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Dracula: Prince of Darkness (Blu-ray)

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Dracula: Prince of Darkness (Blu-ray)Starring Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Andrew Keir, Francis Matthews, Suzan Farmer, Philip Latham, Thorley Walters

Directed by Terence Fisher

Distributed by Millenium Entertainment


Max Schreck. Bela Lugosi. John Carradine. Jack Palance. Udo Kier. Klaus Kinski. George Hamilton. Frank Langella. Duncan Regehr. Gary Oldman. Gerard Butler. That big muscle-y guy from Blade: Trinity.

Throughout the history of cinema, a great many actors have taken on the role of Bram Stoker’s most enduring creation, the immortal vampire Count Dracula, and several even managed to make an indelible mark with their takes on the character. But for this writer’s money, the greatest of all the thesps to have donned the cloak of fiction’s most famous bloodsucker was English actor Christopher Lee. Lee, with his intimidating height and baritone voice, was a great fit for the vampiric nobleman, and played the role in numerous Hammer horror productions throughout his impressive career, beginning with 1958’s Horror of Dracula. Lee sat out that film’s initial sequel, the wonderful Brides of Dracula, but returned to what would become his signature role a decade later in Dracula: Prince of Darkness, now out on Blu-ray from Millenium Entertainment.

Picking up ten years after Dracula’s defeat at the hands of Doctor Van Helsing (Cushing, sadly appearing in only the film’s opening flashback), Prince introduces us to a four young Londoners (the Kents) who have made the grave mistake of vacationing throughout the Carpathian mountains. These two couples venture toward the village of Karlsbad against the warnings of their coach driver, who ejects them from his carriage when their trail nears the looming Castle Dracula. They are eventually picked up by a driverless coach and delivered to the castle, where they discover the home’s sole inhabitant – a man named Klove (Latham), a servant to the late Count who continues to keep house and greet visitors to honor his master’s wishes.

The couples receive food and boarding, and quickly retire for the evening. Of course, Klove is not the kindly caretaker he seems. He eventually murders one of our heroes, using their blood to soak Dracula’s ashes and bring him back to life (death? …un-life?). Dracula then takes up his old habits, turning one of the remaining three into a vampire, while pursuing the others all the way to the doorstep of Father Sandor (Keir, standing in for Cushing’s Van Helsing), a gruff monk who gives them sanctuary in his monastery. Of course, Dracula has pursued them, and uses his servants and one of the monastery’s patients (Ludwig, a Renfield substitute) to attack from within the abbey’s walls. It all leads up to a chase and a climax atop an icy lake, where…well, while I don’t feel it entirely necessary to shout “spoiler alert!” for a forty-seven year old film, I’ll refrain from discussing the finale for those who aren’t caught up on their Hammer horrors (shame!).

While the movie bears most of the hallmarks of Hammer’s heyday, Prince is sadly one of the weaker entries in their line of horror films. The film’s pace is quite slow, Dracula doesn’t appear until well over halfway through, and the climactic scenes cannot manage to thrill in the way that we expect from these movies. Worse still, Lee seems almost entirely uninterested with his role here. This is sadly the worst performance from the best Dracula, as Lee doesn’t speak a word (he reportedly refused to recite any of Dracula’s scripted dialogue), and reduces his considerable abilities to mere face-pulling and large gestures. It’s a strange, hammy performance from an actor who was capable of far more, even under worse circumstances.

Still, there’s a lot to love here as well. The bulk of the cast do a fine job throughout (the standout being Latham, who provides more genuine menace in the film than Lee), the sets are marvelous, and the photography is as beautiful as one would hope from a 60s Hammer flick (to say nothing of Hammer regular James Bernard’s wonderful score). For all of its faults, Prince’s virtues make it a must-see for fans of Hammer and classic horror cinema.

Millenium Entertainment has done a bang-up job with bringing this film to Blu-ray. The image is just gorgeous, sharp and boasting beautiful color. It shames the previous DVD release (which itself was a big improvement over previous releases of the film). And while I’ve read some grousing about the DNR used in the film’s restoration, this is easily the best the film has ever looked. The audio, too, is perfectly solid if not incredibly dynamic (as befitting a movie produced so many decades ago).

The disc’s pretty impressive bonus features package includes: a package of fun, postcard-sized collectible cards; an audio commentary with stars Christopher Lee, Suzan Farmer, Francis Matthews, and Barbara Shelley; a vintage 1990 “World of Hammer” episode focusing on Lee’s career with the company; a restoration comparison detailing the process used to polish up the film’s damaged print; a fun, text-only trailer for a double feature of Prince and Frankenstein Created Woman; and a slideshow which includes looks at posters, lobby cards, and behind-the-scenes stills, all set to the film’s score. Topping all this off is a new, thirty minute documentary titled Back to Black, which looks back at the film’s making and its place within the Hammer legacy. All in all, a damned good release for a flawed if essential part of Hammer history.

Ultimately, you need this Blu-ray if you call yourself a Hammer fan. And for everyone else – I’d still recommend giving this title a look one day. While it isn’t the first Hammer I would show to the uninitiated (or the second, or the third), it should still be considered required viewing for those with even a passing interest in classic horror of the capes ‘n castles variety.

Special Features

  • Audio commentary with Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Suzan Farmer, and Francis Matthews
  • Exclusive stills gallery (NEVER BEFORE RELEASED!)
  • Restored original trailer
  • Dracula: Prince of Darkness restoration comparison
  • Super 8MM behind-the-scenes footage
  • Brand new documentary “Back to Black”
  • World of Hammer Episode: “Hammer Stars: Christopher Lee”
  • Printed memorabilia perfect for every classic Hammer fan out there

    Film:

    2 1/2 out of 5

    Special Features:

    3 1/2 out of 5

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    Children of the Fall Review – This Israeli Slasher Gets Political

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    Starring Noa Maiman, Aki Avni, Yafit Shalev, Iftach Ophir, Michael Ironside

    Directed by Eitan Gafny

    Reviewed out of Utopia 2017


    Slashers are a subgenre of horror that are often looked down upon. After all, what can a movie about a killer slaughtering multiple people have to say about, well…anything. Those of us in the community know full well that this is nonsense and that any kind of horror movie can be a jabbing (no pun intended) commentary on society, culture, politics, art, etc… And that’s precisely what Eitan Gafny aims to do with Children of the Fall, one of the few Israeli slashers ever created.

    Set on the eve of the Yom Kippur war, the film follows Rachel (Maiman), a young American woman who comes to Israel to join a kibbutz after suffering some serious personal tragedies. Her goal to make aliyah (the return of Jews to Israel) is however hampered by some rather unpleasant encounters with local IDF soldiers and members of the kibbutz. Pushing through, she makes friends with others in the commune and her Zionistic views are only strengthened, although they do not go untested. Once Yom Kippur, one of the holiest holidays in Jewish culture, begins, a killer begins picking off the kibbutz workers one by one in violent and gruesome ways.

    Let’s start with what Children of the Fall gets right, okay? As slashers go, it’s actually quite beautiful. There are wonderfully expansive shots that make use of the size and diversity of the kibbutz. The film opens with a beautiful shot of a cow stable, barn, water towers, and miscellaneous outbuildings, all set against a dark and stormy night. The lighting of this scene, and throughout the film, is also very good. I found myself darting my eyes across the screen multiple times throughout the film thinking I’d seen something lurking in the shadows.

    The kills, while unoriginal, are very satisfying. Each death is meaty, bloody, and doesn’t feel rushed. In fact, the camera has no problems lingering during each kill, allowing us to appreciate the practical FX and copious amounts of blood used. And if you believe that a slasher needs to have nudity, you won’t be disappointed.

    The acting is middle of the road. Maiman is serviceable as Rachel but the real star of the film is Yafit Shalev as “Yaron”. His range of emotion is fantastic, from warm and welcoming to Rachel when she arrives to emoting grief and pain during his Yom Kippur announcement where we learn that he was a child in a concentration camp. The rest of the cast are perfectly acceptable as fodder for the killer.

    So where does Children of the Fall stray? Let’s start with the most obvious part: the runtime. Clocking in at nearly two hours, that’s about 30 minutes too much. The film could easily have gone through some hefty editing without affecting the final product. Instead, we have a movie that feels elongated when unnecessary.

    Additionally, the societal and political commentary is very in-your-face but the film can’t seem to make up its mind as to what it’s trying to get across. Natalia, a Belarussian kibbutz worker, raises the concept of Israeli racism, misogyny, and xenophobia, her hostility unabashedly pouring out in the midst of IDF soldiers, locals, other kibbutz members, and more. Is there validity to what she’s saying? Undoubtedly. But there is also validity to Rachel’s retorts, which include calling this woman out on her own vitriolic views. This back-and-forth mentality frustratingly prevails throughout the film, as though Gafny was unwilling to just commit.

    The dialogue is also quite painful at times, although I attribute this to difficulties with translating from Hebrew to English. Even the best English speakers in Israel don’t get everything perfect and the little quirks here and there, while charming, are quite detracting. Also, why is this movie trying to tell me that Robert Smith of The Cure is a character here? While amusing, it makes absolutely no sense nor does it fit in Smith’s own timeline.

    Had this film gone through a couple rounds of editing, I feel like we’d have gotten something really great. Eitan Gafny is definitely someone that we need to be watching very closely.

    • Children of the Fall
    2.5

    Summary

    While Children of the Fall has a lot going for it, it has just as much working against it. Overly long, you’ll get a really great slasher that is bogged down by uneven social and political commentary.

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    User Rating 3.13 (16 votes)
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    Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club Review – A Charming, Quirky Dark Drama

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    Starring Keren Mor, Yiftach Klein, Hana Laslo, Ania Bukstein

    Directed by Guilhad Emilio Schenker

    Reviewed out of Utopia 2017


    One of the great joys I have in being a horror fan is seeing horror films from around the world. I view these films as a chance to learn about the fears, folklore, mythology, and lore of varied cultures. Films like Inugami, Frontier(s), [REC], and the like transport me across oceans and into places I might never get the chance to visit otherwise. Hence my interest in the Israeli dark drama Madam Yankeolva’s Fine Literature Club, the feature debut of director Guilhad Emilio Schenker.

    The film follows Sophie (Mor), a member of a strange, female-only reading club – who believes that love is a lie – that we soon realize brings men into its midst only to have them killed. The woman who brings the most fitting man is awarded a trophy for her fine taste. When a member reaches 100 trophies, they get to enter a coveted and highly esteemed upper echelon of the reading club’s society, one that includes lavish surroundings and an almost regal lifestyle. Sophie starts the film earning her 99th trophy but her plans towards the all-important 100th trophy are thrown askew when she ends up developing feelings for her latest victim. She must now decide if the mission that has been so dear to her for so many years is something she wishes to see through or if she’s ready to take a huge risk and fall in love.

    Now, if this seems like a strange story for a horror website, I don’t disagree. Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club is certainly not your traditional horror film. In fact, I’d liken it far more to the more playful works of Tim Burton and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s The City of Lost Children than something more grotesque and violent. It’s very playful and quite charming, although there are times when the presentation feels amateurish and certain moments when things become wildly unbelievable. That being said, the film aims to be a dark fairy tale come to life, so a healthy amount of “I’m okay letting that go” will not go unappreciated.

    The film is shot in such a way that it’s very soft around the edges, almost like we’re constantly in a dream. This is aided by composer Tal Yardeni’s score, which obviously takes inspiration from Danny Elfman, playfully weaving its way through each scene.

    While there’s a lot to love about Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club, it’s certainly not a flawless film. As mentioned previously, there are times when it feels quite amateurish, as though no one thought to look at how a scene is being filmed and say, “People, this isn’t how things would go down. We can have fun but this just doesn’t sit right.” Additionally, the story moves very quickly. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve heard of love at first sight. But that’s not how this story plays out, so the wildly strong feelings that develop between Sophie and Yosef (Klein) seem strangely out of place.

    All things being what they are, Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club is a charming film that can definitely appeal to horror fans if they’re willing to stretch their boundaries to include films that have absolutely no scares or gore but imply quite a horrific situation.

    • Madam Yankelova's Fine Literature Club
    3.5

    Summary

    Charming, quirky, but not without its faults, Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club is a dark drama for fans of Tim Burton and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Don’t go in expecting any scares or gore. Rather, anticipate a fairy tale that might be just a bit too gruesome in tone for young children.

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    User Rating 3.56 (16 votes)
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    Beyond the Seventh Door DVD Review – No-Budget S.O.V. Canuxploitation At Its Finest!

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    Beyond the 7th DoorStarring Lazar Rockwood, Bonnie Beck, Gary Freedman

    Directed by B.D. Benedikt

    Distributed by Severin Films/Intervision


    Two people trapped within a labyrinthine complex. Booby traps. Rigged doors. Death lurking around every corner. And a mysterious voice communicating clues every step of the way via recorded tapes. No, this isn’t the latest Saw film but a Canuxploitation entry from the shot-on-video market, 1987’s Beyond the Seventh Door. Oozing ambition and bolstered by a truly bravado performance from newcomer Lazar Rockwood – a man who looks like the love child of Tommy Wiseau and Billy Drago – this no-budget Canadian shocker delivers just as many twists and turns as Lionsgate’s dead-horse franchise. The main difference being that instead of having to mutilate yours or someone else’s body, the protagonists here are forced to solve obtuse riddles in order to move on to the next room; failure means death. Intervision has been crushing it throughout 2017 – and this release may be the best yet.

    Boris (Lazar Rockwood) is a career thief and recent ex-con who is trying to turn his life around when Wendy (Bonnie Beck), a former flame, comes back into his life. She now works for a rich paraplegic, Lord Breston (Gary Freedman), who lives in an actual castle just outside of town. Desperate for “one more job” and a big payday, Boris begs for a gig and Wendy delivers; the plan is for the two of them to break into the basement of Breston’s castle and steal whatever treasures he has socked away, all while her boss is busy entertaining guests at his costume party. The next night, the plan is enacted and the duo clandestinely slip into the castle’s lower level, when suddenly the door locks behind them and a tape recorder begins to play. Breston’s voice is heard, welcoming the thieves into his home and offering up a challenge: use scant clues (or sometimes, none at all) and uncover a way out of each of the six rooms linked together down here. Succeed and a briefcase of money awaits; fail and you die. Truly motivating.

    Going into this film blind is my best recommendation, and so for that reason no other plot points will be revealed here. Besides, the real motivation for watching this movie is to witness the raw acting prowess of Lazar Rockwood. Glad in a denim jacket and rocking the ubiquitous ‘80s bandana headband, Rockwood has the delivery of a porno actor stammering lines between sex scenes. His accent is impenetrably thick and the range of his acting could fit within a matchbox, but dammit the man is weirdly magnetic on screen. He’s clearly throwing everything in his arsenal onto the screen with tremendous bravado. Modesty must be a scarce commodity when you have a name that would go perfectly alongside Dirk Diggler on an adult theater marquee in the ‘70s. My favorite line in the entire film is when Wendy is trying to solve the first clue, which has something to do with rings. When she’s rifling through possibilities and says, “Lord of the Rings?” Boris replies with, “Lord of the ring… who the hell is that guy?” said with equal parts confusion and annoyance. The kicker is viewers will believe that query could have come from either Boris or Lazar.

    The rooms aren’t likely to impress viewers with their intricacy or set design, but each has a clever solution that is often a stretch to imagine our leads managing to solve within the allotted time. The clues provided by Lord Breston are esoteric and Boris isn’t exactly the erudite type, but working together with Wendy they are able to move ahead, often with mere seconds to spare. Evidence of past would-be thieves’ unlucky attempts are glimpsed, including one room where a body remains. NON-SPOILER: I completely expected the body to in actuality be Lord Breston, “checking up” on his unwanted guests much like John Kramer in Saw (2004), especially since you can clearly see the actor breathing, but this is not the case. Instead, the he’s-clearly-not-dead guy is played by a local eccentric, whose life is briefly chronicled in the bonus features.

    Viewers will already be hooked on Beyond the Seventh Door by the time the climax arrives, but the final twists are what drive this S.O.V. thriller over the edge and into the cult territory it so richly deserves. It’s crazy to think this film went virtually unseen for years, being impossible to acquire on VHS and never receiving the proper home video release until now. Director B.D. Benedikt offers up further proof that strong ideas can be realized on any budget, and fans of films like Saw or Cube (1997) will enjoy this “store brand” version of those bigger budgeted hits.

    The video quality review for every Intervision title could probably be a copy/paste job since each one is shot on video, always with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The quality here is comparable to a remastered VHS tape. There is a slight jerkiness to the opening but that passes quickly. Colors appear accurate and contrast is about as strong as can be. The picture is often soft which, again, is just something inherent to shooting on video. Film grain is minimized as much as possible; don’t expect a noisy mess just because this isn’t shot on film.

    The English Dolby Digital 2.0 track plays with no obvious issues. Dialogue is clean and free from hissing and pops. The score is another awesomely cheesy ‘80s keyboard love-fest, with the three (!) composers – Michael Clive, Brock Fricker, and Philip Strong – getting plenty of mileage out of the main theme, which sounds like it would be the in-store demo default keyboard setting. No subtitles are included.

    There is an audio commentary with writer/director B.D. Benedikt & actor Lazar Rockwood, moderated by Paul Corupe of Canuxploitation.com.

    “Beyond Beyond the 7th Door features new interviews with Benedikt, Rockwood, and Corupe.

    “The King of Cayenne” – Focusing on “legendary Toronto eccentric Ben Kerr”, a street performer who played the role of “dead guy in that one room”.

    Special Features:

    • Audio Commentary with Writer/Director BD Benedikt and Actor Lazar Rockwood, moderated by Paul Corupe (Canuxploitation.com)
    • Beyond Beyond the 7th Door: Interviews with Writer/Director BD Benedikt, Actor Lazar Rockwood, and Canuxploitation.com’s Paul Corupe
    • The King of Cayenne: An Appreciation of Legendary Toronto Eccentric Ben Kerr
    • Beyond the Seventh Door
    • Special Features
    3.5

    Summary

    Virtually lost for nearly three decades, Beyond the Seventh Door deserves a wider audience and Intervision’s DVD should bring it. The then-novel plot and sheer ambition should be enough to get most viewers hooked, but if not the Yugoslavian wonder Lazar Rockwood will handily have them glued to the screen.

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    User Rating 3.4 (20 votes)
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