The Bottom Shelf: Zardoz and Naked Lunch

Zardoz, The Deadly Mantis, Soldiers Of The Damned and more in this month's horror DVD and Blu-ray round-up...

Of the two key discussions involving Sean Connery, surely the old chestnut about the best James Bond pales in comparison to that other eternally raging debate: bridal gown Sean versus orange nappy Sean. Yes, fans of utter ridiculousness, the time has come for the latest Bluray restoration of John Boorman’s totally bonkers dystopian sort-of classic, Zardoz, and this is truly a wonder to behold.

For those unfamiliar with the director’s 1974 first post-Deliverance excursion, Connery plays the trained killer Zed who not only carries off the orange pants look with remarkable stoicism, but also rightly gets a little curious about his people’s strange rock idol.  In turn, in between booming speeches, said idol sporadically pukes guns up for the loyal worshippers to use to keep the status-quo. Zed climbs aboard this smug sub-Easter Island, inter-galactic bullshitter and has his whole world turned upside down by what he finds.

Perhaps the quintessential post-mega-hit indulgence movie (see also Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate and Donnie Darko creator Richard Kelly’s mental Southland Tales), Zardoz is a true one-of-a-kind and the sort of film to prompt the befuddled viewer to immediately watch again in full (this writer did). Of the same ilk as some of the more pompous sci-fi of the sixties and seventies, though lacking the clarity of the likes of a Logan’s Run or Soylent Green, Boorman’s bizarre script says… something about masculinity, religion, sexuality and class, though is told in such a hamfisted and often hilariously bad way, the message is too often lost in the chaos of telekinetic violence, The Wizard Of Oz references and a badly made-up John Alderton being all future-y.

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That said, the dreamlike screenplay and sometimes beautifully artsy cinematography combine with passable performances by a mustachioed Connery and a WTF-is-she-doing-in-this Charlotte Rampling, doing her best to retain some dignity, for what is an endlessly fascinating, psychedelic mess of a movie.

We now move swiftly on to a far less complex couple of creature features, and two movies unlikely to warrant much (well, any) re-viewing, in the form of fifties B-movies The Deadly Mantis and The Creature Walks Among Us, both getting a DVD release and both kind of raising the question of, erm, why?

Ok, maybe that’s a bit harsh. Attack Of The 50 Foot Woman director Nathan H. Juran’s The Deadly Mantis (not to be confused with the 1978 chop-socky footnote of the same name) is similar in tone, and clearly wouldn’t be out of place on TV show Mystery Science Theatre 3000, though there’s something a bit perverse about this 1957 tale of, yes, a giant praying mantis wreaking havoc on America. With some decent effects (for the time) and well-executed set pieces, alongside admirably straight-faced performances from the leads, the problem here is that it’s almost too good (and not at all silly enough) to be among the pantheon of great schlocky sci-fi. That said, the basic premise is obviously inherently ridiculous and there is a character called Dr Nedrick Jackson, so not all hope is lost.

The Creature Walks Among Us (1956) is the third and final instalment of the Creature From The Black Lagoon series and, being, well, rubbish, is much more what this blog was hoping for. Gill-man, that icon of the Universal horror stable, makes a weird return with a few alterations this time round: life-saving surgery after a fire leaves him almost human and able to breathe fully on land, so he’s given some clothes to preserve his dignity. A feud between mad scientist Dr Barton (Jeff Morrow) and good scientist Dr Morgan (the wonderfully named Rex Reason) leads to some noble intervention from our amphibious anti-hero, though the overwhelming feeling is of: so what? 

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Original water-dwelling Gill-man Ricou Browning returns (he’s the only man to play the same critter in all three films, albeit underwater), though onland, he just looks, well, wrong. So, yes, Alien: Resurrection wasn’t the first time a shit human/monster hybrid ruined an otherwise enjoyable film. An overwhelming cheapness and OTT score from one Henry Mancini makes for a tasty slice of cheese that is undeniably ‘B’. 

Slightly loftier ambitions come in the form of director Mark Nuttall and writer Nigel Horne’s Romanian-set World War II chiller, Soldiers Of The Damned, on DVD. Taking the admirable tack that not all German soldiers were Nazi thugs in said war, this is immediately cancelled out by the strange and possibly racist (by the way, look out for next month’s Charlie Chan review) move of depicting all the Nazis with German accents and all the less Nazi-y characters as being, well, English. Subtle as this is, the faux pas becomes even more glaring with one character clearly a salt-of-the-earth northerner figure just wearing a German uniform whilst moonlighting from his day job as some INSTALL MILDLY RACIST NORTHERN STEREOTYPE HERE.  

Still, if we suspend disbelief as much as possible (ie not very far), beneath this lies a surprisingly decent ghost story with a few striking standout images from Nuttall (a ghostly tank’s brutish entrance is lovely) and an undeniably cool occult Indiana Jones-style plot. Strong performances from a bargain basement cast serve just to heighten the sense of frustration that Soldiers Of The Damned could have and should have been much better.

And so we come to the part of the blog as inevitable as the trustafarian telling you the unasked for story of their experience at this year’s Boomtown festival: the bog-standard slasher pic. This month’s edition features the almost entirely rubbish Madman, director Joe Giannone’s (he of The Clonus Horror, in case you didn’t know) 1982 retelling of the Cropsey axe-murderer urban legend. Set around the standard campfire, an evil spirit is accidentally brought back from the dead and you know the rest.

Totally forgettable as Madman should be, it is saved by a truly great synth theme song, spinning a traditional folk tune into something more sinister, which is perhaps why it has such a cult following to this day. Hell, even this writer’s pet cat sits bewitched, apparently in love with Madman‘s Blu-ray menu screen.

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Also flying the flag for obscure horrors with great sub-Goblin/John Carpenter scores on Blu-ray this month is Nightmare City, Cannibal Ferox creator Umberto Lenzi’s earlier cult favourite and (in this neck of the woods anyway), the film notable for being the only zombie movie where the undead stop for water breaks (apologies if I’m mistaken). As a nameless Italian city is besieged by radioactive mutants (come on! They’re clearly zombies!), a journalist and his scientist do what they can to save the day. With Piranha: Part Two: The Spawning (yes!) composer Stelvio Cipriani rightly earning his cult following on musical duties and Lenzi’s at times almost realist (not quite, eh?) direction highlighting all the essential gore, it’s easy to see the thinking behind next year’s Tom Savini remake.

We finish with what is rapidly becoming a regular Cronenberg Canonisation Corner, and David Cronenberg’s wonderful early nineties William S. Burroughs adaptation, Naked Lunch, given a welcome Blu-ray release, though no less indecipherable for it. Playing with similar notions of masculinity and homo-eroticism as Zardoz, alongside a great postmodern take on the creative process, we follow the descent of an insect exterminator (Peter Weller, looking never more bug-like, himself, as Burroughs’ alter-ego) into drug addiction and the depths of his self. Via giant insect typewriters and beat poetry, obviously. 

Expertly distilling Burroughs’ ‘unfilmable’ novel into something vaguely resembling a Hollywood narrative (only vaguely; don’t worry), the action segues between a parallel fifties U.S.A, the Orwellian idea of a North African ‘Interzone’ and ‘Annexia’ as Weller’s exterminator turned correspondent experiences increasingly disturbing hallucinations that alter his reality irrevocably. Despite an acclaimed cast including Ian Holm, Judy Davis, Roy Scheider and Julian Sands, it is Peter Suschitzky’s cinematography, Howard Shore and Ornette Coleman’s sleazy jazz score and perhaps most of all, the gloriously strange animatronics throughout (yes, that it is a typewriter with a sexy human arse, thanks) that make Naked Lunch one of the highlights of such a distinguished career.

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