Charles Frend directs Jack Hawkins, Donald Sinden and Denholm Elliott in this WWII naval drama following the crew of a convoy protector through the entire course of the war.
An ensemble of British talent are put through the psychological wringer as they try to survive the constant threat and spiritual damage of being out at sea during WWII. Softly acted and with as many moments of stoic tenderness as heroic bravado, this is one of the greatest war movies ever made. The set pieces are nail biting, the soapier visits home wound with their casual bruising callousness. An Ealing Studios Classic that offers no respite.
Rose Glass directs Morfydd Clark, Jennifer Ehle and Lily Frazer in this psychological horror where a newly converted Roman Catholic with a dark secret begins caring for a manipulative lesbian on her deathbed.
Every Autumn we get a critically acclaimed small “H” horror. These rattlers come out lauded as “the scariest movie ever” and struggle with the hype. It attracts the kids and the casuals, expecting Insidious or Friday the 13th, who are disappointed and restless by the quiet, difficult, sophisticated and unsettling drama they have accidentally bought a ticket for. The Babadook, The Witch and (the not quite as good) Mother! all struggled with expectations forced upon them by overwhelming marketing when their audience should have been prepped for slow burn and word of mouth chills. Thank Covid that Saint Maud’s screenings are only alluring to the horror hardcore. Those of us who know for every Texas Chainsaw, there is a Repulsion. Watching this in a screen of only 15 engaged cinephiles rather than 60 plus distracted mongos was a snobbish luxury. The movie itself is an achingly beautiful character study, chillingly acted by Clark and Ehle. Newcomer Morfydd puts in a powerhouse, colouring in similar lines to Anthony Perkins in Psycho or Jennifer Jason Leigh in Single White Female. The kinda tightly wound, nerdy, vulnerable killer loon who you want to take under your wing and just give a cuddle to, whose unhinged point of view you can actually see and empathise with. I do find British seaside towns alienating. I do struggle to find a way to tell normal people, friendly and /or threatening, to fuck off. Who doesn’t like spying on posh houses with the 20p cliffside telescope? Her loneliness, multiplying delusions and sexual confusion are very humanely handled. The escalating and inventively sinister self harm hits home hard… the film this most reminded me of is a little seen French horror called Dans Ma Peau. That nightmare of abuse made me need a little breather from the screening but this again seeps more into your imagination than your gut. Then a supernatural madness creeps up on you, intruding more and more into the actual frame. A quietly disturbing film that only really ramps up its true terror in the final few scenes Saint Maud is ridiculously polished and clever debut. I can’t wait to be under her dedicated but lunatic charge again soon. A few lacklustre moments aside, I’m happy to venerate this as a new British Horror Classic!
Otto Preminger directs James Stewart, Lee Remick and Ben Gazzara in this courtroom drama where a reluctant defence attorney becomes intrigued by a case where a husband kills his wife’s rapist… possibly.
When you think about it, it is surprising how few courtroom dramas spend a significant amount of their runtime in the courtroom. Anatomy of a Murder has an preamble hour where Stewart’s folksy smartie decides whether to take the case, researches it and the law. But then we spend pretty much an extra feature length actually in front of the judge. We watch the theatrics of the judicial system and the pressures put on witness. And the ever loveable, completely trustworthy James Stewart is our handholding guide. Watching him expertly navigate the less reliable characters (all played by that new fangled method acting sort) is part of the joy. Gazzara is a little awkward in his rage fuelled defendant role but George C Scott makes an impression in an early turn as an out-of-town prosecutor. The real stand out is Lee Remick… she not only always looks fantastic despite playing a rape victim and a beaten wife but her cutesy flirt act appears to be a smokescreen for a far tougher cookie who occasionally pops out from the cover. That’s the superb thing about Anatomy of a Murder… you don’t get any flashbacks… the witnesses, victims and accused are clearly all lying about something. We never get the actual truth. Even in the final shot, a cynical coda worthy of Billy Wilder, after the verdict has been won, we aren’t really sure of anyone’s fate. It takes a long road to get there… it really feels like two movies playing in tandem… but there is plenty of racy material, fine shots, memorable moments and superb performances within. Another great jazz score too by Duke Ellington who has a cameo.
Ant Timpson directs Elijah Wood, Stephen McHattie and Martin Donovan in this gory thriller where a mild mannered son arrives at the secluded beach house of his estranged and deranged father.
A really fun little film that constantly is shifting the stakes and threats to keep you guessing, glued and appalled. Elijah Wood is carving out a neat little niche as the go to lead in cult nasty at the moment.
Spike Lee directs Denzel Washington, Wesley Snipes and himself in this drama where a jazz musician’s inability to appreciate those around him heralds his downfall.
Spike Lee’s Raging Bull… only in vivid colour. Denzel gives one of finest performances, playing against type as a thoroughly unlikable genius. Snipes also gets to do a fair bit of acting… and you don’t see that very often after this point in his career. Spike may reach out at a lot of ideas in his follow up to Do The Right Thing (gambling addiction, systemic exploitation of black talent, fatherhood) but this is somehow his most focussed work. An excellent celebration of jazz and an engaging, satisfying character study.
Taylor Hackford directs Al Pacino, Keanu Reeves and Charlize Theron in this erotic demonic legal drama where an ambitious young lawyer takes a job in what obviously is Satan’s office.
Better than I remember but still pretty aimless. It is like someone took the script for Tom Cruise’s The Firm and just swapped out the word Mafia with Lucifer instead. It doesn’t really work as a horror. Only a brief dream sequence symbolising Theron having her reproductive plumbing ripped out unsettles you. And way, way too hammy to be taken seriously as a drama. The big finale in Pacino’s penthouse closes the film on twenty minutes of already covered exposition just when thing should be hotting up. Reeves feels a little miscast doing an accent and having his cool exterior ruffled. But Theron is eagerly game to make her mark in a big project and just about everyone gets their kit off. If you’ve ever wanted to see “Ted” Theodore Logan’s untamed butt crack in close-up then this is the movie for you!
Willard Huyck directs Lea Thompson, Jeffrey Jones and Tim Robbins in this sci-fi satire adventure where an alien from a duck planet is transported to Earth and needs to find his way home.
I would say looking back on my formative movie-going experiences that they were at films that weren’t particularly loved in the mid-Eighties and have only begrudging cult status even now. This is due either to my misguided pester power or terrible choices by my mum… or the fact that both local cinemas were owned by Cannon at just the wrong time. In this period I should have been screaming to go watch Back to the Future, Short Circuit, Crocodile Dundee, 3 Men & a Baby, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Big. Instead we choose Return to Oz, Santa Claus: The Movie, Masters of the Universe, Howard the Duck, Short Circuit 2 and Three Fugitives. These are the cherished trips I remember going on with bag of sticky newsagent pic’n’mix hidden in my Parker pocket. Things got better. I can vividly recall the throng and anticipation of queueing up in Ealing Broadway for Twins and Honey I Shrunk The Kids. And those queues were genuinely around the block. But a Bond double bill or Disney re-release aside, my inaugural cinema trips were exclusively to critically reviled flops. I was inoculated to sift pleasure from the discarded failures.
On paper Howard the Duck isn’t that unlikely a proposition. A light sci-fi film that can showcase a range of integrated animatronic, stunt and stop motion FX work delivered by the masters of the craft, ILM. An adaptation of decade long running Marvel comic with a strong following. A fish-out-of-water comedy where the ‘fish’ is a wisecracking duck. The same essential plot as the then biggest movie of all-time, E.T., but spiced up with sarcasm, sex and sustained peril for the teenage crowd. The stars of the last two blockbuster season’s summer sleepers in Lea Thompson (Back to the Future) and Jeffrey Jones (Ferris Bueller). It doesn’t seem like a bad bet.
Lucasfilm was coming off the back of a completed Star Wars Trilogy and two massive Indiana Jones films. Sidney Sheinberg, President of Universal, had regrets passing over these franchises and wanted in on the next project. Universal also had a partnership with Marvel to option their characters and develop projects. Howard the Duck, a noir-ish satire of modern culture, had caught Lucas’ eye since the release of American Graffiti. He set Temple of Doom writers Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz the task of adapting it. The project was originally developed with an animated format intended but when Universal realised they need a blockbuster in production for the summer of ‘86 and George wanted to showcase ILM’s new SFX breakthroughs the movie was redrafted as live action.
Let’s talk about the finished film’s true strength: the casting of Lea Thompson as Beverly. While she never hit the A-List, she is the kinda actress who genuinely lights up the screen. She can undersell bad jokes, looks cute in just about any outfit and generates chemistry with whomever she is cast opposite. No matter how strange! Even if that actor is playing her son, a 3 foot tall horny duck or Eric Stoltz. I had a real affection for her and her now forgotten sitcom Caroline in the City… a less cool Friends.
There’s no denying Howard the Duck is an overtly sexual film. Even though it is a family comedy adventure. We are introduced to Howard reading PlayDuck and seeing the duck titties within. The movie’s central relationship is a duck and a bubbly rock star who share an instant connection and a bed. In fact the script actively interrupts them each time they are about consummate their obvious attraction to each other. The final shot, long after the credits have started rolling and the best boy’s name has scrolled upwards, is them millimetres from a snog… the movie then swiftly, teasingly fades to black. Howard The Duck has leering shots of Thompson on all fours in her skimpies and a villain whose protruding tentacles look very familiar to anyone who has watched more than two Japanese animated movies. It all makes Thompson’s scenes with Marty McFly the year previous seem positively wholesome.
There’s no denying Howard the Duck has a random sense of humour that cleaves closer to adult rather than universal. The period is littered with productions that landed too close to disturbing and scarring despite being marketed as family films. The director and writing team’s last project was Temple Of Doom a PG film were beating hearts are visibly ripped from screaming prisoners and child slavery is key plot point. It was a strange time to be making child friendly films as the tone was constantly to overstep what was appropriate. Pile on top of this a load of endless awful egg and mallard puns, plus a few clunky movie references… and Howard the Duck feels like an R rated project that stars a kid friendly artificial lead. What might happen if E.T. was abandoned near John Belishi’s coke fuelled wake rather than Elliot’s house.
Then we have Jeffrey Jones increasingly terrifying villain. The story and adventure FX don’t even intrude until the second half but once something resembling a solid plot does take hold it is actually quite impressive. We get an extended stunt spectacular microlight chase and a space laser finale (MCU fans will be pleasantly surprised). But what suddenly snaps the movie into focus is The Dark Overlord of the Universe who follows Howard through a similar wormhole. He slowly mutates the degrading body he possesses in impressively gradual ways. Eventually becoming a fantastic stop motion creation – a mixture of scorpion and medusa who proves a intimidating foe for Howard to rescue Beverly and us from. Almost too terrifying for a PG? What do you think? Thank ED-209 creator Phil Tippet for the nightmares.
Jeffrey Jones is superb as the Doc Brown who turns into The Exorcist. He sells the dehumanisation and pure unemotive evil of his villain. When he originally only has a little latex and mussed hair to support the idea he is possessed he leans into a convincing deadpan otherworldliness. When the ILM crew takeover and he starts malevolently glowing and his ghastliness bursts out of him, Jones still imbues what is being rigged around him with threatening personality. A very effective sci-fi villain who probably belongs in a more purposeful production.
One last positive I’ll feather HTD’s nest with is the music. Beverly’s band The Cherry Bombs are on the rise. Their manager is a skeaze. Howard needs something, anything, to do while the plot idles and he finds in webbed feet on Earth. So he takes over the band’s business affairs. Their tunes are catchy and energetic. The big concert finale ends the movie on a smile inducing high note. The Howard the Duck theme song thumps with a simple earworm simplicity. I haven’t revisited the film all that many times but the upbeat unloved anthem the minority of us left the ABC on in ‘86 is catchy. Certainly still embedded in my cranial jukebox. Maybe just me on that though.
Of course, this is me accentuating the positives for a film that lost money, was awkwardly rebranded internationally (HOWARD… A NEW BREED OF HERO) and was critically reviled. My sifting doesn’t change the fact that Howard the Duck doesn’t really work. The lead performance is achieved through a little person wearing a clumsy, ungainly full feathered body suit and an experimental animatronic mask. The facial expressions don’t really hit and Howard’s wide shot movements take you out of the strange reverie. He was originally going to be played by a costumed child but the duck suit proved too oppressive. The bigger issue is Howard feels lacking in defined personality. There are times when he’s a letch or a flirt or a tough or a wisecracker. But none of these elements are given enough spotlight to make any impact. This Howard, in reality, is an amorphous soft spoken sad sack. A whiner given little to do in the slow first half but run away from weirdos on the street and mope.
When the finished film first test screened (poorly) Paramount production heads realised they had a turkey on their hands. Production heads Sheinberg and Frank Price allegedly had a fistfight on the studio lot arguing over which of them greenlit the monstrosity. In the fallout Price lost his job, with Variety attributing Howard as the key cause; “DUCK Cooks Price’s Goose” was the headline. The movie, I’d conjecture even scratched some of the shine off of Lucasfilm. Willow, a far superior film, underperformed two years later despite being sold as from the makers of Star Wars. Then George, Huyck and Katz next project The Radioland Murders died a quiet death in a limited release in 1993. If you haven’t seen it, it, like HTD, is a quirky treat you’d struggle to predict the paying audience for.
Howard The Duck is a better film than its toxic reputation suggest but nowhere near well developed enough or certain of what it wants to be to be worth reappraising as an overlooked classic. I’d suggest that getting a comedy star like Chevy Chase, Steve Martin, Rick Moranis or Eddie Murphy in to voice the bird and imbue instant personality might paper over its most glaring flaws. But that’s a What If for another dimension. I’d hate to live in the alternative reality where HTD killed Bill Murray’s career too.
Charles Gormley directs Billy Connolly, Douglas Henshall and John Murtagh in the BBC gangster film where a new C.I.D. detective and a Glasgow hard man are set on a collision course when one realises they are about to become family by marriage before the other is aware.
As well as being a really solid crime drama, one that easily transcends its made for telly roots, this has two harmonious strengths. Peter McDougall, Screen One / Play For the Day writer, has an ear for hard edged Weegie colloquialisms yet twists them into an almost Shakespearean dialogue. And Billy Connolly puts in a subdued but menacing central turn. The bank robbery during an Orange March is well plotted. The massive ensemble is sprawling yet economically utilised. The bubbling drama of corruption and ethics grips and convinces. A fine wee film made during an era when Britain wasn’t really producing genre cinema of note.
Annabel Jankel directs Anna Paquin, Holliday Grainger and Gregor Selkirk in this vintage lesbian romance where a single mum in a small Scottish village moves in with the posh doctor with a scandalous secret.
Handsomely shot and handsomely acted. Maybe a little too tasteful. I believe the term for this form of tight jumpers and high waist trouser fluff is Cottagecore. Then in the final moments we take some pretty violent and strange lurches. It isn’t meant to be a horror film or a controversial film but it tools about with some pretty spicy imagery in the tie-off. None of that feels a piece with the first hour. I’m not sure I was satisfied with any of it in-spite of a lot of goodwill towards it.
Jamie Blanks directs Jared Leto, Alicia Witt and Rebecca Gayheart in this self-aware slasher where a group of college kids are offed to sync up with gory stories shared in their urban legend seminar.
An unashamed Scream rip-off that looks just as polished but lacks the expert set-pieces and constant wit of its superior influence. Criminally wastes Joshua Jackson, Danielle Harris and Robert Englund in brief, minor roles. Leto and Witt are given gruel quality protagonist to work with (for better or worse) but Rebecca Gayheart at least brings it once her true lunatic colours are unveiled.