Reviews: The Man With X-Ray Eyes

The Man With X-Ray Eyes,
Directed by Roger Corman,
Starring Ray Milland, Diana Van der Vlis, Harold J Stone, John Hoyt, Don Rickles

Here’s an under-rated gem from the stable of the legendary Roger Corman, 1963’s The Man With X-Ray Eyes (aka X: the Man With X-Ray Eyes). I remember reading about this in some movie monster books when I was a kid, and seeing it late night on TV in my teens, but it rarely aired as often as the old Hammer or Universal movies did, and I haven’t seen it in decades. So I am delighted that Second Sight have brought it back, and indeed given it the deluxe treatment: a limited edition Blu-Ray set with a newly restored print, plenty of extras (including interviews with Roger Corman and Joe Dante), poster, a book by Jon Towlson and Allan Bryce, and boasting excellent new cover artwork by the always-brilliant Graham Humphreys.

For those who haven’t seen this very unusual slice of 60s Sci-fi/horror, made between shooting some of those iconic Edgar Allan Poe films Corman is still, rightly, highly regarded for, it follows Doctor James Xavier (Ray Milland), a physician who is working on an experimental mixture which he administers as eye droplets, with the goal of allowing human sight to be expanded. As he explains to his ophthalmologist friend Doctor Sam Bran (Harold J. Stone), in the last few decades humans have discovered a wide electro-magnetic spectrum – ultraviolet, X-rays and more – that their natural senses cannot see. What if they could, with their own eyes, not with imprecise instruments? Imagine how this would help a medical doctor – no fuzzy X-Ray plates, they can literally see through flesh and bone to diagnose an illness, formulate the correct treatment.

While his friends caution him for pushing too far, too quickly, Xavier is eager to test his work, despite the death of a test animal. His reasoning is that the animal couldn’t comprehend what its new visual senses showed it, but he, as a rational, intelligent being, can learn to do so. He is, well, partially correct – at least at first. He finds his new vision increasing, going from being able to read a letter through another sheet of paper covering it, to being able to see into a patient being readied for surgery, a young woman, and he can see what is wrong – a different diagnosis from the attending surgeon, leading to a showdown between the pair as Xavier uses his new powers to save her life.

It’s at this point that things start to spiral out of control – the medical authorities will not accept his abilities, and therefore not believe them as his excuse for his behaviour in the operating theatre (despite saving the patient). His career hanging in the balance, his research funding cut, struggling to control his new abilities, a terrible accident leads to him having to flee to avoid arrest. Desperate for somewhere to hide and continue his research (and a way to reverse the new visual abilities too), Xavier takes refuge, of all places, in a carnival sideshow, posing as a stage magician who can read minds and tell secrets (it’s here he comes into contact with the nasty, selfish carnival barker Crane, played by Don Rickles, in a rare straight, dramatic role), before also trying to use his new abilities to win in Vegas, to get sufficient funds to get his research going once more.

It remains one of the more unusual horror classics of that era – amazingly shot in something like three weeks for a budget of only $300, 000 (tiny, but huge by the normal American International Pictures’ budget standards!). Naturally, given the era it was made in, the special effects are not exactly dazzling – to be fair, this isn’t just because of budget restrictions, the technology to show what they really wanted was simply not there at the time. Despite this the effects team and art director still, in my opinion, managed to give the viewer the feeling of Xavier’s increasing dislocation, as his powers grow, as he can see more and further.

The visual processing in the human brain is enormously complex (as AI programmers have found in trying to replicate it with technology), and also relies on years of us learning to interpret the visuals coming into our brain into something coherent. While Xavier can cope with the titular X-Ray vision, as he begins to see more, things he didn’t even know existed, seeing into matter and the universe itself, he’s slowly losing his mind, and those visual effects, for all their early crudeness, do a good job of conveying this, in conjunction with the excellent Milland’s acting. (it isn’t all drama and doom though, there is some fun to be had, such as Xavier realising he can see through everyone’s clothes at a party, a nod to the old X-Ray specs gimmicks sold in the back pages of comics).

Adding much to this story is the fact that this isn’t the formulaic Mad Scientist story. Yes, Xavier may have a little arrogance of the highly skilled doctor who believes he knows better than others, but he’s not a bad man, and risking his career to save the young woman using his powers shows that he is a decent man. He genuinely wants to use these new abilities to advance medicine, to save more lives, to expand scientific knowledge, and that’s a large part of what really makes this such a compelling film, because he’s not a madman trying to take over the world, he’s a pioneer, with his heart in the right place, who succumbs eventually to the new, uncharted discoveries he has made, like the Curies and other scientists before him.

“What did he see?” asks his love interest, Doctor Diane Fairfax (Diana Van der Vlis) of the unfortunate test monkey who proves the formula works, but dies afterwards. Those words haunt the film, as the abilities Xavier has gained become cumulative, taking him far beyond even the broadest speculations in science, into new realities he simply cannot cope with. He can’t even escape by closing his eyes now, because he can see right through the lids. This well-intentioned work leading to disaster lends the story a deeper, emotional, tragic aspect that compels as strongly as the idea of the new discovery does. An absolute classic of Sci-fi and Horror.

The many extras in this special edition are also great, not least the iconic Corman talking about the making of the film, how he came up with the rough idea, originally thinking he knew some of his musician friends on the jazz scene dallied in drugs, and perhaps he should make the central character a musician who overdoses, before realising he hated that idea, and going back to the notion of having a scientist, someone who was pushing into new frontiers without realising what the consequences would be. Corman also talks about his desire to remake the film, with modern effects able to realise the remarkable new visual abilities of Xavier in any way they want. Personally while the story is strong enough to stand a remake, and the modern visuals would indeed be better, as I said, it isn’t the visuals which really make this film so powerful, it’s the central idea and especially Milland’s performance that do so.

The Man With X-Ray Eyes will be available from Second Sight on limited edition Blu-Ray from May 4th.

Reviews: The Shed

The Shed,
Directed by Frank Sabatella,
Starring Jay Jay Warren, Cody Kostro, Sofia Happonen, Frank Whaley, Timothy Bottoms, Siobhan Fallon Hogan

I’m pretty sure we’re all familiar with the monster in the closet, or under the bed, or the basement. Sabatella’s Indy horror moves the monster action to the most innocuous of domestic locations, the garden shed. There’s no messing around, we are dropped right into things from the start with little preamble – a hunter, out in the woods with his rifle, is now the hunted, fleeing from something barely glimpsed, something his bullets will not stop. A vampire.

And not a pretty, sparkly Twilight vampire, or a swooning, handsome Anne Rice vampire, nope, this is a pretty horrible looking predator, a proper monster. And he catches his prey, but as he bites into the hunter (Bane, played by Frank Whaley, who you will doubtless recognise from a myriad TV and film roles, from Luke Cage to Pulp Fiction) he realises he’s made the classic bloodsucker mistake – he’s stayed out too late. The rising sun pierces the forest canopy and burns him; staggering back in pain from his prey, he’s exposed to direct light and then it’s time for ashes, ashes, we all fall down…

Given our monstrous vampire has just been introduced and then dispatched in the opening few moments, where is The Shed going from here? Well our now dusted vamp had bitten Bane before his severe sunburn got the better of him, but he didn’t finish off the fleeing hunter. Wounded, Bane tries to rise, still shocked from the realisation that vampires exist and he had just been attacked by one – and survived. Or has he? His arm enters a shaft of light breaking through the treetops, and he too burns. Looking at the pile of smoking ash that had been the fearsome vampire, he realises what has happened to him, and that if he doesn’t want to die the same way, he need shelter from the daylight.

It really is a remarkably efficient and swift setup – this opening takes only a few moments and already we’ve had a vampire attack, Bane infected, then having to make a run for shelter, finding the tool shed in the garden of Stan’s house (Jay Jay Warren), an orphan living with his grandfather (veteran actor Timothy Bottoms). There’s even a nice little nod to Katherine Bigelow’s classic vampire Western, Near Dark, as the unfortunate Bane grabs an old blanket to wrap around his head as he has to dash across the open ground in full sunlight, before finding sanctuary in the shadow of the eponymous shed.

Stan’s life is not a happy one – his mother and father are dead (a dream sequence hints at illness and suicide), he’s spiralled into petty infractions of the law and is now living with his grandfather, Ellis, his last option other than Juvenile Hall. And to make it worse Ellis is the “you kids today are too soft, I was in the army being shot at when I was your age” kind of brutish, unfeeling man, totally unsupportive of his clearly emotionally damaged grandson. He and his best friend Dommer (Cody Kostro) have it no better at school either, both being at the bottom of the food chain, Dommer in particular a target for the bully brigade, and even Stan’s former crush, Roxy (Sofia Happonen) has joined the clique of the nasty kids.

Unsurprisingly both would love to be free of their tormentors and their situation, and when Stan first discovers Bane, now transformed into full, bloody-thirsty vampire mode, is hiding in his grandfather’s shed, Dommer sees an opportunity to turn the tables. What if they can lure the bullies here, get them close enough to the shed door to be grabbed and dragged inside? Stan is horrified at the idea – no matter how much he despises the bullies, feeding them to a monster is wrong. He wants to figure out a way to deal with this, while not letting the authorities know (with his record he worries he will take any blame), but Dommer, poor, damaged Dommer, has been beaten up and abused once too often, he wants them dead, and in as painful and terrifying a manner as can be managed.

While not spectacular, I think Sabatella and his cast and crew did a great job with limited budget and resources. Yes, there are some flaws (aren’t there always?) – dream sequences that get confused with reality are a bit over-used, for instance, but for the most part this melding of hidden, secret monster with the high-school as hell (complete with its own kinds of monsters) works well, and you feel for both Stan and the hard life he’s been handed (that kid needs to catch a break, opines Siobhan Fallon Hogan’s Sheriff early on), and Dommer’s revenge fantasies, fuelled into murderous rage by the appearance of the vampire, while wrong are also quite understandable given what he’s been constantly subjected to.

It’s good to see vampires as proper monsters again too, instead of handsome, seductive or sympathetic beings (and no sparkles, thank goodness), an element I suspect many of my fellow horror fans will appreciate. There are also some nice touches, little homages and the like, thrown into The Shed for genre fans to notice, such as the aforementioned blanket over the head daylight run from Near Dark to even a quick reference to Ferris Bueller (as Stan has to run on foot to his house to beat the Sheriff there, cutting through gardens, running right behind her car before she notices). Some good, solid, enjoyable horror fun.

The Shed is available from Signature Entertainment on HD Digital from May 11th

Reviews: We Summon the Darkness

We Summon the Darkness,
Directed by Mark Meyers,
Starring Alexandra Daddario, Keean Johnson, Maddie Hasson, Amy Forsyth, Logan Miller, Austin Swift, and Johnny Knoxville

Another collaboration between Signature Entertainment and FrightFest Presents, We Summon the Darkness seems to be channelling some Old School 1980s and 90s teen slasher vibes. We have the good-looking young women and boys, all off the leash for a weekend of fun free of adult supervision, drink, drugs, music and sexual tension, and this all takes place against a background of a spate of serial killings across the state of Indiana, allegedly the work of a Satanic cult.

The media is loving this, of course, and is not just reporting on it, but clearly stoking a folk panic over the killings, and unquestioningly putting up evangelical preacher types who assert it is all the fault of the “demonic” rock music scene, as if they were speaking fact. Those of you of a certain age will likely see this as a wry commentary and throwback to some of the media frenzies, the so-called “Satanic Panic” tales the media pushed, which had terrible real-world consequences for local communities caught in them (normally once the hoopla died down and serious investigations took place they were found to be nothing more than rumours and outright lies). Knoxville plays against type as TV evangelist condemning the “corruption” of youth (and like most of these rich media preachers, you just know there are going to be skeletons in his closet).

It’s 1998, and three friends, Alexis (Alexandra Daddario), Valerie (Maddie Hasson), and Beverly (Amy Forsyth), are making a road trip to attend a large heavy metal concert, while snippets from the local news plays, condemning the concert and the kids who enjoy the rock scene as part of the problem that has created this alleged Satanic murder spree by leading the youngsters away from Jesus. On the road a pimped out van passes them and one of the boys aboard throws his milkshake out, across their windshield, nearly causing an accident. When they arrive at the concert venue, lo and behold, there is the same van, and it is obvious the occupants are in the back getting high, so Valerie decides on some payback by throwing a lit firecracker through their window.

After a little argument the boys – Mark (Keean Johnson), Kovacs (Logan Miller) and Ivan (Austin Swift) – seem to accept this prank was justified revenge for what they did earlier, and soon the youngsters are bonding over their love of rock, swapping concert-going stories. By the end of the gig they’re enjoying hanging together – three boys, three girls, all into the same music, all free for the weekend, it seems like the perfect opportunity for some fun, and Alexis invites them to join them at her father’s large mansion as he’s away for the weekend.

So far it’s all playing like you might expect an 80s/90s flick to play out – the young women and men are playing with rock music, drugs, booze, flirting with sex, all the usual transgressions that see nubile teens and twentysomethings punished in slashers of that period. But there is something else going on here, not all is as it appears, and much as I would love to talk about it, I can’t because it would blow some spoilers, so I must zip my flapping mouth closed.

Suffice to say that Darkness continues to plough the genre pretty well – I mean that in the good way, while it is using many of the tropes of the genre of the 80s and 90s, it is clearly doing so deliberately and with much love, in a way that I think most horror-hounds will enjoy and approve of. But it also happily subverts some of those generic elements as well, on who is truly the good and the bad, or delighting in playing with gender expectations. Yes, there are moments where some of this seems to be following a well-worn path, but it is doing so with deliberate intentions, partly for the love of the genre, and partly so it can then gleefully mess with some of those expectations. Get the beer out, pop the corn and enjoy some fun Friday night horror viewing for fans.

We Summon the Darkness is out now on Digital HD from Signature Entertainment and FrightFest Presents.

Reviews: Sea Fever

Sea Fever,
Directed by Neasa Hardiman,
Starring Connie Nielsen, Hermione Corfield, Dougray Scott, Olwen Fouéré, Jack Hickey, Ardalan Esmaili, Elie Bouakaze

After the film festival circuit – including a debut at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival in 2019 – Neasa Hardiman’s Indy Irish horror movie arrives on DVD, Blu-Ray and on-demand from this week. Siobhán (Hermione Corfield), is a marine biology student, and one who really isn’t a people-person (as we see right at the start, as her classmates pause in the lab to celebrate a birthday, despite warm invitations to join in, she remains aloof). She is reluctant to undertake a required field work segment of her course, but her tutor tells her firmly she has to get out of the lab and get her hands dirty. To this end she’s booked aboard a trawler for a few days, to examine their catch, looking for pattens and irregularities in the marine life.

The ship is captained by the grizzled, taciturn Gerard (Scots actor Dougray Scott essaying an Irish accent), and owned by his partner Freya (Wonder Woman’s Connie Nielsen), and they are glad of the money the university contract brings – like many independent trawlers the wolf is never far from the door. There is some reluctance from the crew, partly at having someone onboard who isn’t a sailor, let alone experienced on the hard life of the trawler ships, and her stand-offish behaviour doesn’t help, nor does the fact she is a redhead (seen a bad luck on a ship, although interestingly I noticed there was no mention of the other old superstition of a woman being bad luck aboard – in fact with Hermione there are now three women on the ship).

The ship is warned by the coastguard that they cannot continue to the spot they originally planned to trawl, a potentially rich source of fish, that the area is currently off-limits as whales and their calves are in that zone. Unknown to the crew or authorities, Freya and Gerard make the decision to cut through this forbidden zone anyway. Of course any seasoned horror buff will know that going into a forbidden zone is the equivalent of leaving the path in the deep, dark forest in a fairy tale – you don’t do it, and if you do, expect trouble…

The trouble arrives fairly swiftly – something strikes the trawler, despite it being in deep ocean waters. And then they notice some very peculiar shapes forming on the planking of the wooden hull’s interior, deforming the thick wood, softening it – prodding it with a pencil, it goes right through, letting water in and revealing a glimpse of… something. Siobhán had planned a diving session as part of her field work, and at Gerard’s suggestions she reluctantly dives to investigate whatever has been striking the hull, finding something she never expected, an unknown creature, huge and glowing with bioluminescence, its long tendrils attaching to the hull. Is it attacking them, or has it just mistaken the ship for normal prey, in the way sharks sometimes bite surfers or divers, mistaking them for seals?

I thought this was the point where Sea Fever became far more interesting – especially given the situation we are all in at the moment, although that is just a lucky coincidence in timing – because until now it is giving the impression of a fairly standard monster movie. People go out on a normal, routine journey, encounter something unknown, it hunts them, they must fight to understand and survive. Except, no, it doesn’t go down that very well-worn route. Instead this becomes more about different types of life and their rights to exist, how they try to live (human and marine), and also, in what is now suddenly a very contemporary slant, about infection and controlling any potential spread from contact with unknown new organisms.

I wondered at first if this change in tack was down to budgetary restraints – an Indy movie like this simply can’t afford numerous, convincing effects scenes a full-on monster movie would demand. But I don’t think that’s it, I think Hardiman is more interested in people and their web of relationships, their interdependencies, and the way all of the elements, such as the sea, and other life (the fish, the whales, the unknown creature), how they react under sudden stress. I think it doesn’t quite hit the high mark it is aiming for, although again I think that may be due to the budget limitations Indy movie makers labour under, but nevertheless I found this to be a more unusual and far more interesting slant on the horror movie than I was expecting, and well worth checking out.

Sea Fever is available from Signature Entertainment on DVD, Blu-Ray and on-demand services from this week

Crucible of the Vampire

Crucible of the Vampire,
Directed by Iain Ross-McNamee,
Starring Katie Goldfinch, Florence Cady, Neil Morrisey, Larry Rew, Babette Barat

We begin this new British horror with a flashback, in monochrome, to forest clearing where a man is stirring a large, bubbling cauldron. He is surprised by several soldiers in what looks like Civil War-era uniforms (a nod to Witchfinder General, perhaps?), the officer in charge grabbing him and accusing him of witchcraft; his dead daughter has been seen by several witnesses walking again after her burial. The cauldron, he claims is being used to create a potion which is fuelling her resurrection – the officer takes one of the soldier’s swords and cleaves the old cauldron in two, before ordering the accused man to be strung up from the nearest tree.

We move to the present day, and Isabelle (Kate Goldfinch), a young museum curator, is called into her director’s office, where he explains that renovations in a remote, rural country house have turned up one half of the cauldron glimpsed in the prologue. The museum has had the other half for some years and is understandably keen to obtain the other segment for study – in fact Isabelle is surprised that her boss is asking her to head out to the house to verify the find instead of going herself, but of course she can’t say no.

Arriving at the once-grand but now partly dilapidated country house she is met by Karl (Larry Rew), his wife Evelyn (Babette Barat) and their strange, pale daughter Scarlet (Florence Cady). She is welcomed in, given a room to stay in, invited to dinner, all the signs of hospitality are there and yet… Yet there is a distinct feeling right from the beginning that something is simply not right here – the family (especially Scarlet), there is something unsettling about them, and there is a feeling around the house that builds unease, a sensation heightened by first hearing someone walking around at night then later seeing Scarlet prowling the dark halls at night, even following her to the bathroom and at one point sneaking into Isabelle’s room (and rather strangely showing a keen interest in the other woman’s underwear), and there is the question of a strange music which haunts her.

A visit to the local village pub builds this feeling of wrongness – a disgruntled younger man seems to be stalking her, warning her not to return to the estate or it will go badly for her. A threat? Or a warning? The family’s gardener (played by popular actor Neil Morrisey) seems friendly, although his story of the previous gardener (incidentally father to the angry young man following Isabelle) who was found with massive throat trauma and blood loss in the woods (passed off as a freak accident) again raises Isabelle’s concerns about staying in the house.

Karl seems keen for her to finish her work and verify the find; she assumes he is just after money for the artefact, but Isabelle starts to wonder if there is another, secret motive. When she finds a hidden journal entry in the library in the house, detailing a former owner’s encounter with the cauldron fragment, and his subsequent series of nocturnal visitations, visions and what sounds very much like the same mysterious music she has heard herself. It seems this 19th century owner was trying to warn future occupants of the house, but what was he warning them against, and does it have anything to do with the cauldron she is investigating?

This was a pleasure for me to watch, Iain Ross-McNamee has crafted a film which draws heavily on old-school British horror movies. Crucible draws on some classic Hammer inspiration – the creepy, old house surrounded by dark woods, the host who on the surface is welcoming but you just feel is hiding something. There are numerous other homages and references worked in here, notably a nod to Carmilla/The Vampire Lovers, and includes some nice phantasmagorical images and visions that, while this is very much a modern film, also gives it some of the airs of the 19th century Gothic novel. In a world where too many horror movies rely on sudden jump-scares or OTT gore, Crucible of the Vampire takes its time to build an increasing atmosphere of unease and a slow-burn of ever-increasing tension, laced with some beautiful cinematography and imagery, while upcoming young talent Goldfinch and Cady are especially good.

A modern horror that draws on classic, older Brit horror film traditions, while also mixing in a touch of ancient folklore and Celtic myth, there’s a lot to love here, especially for those of us still in love with Hammer.

Crucible of the Vampire is getting a limited theatrical release by Screenbound on February 1st, and will be available on DVD and on-demand services from February 4th