blu-ray screengrab from DVD Beaver
There's an eerie absence of film scratches, something digital restoration can hide effectively, with a lot of work. The main problem for me is with motion. In digital displays and projection, even at high resolution, rapid movements (like wings in flight) look like they were 'blending' over several frames in a blur of motion. Detail on moving objects can't be seen clearly until it's steady within the frame. The loss of detail is especially poor in slow camera panning or sideways tracking shots.

Thankfully the more distracting faults from the layers of optical compositing (re-photographing elements into one image) have cleverly been disguised in this restoration, the matte lines aren't nearly as noticeable. Grain and lighting differences are now more likely to give them away, rather then the 'join' between elements. The action is often so frantic that there's no way you can figure out the complexity of each shot as it flashes by.

The back projection used during quieter scenes was very noticeable, and also weakens the effectiveness of the hill road attack. It's only powerful because of our empathy for the children. Hitchcock here rejecting the rule he made after Sabotage (1936), when he 'lost' the audience by portraying a child character getting harmed.

The blu-ray exposes Hitchcock's filming methods more than ever. Making it hard to relax into, but fascinating to study. As classic horror, an end of the world story or an influential animal attack movie, The Birds demands your attention...

The three screengrabs are from DVD Beaver's review and comparison of the US and UK blu-ray boxset releases - full article and many more examples, click here.

Half of this issue of Cinefantastique (from Fall, 1980) is dedicated to the making of the The Birds, with rare behind-the-scenes photos, storyboards, matte paintings, and colour make-up tests.

Incidentally, the actress under attack in this poster is Jessica Tandy and not Tippi Hedren. One of many things I learnt from Camille Paglia's account of the making of the film, together with her scrutiny of the women's roles and treatment of the actresses. Apart from Rod Taylor's character, the story is all about the women. Mitch's mother, sister, ex-girlfriend... (a lovely and accomplished character played by Suzanne Pleshette).

And here's a new book being published in March, The Making of Hitchcock's The Birds.

We don't collect Barbie dolls. We don't, honestly we don't. But this is a perfect, slightly warped collectable to commemorate the film.

That should all tide us over nicely until Birdemic 2: The Resurrection is among us...

January 19, 2013

THE PSYCHOPATH (1966) - Amicus horror not on DVD

(1966, UK)

A twisty, twisted tale...

Amicus Studios became successful once Hammer Films had attracted international attention to British horror in the 1950s. Continuing through the 60s and 70s, Amicus didn't copy Hammer's style, distinguishing themselves with modern settings and their 'short sharp shock' compendium horrors.

Like Hammer, most Amicus films have been released on DVD, but I've just been reminded by dedicated horror publisher Johnny Mains (on Twitter as @noose&gibbet ) that a couple have been left behind. Sometimes, when  nostalgic mini-genres are plundered, they leave out the shit ones. That's not the case here, The Psychopath deserves to be regarded as an Amicus classic.

A small group of suited men collect in a drawing room to play a music recital (it gets better). But one seat is empty, the violinist late. Because he's been savagely run down in the street, repeatedly run over by a car. The police investigate immediately, a Detective (Patrick Wymark) quizzes the victim's fellow musicians. None of them have watertight alibis, all of them act suspiciously. The killer has also left a doll at the scene of the crime, an exact likeness of the dead man. This isn't the work of a murderer, but a psychopath...

Yes, it starts as a murder mystery, but in the same way that later Italian giallo amp up the violence and variety of the murders, The Psychopath is easily elevated horror status. There's also a depiction of madness which, taken to extremes by a few masterful actors, gives us what I lazily call 'horror acting'. Many performances by Michael Gough, Conrad Veidt and Freda Jackson can be described as over-acting. To me they're reaching the glorious heights of their characters' insanity, and briefly taking you with them.

One such performance in The Psychopath reminded me strongly of the style of acting in Psychoville 2, which I've only just watched. Several other elements of the film, like the old lady talking to her dolls, and the effete owner of a toyshop, convinced me that this has to be in the collections of either Reece Shearsmith or Steve Pemberton, formerly of The League of Gentlemen.

Patrick Wymark plays the police inspector who should really be fired because so many people are dying while he's still puzzling it all out. Wymark is the anchor of the film, seedily brilliant in both Polanski's Repulsion and Amicus' The Skull, but just as happy in a wig in period horrors Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan's Claw (1971). Sad to note he passed away aged 50, in 1970 when he was still in demand for a wide variety of work.

Among the suspects are Alexander Knox, who I mainly know as the US President from You Only Live Twice. Hammer regular Thorley Walters (Vampire Circus, Frankenstein Created Women) doing less comedy schtick than usual. Judy Huxtable, so unlucky in Scream and Scream Again (1970). 

The distinctive-looking Robert Crewdson, again sporting his weird beard and grey hair - a look I thought he'd created for the alien, Medra, in The Night Caller (1965) - but this must be how he looked that year!

Particularly good to see Margaret Johnston again, after her subtle menace in the classic Night of the Eagle (1962), and a youthful John Standing before his creepy turns in Torture Garden (1967) and The Legacy (1978).

The Amicus atmosphere is evoked by a soundtrack from Elisabeth Lutyens, who did such wonderful work on Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965), writer Robert Bloch (The House That Dripped Blood, Torture Garden and of course Psycho) and director Freddie Francis, here given time to take care over the 2.35 compositions, even though he wasn't behind the camera. There's a wonderful scene in the house of dolls that mirrors a moment in Blade Runner, when it's hard to distinguish the mannequins from the real thing.

Director Freddie Francis in a publicity shot in Kine Weekly

The vicious opening murder by car pre-empts the very similar start of Terence Young's Hollywood thriller Wait Until Dark (1967). And there's a prominently bare-backed young lady, the year before Vanessa Redgrave caused a fuss by being similarly undressed in Blow Up.

The Psychopath is for fans of the Hammer 'psycho' films, 1960s British horror, German krimis and early giallo. I believe it's shown by Turner Movies in some countries. Sometimes, it appears on YouTube, slightly cropped at the sides. Of course, I'd really love it on blu-ray. Amicus boxset anyone?

Update, November 2013
A Twitter colleague suggested this Italian DVD of The Psychopath, titled La Bambola Di Cera. It has English audio, but with the same tight framing at the sides (from 2.35 to 16:9?). The picture is also soft and the colours weak. But it's the only known DVD out there. Until a properly framed restoration happens I'll still, cheekily, list this as not-on-DVD.

January 18, 2013

My favourite new old films of 2012!

Didn't watch nearly enough movies to compile a worthwhile Best or Worst list of last year's releases, even if I wanted to. But over the holiday season, I was honoured to be asked to compile a very different kind of list for the Rupert Pupkin Speaks movie blog.

Mr Pupkin is currently asking esteemed writers and bloggers, and me, to write about their favourite new discoveries of 2012, but, only films that were made more than twenty years ago. Older films that impressed us that we hadn't seen before.

With two exceptions, my choices haven't been reviewed on this site, so you're invited to head on over to Rupert Pupkin Speaks to find out what else nearly made it onto Black Hole Reviews. You'll also find a wealth of discoveries made by dozens of other explorers in the weird wide world of classic and not so classic cinema.

My favourite film discoveries of 2012

January 01, 2013

THE AMITYVILLE HORRORs - based on a true story?

The most shocking aspect is that it's still presented as a true story...

A great premise for a horror film... A young family find a dream house but they've barely got enough money for it. Huge rooms, sea view, boat house... too good to be true. Then the estate agent tells them why it's all so cheap. A year earlier, six members of the same family were killed inside. But despite this, they can't pass up such a bargain and move in.

But the Lutzs' new home has starts to effect them all, especially the father (James Brolin) who can't get warm and gets very attached to his axe. Their priest (Rod Steiger) can't sanitise the house, warned off by a swarm of flies and then a mysterious illness. Their little girl tells them of an imaginary friend, a red-eyed pig. Visions and window-slamming become increasingly ferocious until they can't stay in the house any longer...

I first saw this around February 1980 in a suburban London cinema. But. The Amityville Horror really didn't work for me. I jumped when the cat leapt up at the window and that's all. It would have been cheaper to get someone to burst a paper bag behind me.

Even as a teenager, I needed (what I now know to be called) internal logic, even in a supernatural horror film. I just couldn't work out what I was supposed to be frightened of. A haunting? Poltergeists? Demonic possession? The mysterious events each hint at a different supernatural problem. 

James Brolin and Margot Kidder
After seeing SuspiriaThe OmenCarrie and The Exorcist, maybe my expectations were set too high. Maybe that's why the hype had stressed that this was all based on a true story. The only real edge The Amityville Horror has is if the audience believes that they're witnessing a reconstruction of some scary shit that actually happened. If any of this happened to you or me, it would be scary. 

This is now an extremely common way of unsettling audiences while inviting their curiosity. To say the film is based on a true story. Leading our imaginations to believe that every event we witness actually happened.

1980 UK poster 
But why did I think it was a factual account back then? When I first saw the film, I was already under that impression. Checking back through the adverts (posters, print and radio), only the book actually used the 'true story' claim. The movie advertising cautiously held back on such claims, while not dissuading the many magazine articles that repeated the claims that the book made were true.

The book had previously been a huge bestseller before the film was made, and had "a true story" printed clearly on the cover. Despite scepticism from serious newspapers, it made a great story for less fussy news outlets and magazine coverage.

This elaborate radio advert from 1979 (broadcast across London) really pushed the fact that the story is all true. I found this scarier than the film...

Despite such shaky foundations, this movie house of horror became a huge hit and spawned more books, many movie sequels and some truly awful TV movies.

After being so disappointed with the first film, I avoided most sequels, except one on TV. The continuing spin-offs indicated that it all still worked for many other people.

For me, Poltergeist (1982) presented a family in a very haunted house far better (a burial ground was also one of the many possible causes mentioned in the Lutz's book). Of course Tobe Hooper's film had well-realised scares, the full weight of Industrial Light and Magic behind the visual effects, and a story with far more consistent internal logic. And no silly stories about it being based on fact. I loved it.

Decades later, I actually got angry to find that I'd been duped. When I heard of a more concrete account of the Lutz's haunting, that it was an orchestrated hoax. Stephen Kaplan's book, The Amityville Horror Conspiracy. Himself a serious paranormal investigator, Kaplan was invited to check the Long Island house for paranormal activity when the Lutzs moved in. He agreed but then had his appointment cancelled. He became suspicious, and continued monitoring news reports and the many accounts of what happened presented by the Lutzs.

Yes, George Lutz bought the house. Yes, the family before them were murdered. But everything that happened to them in the house has many other explanations (smells, cold, changes in behaviour). Some of it was probably from their little girl's nightmares (the pig-demon). Kaplan notes how the details of how the Lutz's story changes in various news articles at the time, and even in various early editions of their famous book! he also fails to find any consistency in the timeline they describe.

Kaplan was concerned that stories like the Lutzs' gave paranormal research a bad name, being investigated and presented with such little care. Crucially, the late Stephen Kaplan's book is out of print, while the many other Amityville books continue to spread. There's more money in ghost stories.

2005 remake poster
After reading it, I was confident that the The Amityville Horror had been well and truly debunked. I was beyond astonished when the Ryan Reynolds remake appeared in 2005, and even had "based on the true story" on the movie posters. How could they say that? Changing "a" true story to "the" true story makes it all better? Not even the original movie poster had "true story" on it.

The remake is certainly scarier, half naked Ryan Reynolds is certainly sexier, and Chloe Moretz outacts the rest of the cast, even aged 8. The film adds many events that were never in the Lutzs' book. And after seeing Kaplan's evidence, such as a floor plan of the house, I laughed out loud when the cupboard under the stairs became a gigantic mausoleum. Who knew the Lutz's had their own Tardis in the basement?

My latest hope for truth was this new documentary in 2012, My Amityville Horror, a feature-length interview with the eldest of the Lutz children who was there when it all happened. Daniel Lutz's mum and step-dad have now passed away, and I'd hoped that this would leave him clear to disavow what I'd assumed was a money-making publicity scheme to get the family out of financial difficulty.

I was seeking closure, but instead, Daniel confirms that the unexplained events all occurred, with an intense and convincing ferocity. Or is it violent desperation? 

In conclusion, my remaining interest is in the original DaFeo murders and the actual mysteries around that case. In one horrendous night, six members of the same family were shot dead in their bedrooms. But surely after the first shot, the others would wake up and move around? And how did the neighbours not hear it all happening? 

An entire family being murdered was a rare crime then. I wonder if this case inspired Thomas Harris' Red Dragon (first filmed as Manhunter in 1986). While Harris did intensive research to portray police work so accurately, what real-life murders did he also study?

As for the Lutzs' story, my remaining interest is the psychological health of Daniel. If something supernatural didn't happen to him, what did? Did his father throw him up the stairs, and not a ghost? This is what makes My Amityville Horror a very tense and interesting watch.

My full review of the documentary My Amityville Horror (2012) is here.