Sunday, 13 January 2019

Blu-ray Review: LAURA (1944)

The 1944 Hollywood movie Laura plays for the most part as if it were a conscious postmodern deconstruction of film noir character types and motifs despite the fact that the term "film noir" did not become available for use until years after this acknowledged classic of the subgenre had been released. This is surely the biggest consequence of the fact that the  source novel and the subsequent play on which the film was originally based were the work of a female writer, Vera Caspary, who was obviously aware of the 1930s tradition of hardboiled fiction by male writers such as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler -- the key literary influences and sources of what came to be known as film noir  -- yet was herself drawing more upon a template established by the popular "Sensation Literature" of the middle of the 19th century in work by writers such as Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Ellen Wood. With Laura, Caspery, much like her near-contemporary Daphne Du Maurier whose Rebecca is a clear reference point, was attempting to unpick, in a particularly acute way, many of the gender roles that underpin this area of fiction, using a reformulation of the devices previously employed by writers of great Victorian popular literature.

Sensation Literature narratives often revolved around strong independent-minded female characters who pose a challenge to the gendered patriarchal domestic institutions that greased the gears of Victorian society. These narratives frequently relied on unexpected, rug-pulling twists devised to force the reader to reassess former prejudices as apparently ‘respectable’ characters are revealed to harbour dark destructive secrets that fester at the heart of English suburban society. The genre also produced, in Collins’ The Moonstone, a novel widely considered to be the first detective story in English literature.

The 1943 novel of Laura, as initially conceived by Caspary, relies on multiple narrators each providing their own unique and individual perspective on events, and thus raising the spectre of the unreliable narrator: a mainstay of the Sensation genre. The film, though, in structurally simplifying much of this, actually creates yet more ambiguity. The title character becomes, in the first half of the film, an unobtainable male fetish object accessed only through the many distorted reflections produced by second-hand accounts of her brilliance that emphasise only their vainglorious narrator’s projection of an idealised form of femininity: a quality the film itself echoes with a mise-en-scène shot through a gauzy, romantic high-gloss sheen. 

It’s noticeable that 20th Century Fox, recently back under the control of Darryl Zanuck after his period of leave for army service, envisioned Laura as an A-List project almost from the start: there is no skimping on glamour and prestige in any area of the production, as is highlighted by the film’s five Academy Award nominations. Production design, cinematography and costuming are all rendered with exquisite elegance, in presentation of the milieu of the sophisticated Manhattan smart set providing the film’s decorative backdrop and shrouding the entire production in an entrancing, dreamy aura that’s quite at odds with the more usual gritty style associated with the crime, mystery and investigative genres. Laura is an ingenious murder mystery presented to audiences in the form of a refined woman’s picture of the same period: its sophisticated cast performances highlight at every turn the involved nature of the twisted character relationships that propel the narrative, as opposed to the approach taken by a contemporary film such as Mildred Pierce (1945) for instance, which was a relationship drama and character study in its original form that had these elements simplified for the screen so that murder and noir trappings could be added to the adaptation for commercial reasons.

Laura, which can also be thought to be a crisply mounted noir precursor to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, is a film about the male gaze that exemplifies, in style and character, every domineering surface aspect of the attempt to obliterate the self-determination of its female subject. In the film, we are presented with three male leads, each of whom is shown (through being either a suspect in a woman’s murder or a detective with a hand in the investigation) to have a connection to the murdered Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney). But only by the images of her they present to us and each-other do we as viewers have any access to her at all. Then, halfway through the picture – and this is the big twist or spoiler that underpins the film’s reputation, so stop reading now if you wish to remain blissfully ignorant -- we discover that Laura Hunt is not actually dead at all. She suddenly walks into the film as a living, breathing presence, at which point she goes instantly from being a potential murder victim to the chief suspect in a murder plot.

In a way, the film’s production history rehearses themes central to the narrative to an uncanny and mordantly ironic degree: Caspary, a female artist, who writes a story about a young ambitious woman whose life, work, image and very memory are fought over for interpretation by a group of men, was to find the same thing happening to the story itself when producer Otto Preminger, studio mogul Darryl Zanuck and their proposed directorial choice Rouben Mamoulian got to work on remoulding it into something that might function as a cinematic rather than a literary vehicle. Caspary clashed with Preminger early on over the decision to drop the concept of multiple narrators which underpins the novel in favour of the third-person objective ‘invisible’ narrator preferred in most Hollywood cinema. But the labyrinthine rivalries and insecurities that the project exposed between the three male creatives when they took over the reins of Caspary’s vision couldn’t be more symbolic of the clash of male egos and romantic delusions that the film they eventually crafted from the source novel depicts so piquantly.  

When Otto Preminger first identified Laura as a potential project that could be brought to the screen, he’d been working practically covertly at Twentieth Century Fox under its "caretaker" head William Goetz. Preminger had earlier been frozen out of Hollywood altogether after falling out with Fox co-founder Darryl F Zanuck in 1937, over his direction of Zanuck’s screenplay of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped. Unable to find work elsewhere, he’d returned to his theatre acting roots and had great success in long-running productions acting alongside, among others, Vincent Price. While Zanuck was away doing his army service, Goetz had brought Preminger back in from the cold, employing him as both actor and director on a number of B pictures at Fox. When Zanuck returned, though, and immediately started discarding all of Goetz’s films, Preminger feared for a time that his brief spell of favour had come to an impromptu end. Instead, Zanuck summoned him to a meeting where Preminger learned that he would be allowed to stay on as director of the minor war picture he was at work on at the time, but that he would only be allowed to produce Laura.

Even then, the property almost got shelved when the head of the B unit, Bernie Foy, decided on the advice of his reader that he did not like the script. It took Zanuck himself to come to the rescue when he upgraded the production to the ‘A’ unit and decided that he would also supervise it, working alongside Preminger as the production's script doctor. It was also Zanuck who voiced the need to make the characters 'real outstanding personalities', determining that in order to be successful the film had to aim to be more than just another 'blown-up whodunit'. One of Caspary’s original bugbears with Preminger was that he only wanted to make a conventional detective story, although Preminger had also sensed, correctly, that Laura Hunt’s fastidiously epicene mentor Waldo Lydecker should be made the central spoke in the narrative hub. Zanuck, meanwhile, realised that Laura should come into the story as 'a breath of spring' to contrast with the 'Park Avenue cutthroats' who otherwise populate it.

As the producer of the property, it was up to Preminger to find someone suitable to helm Laura. Successful stage and screen director Rouben Mamoulian seemed like a brilliant choice at first: he was one of cinema’s earliest and most innovative pioneers of the movie musical and of mobile camera technique (who oversaw the making of the first three-strip Technicolor movie made in Hollywood), and was seemingly a perfect fit for a film with the prestige status Zanuck’s stewardship seemed set to bestow upon the production. However, problems soon began to mount behind the scenes, principally over Preminger’s dissatisfaction with Mamoulian and Zanuck’s casting choice for the crucial role of Waldo Lydecker. They’d plumped for an actor, Laird Cregar, who had just become well known for playing Jack the Ripper in the 1943 version of The Lodger. To cast Cregar as Laura’s tart bisexual mentor would be to throw too much suspicion on his shoulders, identifying him as the prime suspect in the mystery from the off. Preminger much preferred a little-known actor called Clifton Webb, who had thus far confined himself mainly to the stage, appearing in musical comedies and revues. Webb’s off-screen persona – cuttingly loquacious, upper-class and openly homosexual – signalled those important elements of Waldo Lydecker’s fastidious nature that still could not be openly stated on screen in 1944, plus the actor was virtually unknown so anyone watching would have no cause to suspect him over any of the other shifty high-class Manhattanites portrayed in the film. 

Preminger managed to get Cregar replaced with Webb behind Mamoulian’s back, despite initial opposition from Zanuck. When the dallies started coming back from Mamoulian’s closed set, both Zanuck and Preminger expressed dissatisfaction with the overly theatrical way he was directing some of the actors, particularly Judith Anderson. In meetings between the three men, Preminger was only too happy to spell out where he thought Mamoulian was going wrong, and it wasn’t too long before Mamoulian was off the film and Preminger found himself finally in charge of the production, scrapping everything that had been done so far and starting again from scratch with a new cameraman, Joseph La Schelle, and a new scenic designer, Lyle Wheeler, who was soon to garner a reputation as the designer of some of Hollywood’s most lavish productions.  

Preminger directs Laura with understated grace and restraint studded with the occasional unconventional flourish -- like the sudden whip-pan in the opening scene that introduces society newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker, naked in his marble bath but still tapping away on the typewriter suspended above it. The world of New York high society was one Preminger had moved in himself and understood implicitly to be elegant and attractive on the surface but populated by ruthless vipers. The casting choices were essential for teasing out the dysfunctional interplay of psychological pathologies at work in the subtext of the scrip, with the effete Clifton Webb playing against leading man Dana Andrews’ rugged investigating detective, Mark McPherson. The opening scene demonstrates how harmoniously the casting, décor, photography and script combine to create the film’s textured air of feverish mysteriousness, with McPherson rendered ill at ease amongst the fussily arranged glass display cabinets and quaint antiques of Lydecker’s high-end suite, the columnist’s penchant for extreme feminine fetishisation already becoming apparent to us from his immaculately curated surroundings. Lydecker even mythologises and attempts to control McPherson’s masculinity, quoting from an article he’d once written about the detective after he sustained an injury during a siege that resulted in the death of a gangster: “The detective with the silver shinbone” sounds like the title of a hardboiled crime fiction that might have been written by Raymond Chandler, the film cleverly fixing immediately how we view McPherson through the words and sensibility of its most manipulative character. There’s even a fairly overt-for-the-time frisson of homosexual flirtation in the air when Lydecker casually rises from the bath in the nude and asks McPherson to hand him a washcloth, the manly detective casting the fey newspaper columnist a wry split-second sideways glance before doing so.

The detective is ostensibly there to interview the self-regarding Lydecker about his relationship to the supposedly murdered woman, Laura Hunt, who has (apparently) been found in her apartment, shot in the face at point-blank range after answering the door buzzer dressed in her night robe. He claims to be ‘the only one who really knew her’ and imperiously insists that she considered him to be ‘the wisest, the wittiest, the most interesting man she’d ever met.’ McPherson also speaks to Laura’s serpentine playboy fiancé Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), a parasitic hanger-on who seems equally as effeminate and ineffectual as Lydecker paints him to be, and who appears to be happy to accept the continuing financial assistance of Laura’s wealthy socialite aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson) -- who is, in turn, totally infatuated with him but unapologetically hard-nosed about that fact, and about both their many personal failings.

The catty rivalry that's on display between the two men, and which McPherson deliberately facilitates as a tactic to try and determine the facts about what really happened between them and Laura, is at the centre of a lot of the film’s most acerbic and quotable dialogue as well as its mystery. But when McPherson goes with Lydecker to visit what used to be his and Laura's favourite restaurant, the film goes into an extensive flashback sequence in which we see how he promoted her climb up the career ladder to the top of her profession after she approached him speculatively, while an ingénue with an advertising firm, hoping to secure his endorsement on a campaign she’s been working on for a new fountain pen. (‘I don’t use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom!’ he responds, sniffily, to her initial request.) 

Lydecker starts to live an obsessively vicarious existence through Laura's ensuing professional and social successes, revelling in fashioning for her a new, sophisticated identity that might almost be an alternative feminine version of his own. He secures her more endorsements and thus helps her progress at the advertising firm; he shows her how to carry herself in high-status social circles; he decides what clothes she should wear and how she should arrange her hair. Although it is platonic, the obsessive nature of their relationship encourages a sickly proprietary attitude in Lydecker with regard to who Laura can be seen associating with. He essentially starts stalking her: he’s jealous of the infatuated artist who painted her portrait which now dominates the mantelpiece in her apartment lounge, and he’s disapproving of her relationship with Carpenter, when she hires him to work with her at the advertising firm after meeting him at one of the upper-crust soirees Ann Treadwell regularly holds to help Carpenter get a foothold in the dissolute echelons of Manhattan’s beau monde.

After listening to all of this being so eloquently expressed to him by Lydecker, and then seeing the magnificent portrait of Laura in her apartment building, McPherson essentially falls in love with the mythical image of a dead woman -- a development that brings a perverse hint of necrophilia with it to the dreamy romantic atmosphere that predominates in the film, largely thanks to David Raksin’s memorable score based around the theme he wrote for the title character. It results in a heady mixture that raises all sorts of unanswered questions about the true nature of the couple’s relationship when the real Laura unexpectedly turns up again out of the blue, and it is revealed that the murdered woman was, in fact, a model called Diane Redfern from the advertising campaign Laura and Carpenter had been working on together, and whom Carpenter had been having a liaison with at Laura’s flat while the latter was away in the country deciding whether to marry him or not! McPherson’s subsequent courtship of Laura is simultaneously being conducted, then, as a murder investigation in which she has now been made the main suspect, while Lydecker’s obsession with the version of Laura he has constructed for public consumption (and which McPherson has fallen for) is now even more challenged by the flesh and blood Laura’s choice of romantic partner, as Lydecker gradually realises that she is responding to detective McPherson’s overtures.

Lydecker’s dialogue throughout the film is peppered with waspish expressions of apparent disgust for any kind of overt demonstration of male physicality, putting further emphasis on his own inability to successfully masquerade as heterosexual in this area of his life by suggesting the true direction of his own proclivities if he (and the film) could only admit to them! One can practically sense Lydecker’s repressed frustrations boiling over in lines like: 'If McPherson weren’t muscular and handsome in a cheap sort of way, you’d see through him in a second', and 'I hope you’ll never regret what promises to be a disgustingly “earthy” relationship!'  Vera Caspary was always unhappy about Otto Preminger’s decision to change the novel’s climactic revelation, in which it is discovered that the pistol that killed Diane Redfern has been concealed in the handle of Lydecker’s walking cane all along – a deliberately placed Freudian symbol that stands for the character’s sexually impotent destructiveness. But, in a way, Preminger’s alternative -- of having the phallic murder weapon hidden instead in a secret compartment inside the body of the replica copy of Lydecker’s elegantly adorned antique clock (which he gave to Laura as a present and which now stands in her apartment) is a perfect metaphor for the film’s unspoken theme, in which closeted homosexuality is covertly depicted finding its sublimated but unstable release through a vicarious usurpation and impersonation of feminine identity. One can understand Gene Tierney’s initial reluctance to take on a role that actually requires her to pose as a remote and not fully realised character for much of her time on screen, and one in which she is almost completely defined by the men around her; but Tierney, of course, has no trouble in rising above all of her male co-stars in one of the most memorable screen portrayals of the 1940s. Nevertheless, one cannot help but agree with detective McPherson’s rather accurate assessment of Laura Hunt’s poor choice of relationships when he tells her: ‘I must say, for a charming, intelligent girl you’ve certainly surrounded yourself with a remarkable collection of dopes!'

It’s wonderful to see this exquisite noir finally receiving a UK Blu-ray release in which its beautiful photography really gets a chance to shine. It’s part of Eureka Entertainment’s Masters of Cinema collection and comes with some nice extras including an archive featurette on the film; a video interview with composer David Raksin; and two commentary tracks: one in which film professor Jeanine Basinger, Chairman of Film Studies at Weston University, Middle Town, Connecticut provides an excellent analysis of the film with occasional separately recorded interventions from Raksin regarding the score; and another in which film historian Rudy Behlmer concentrates on the production history of the film. 

The disc also includes four radio adaptations, including the Lux Theatre one hour broadcast from 1945 which starred original cast members Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews and Vincent Price. Philip Hoad contributes an essay to the accompanying collector’s booklet, which also features a selection of rare archive images.

Laura is a key entry in the psychological noir subgenre of the 1940s, where flashbacks and false memories and a dreamy sense of romantic ennui dominate the mood. Often these films fell squarely into the Gothic Romance genre. But Laura straddles the borders of Gothic ghost story, romantic thriller and detective mystery like no other: a perfect blending of genre elements that combine to produce a uniquely ravishing, beguiling effect on the viewer in a film that continues to cast its hypnotic spell across the decades. Let this release contribute to that spell lasting for many more years.


Monday, 10 December 2018

BLU-RAY REVIEW: When a Stranger Calls (1979) Limited Edition

Although writer-director Fred Walton often cites as inspiration for the opening segment of his seminal suspense thriller When a Stanger Calls (1979) an infamous true crime murder case that took place in Columbia, Missouri during the 1950s, it’s actually the 1960s urban legend the story later spawned that is being so skilfully wrung for maximum scare potential in those tense first twenty minutes of the movie. Dubbed ‘the babysitter and the man upstairs,' this is a legend with many varied permutations based around old newspaper reports of the discovery of the body of thirteen-year-old Janett Christman, who was brutally slain at the home of the family whose three-year-old son she had been babysitting. Walton and his co-writer Steve Feke zeroed in on the essential dread elements of the tale to identify why it continues to resonate so powerfully. It’s probably fair to say that the movie’s opening act – a re-staging of the material that Walton and Feke first wrote in 1977 for a short film called The Sitter – has been largely responsible for the currency When a Stanger Calls still enjoys to this day for cementing the popularity of the slasher movie, particularly for horror fans who are interested in the roots of the sub-genre. 

Everybody knows the scenario the movie so brilliantly enacts: a young babysitter, left alone in a house late at night and charged with looking after two young children for the evening (both asleep upstairs), is plagued by  a series of creepy nuisance calls from a stranger who repeatedly asks her the same question: “have you checked the children?” Eventually, she rings the police, who tell her they’ll put a trace on the line. After the next interruption, when she is explicitly threatened by the same mysterious voice, the police immediately phone right back to inform her that the call has now been traced to the very house she is currently in! They urgently advise her to leave the residency as calmly as she can while a patrol car is sent out to meet her. Later, it emerges that the killer had indeed been upstairs in the house all along and that the two children have both been murdered in their room. They had already been dead for hours before the police discovered their bodies.

A new Limited Edition Blu-ray and download on demand release of When a Stranger Calls from the UK’s Second Sight label brings together Walton’s original twenty minute short film The Sitter (1977) with the hit feature-length movie it later gave rise to in 1979, and pairs them both on the same disc with a 1993 TV Movie sequel, When a Stranger Calls Back (also written and directed by Walton as a co-production for Universal TV and the premium cable channel Showtime). All three are presented in full HD alongside all the usual Limited Edition bells and whistles (40-page booklet, a reversible double-sided poster and a soundtrack CD), with a compliment of featurettes looking back on the film and its legacy. Watching all three works back-to-back is an enlightening and sometimes surprising experience: on the one hand the film has been remarkably influential (the opening act of Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) is essentially a knowing recapitulation cum pastiche for the cell phone age of the first twenty minutes of When a Stranger Calls, that assumes at least a passing familiarity with it while adding ramped-up gore and a large dollop of patented 1990s ‘postmodern’ ironic distance). On the other hand, most of the influence it has generated comes from the pre-existing urban legend material already distilled down to its essence in the short film version. The features themselves veer off in all sorts of strange directions that have little connection to the slasher genre per se and encourage comparisons with other kinds of works one wouldn’t normally think to mention in the discussion of them.

The Sitter is actually extremely effective in its own right as a stand-alone short feature, and in some ways manages to imbue its content with far more subtext and ambiguity than is allowed for when the same scenes are reshot and appear again with different sets, different performers and a new score in the full movie version. 

It begins as a music box nursery rhyme lullaby plays over exteriors of the house at night while the (in this version) unnamed babysitter arrives during the opening shots. A caption identifying the time as being 8 pm on March 21st, 1972, and the location as Santa Monica, California immediately counterpoints the dreamy nocturnal atmosphere with an implied authenticity, suggesting, in true urban legend fashion, the film to be an account of something that really took place, but without actually saying that. The babysitter (Lucia Stralser) is left in charge of a large mansion-like house owned by a well-to-do doctor and his wife, and the short quickly establishes her as a teenager on the cusp of adulthood who is dealing with a degree of uncertainty in her relations with others. The clothes she wears emphasise her youth but also hint at a developing sexuality; her phone calls from the house to her best friend reveal that she is a privately educated grade A student (considered a bit of a swot by her peers) who is also diffidently beginning  to experiment with rites of passage associated with entry into adulthood, such as smoking and drinking (gialli fans will be amused to note that when the babysitter raids her hosts’  drinks cabinet she emerges with a bottle of J&B whisky), which she indulges in alongside the task of conscientiously studying the college textbooks on sociology spread across the coffee table in the spacious living room.

In other words, she is the archetypal Final Girl slasher movie heroine. The menacing phone calls asking her if she has checked the children only emphasise the fact that, thus far, the thought hadn’t occurred to her -- which suggests an implicit underlying urge or wish on her part to cast aside the mantle of responsibility and abandon the course her studies are leading her towards despite earlier having emphatically refused her friend’s suggestion on the phone that she should come and join her for a party at the house, bringing a boy that the sitter had been hesitantly asking about throughout their conversation. The repetitive phone calls of the stranger to the babysitter hype up the tension as the camera prowls the increasingly threatening corridors of the house, but she notably only really becomes truly terrified when the caller specifically asks her “WHY haven’t you checked the children?” This, of course, reveals that he must have been watching her the whole time. But the threat is at first still perceived as coming from the outside: a notion Walton drums home with lots of distance exterior shots of the house, its large bay window lit up against the backdrop of the night, the isolated girl left with all her vulnerability on display like a museum exhibit caught under a spotlight. But it also re-emphasises this question of why the babysitter had not looked in on the children even before the calls gave her any cause for alarm. In When a Stranger Calls, a line of dialogue is added to the script so that, as she and her doctor husband leave the house, Mrs Mandrakis specifically asks the sitter NOT to wake the children because they are both getting over "really bad colds". This, at a stroke, decisively removes all the subtext about desires, fears and secret motivations that the sitter’s inaction encourages the viewer to ponder during the short. Although this is understandable, since such concerns serve no function in the feature version as it goes off in a completely different direction after the first act is complete, the earlier version seems to linger in the imagination more as a result of these extra sub-textual considerations.

Walton and Feke shot the short in three days after raising $12,000 from friends and family. The film’s superb mounting and exemplary execution belies its lowly origins as, essentially, a student film. Walton was able to bring in a fine French cinematographer, Willy Kurant, who had worked with Jean-Luc Godard (Masculine Feminine [1966]) and 'Agnès Varda, and had shot Orson Welles’ The Immortal Story (1968), so the film looks extremely accomplished and has a memorable and immediate visual style despite featuring only one character on screen for most of its runtime. The little-known actress playing the babysitter is extremely compelling to watch and convincing in the role of an innocent under threat, and the tension is built up then released as expertly as it is during the better-known movie version. Even the score by Jane McNealy – a mixture of woodwind instrumentation, odd percussion and increasingly discordant synth sounds – makes an effective addition to the action despite exemplifying a completely different approach to the nerve-shredding orchestrated cues written for the movie by Dana Kaproff.  

The Sitter was conceived as a means of breaking into the business at a time when short films still regularly played as support features for the main attraction in theatres. The plan was to make something that was both professional enough and commercial enough to attract an Academy Award nomination for Best Live Action Short. Although The Sitter qualified for such a consideration by securing a week-long residency at Mann’s Village Theatre in Westwood, Los Angeles (supporting Looking For Mr Goodbar), it failed to earn either the hoped-for Oscar nomination or the attention of industry professionals who might’ve promoted Walton and Feke’s careers. However, the short film still works incredibly well years later and historically can be seen to be an unnerving, suspenseful ignition point for the slasher phenomena that was about to explode the following year with John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), prompting businessman Mel Simon to invest in turning Walton’s short into a fully-fledged feature film so as to fully capitalise on the growing trend for such material.

The Sitter was by no means the first short form adaptation of The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs legend: in 1971 a 14 minute film called Foster’s Release had essentially told the same tale (directed by Terence H. Winkless, whose varied career encompasses playing Bingo the Gorilla in The Banana Splits and writing an early unused draft for Joe Dante’s The Howling). Elements of the imperilled-babysitter-beset-by-a-maniac motif appear again and again in numerous films and anthology TV episodes such as, for instance, Peter Collinson’s Fright (1971), in which Susan George plays the babysitter role. However, the most obvious precursor is Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974), which probably makes the most chilling use of the trope of any movie that has ever been made, although in this case it’s a sorority house that is under threat and the victims are college girls being harassed by obscene phone calls after one of them has disappeared during the Christmas holidays. Unlike The Sitter, Black Christmas doesn’t use the killer-is-already-in-the-house revelation as a punchline but makes the viewer aware of it from the start, and the tension comes from waiting for the characters to understand the danger in their midst as the killer stashes the mangled bodies of his victims in the attic and occasionally emerges between crank phone calls to claim another.

 It seems likely Walton was well aware of Clark’s film and included a knowing wink towards it in The Sitter by having the boyfriend that the babysitter discusses with her friend on the phone be called Billy -- which immediately brings to mind the Black Christmas killer’s crazy roleplay phone calls in which he acts out the bizarre psychosis of someone who is also known as ‘Billy’. In the full feature version, the boy being discussed has his name unaccountably changed in the script from Billy to Robert, perhaps to obscure the original debt. 

Whether or not Walton and Feke had ever been aware of Black Christmas and all the other little-remembered precursors utilising similar material, the 1979 full-length movie eclipsed them all in the public memory when it became a huge commercial hit off the back of the success of Halloween. Audiences flocked to When a Stranger Calls in expectation of similar thrills, when what they ended up getting was a film that made the inconspicuous domestic telephone a sinister harbinger of doom, even more so than had the Italian maestro Mario Bava’s creepy short film The Telephone, which had been the opening segment of his 1963 Boris Karloff-starring anthology picture Black Sabbath. It’s ironic, then, that the opening act makes so strong an impression on audiences that it often obscures the fact in people’s memories that much of the rest of the movie really doesn’t conform to the slasher template at all, which is probably why it often gets a mixed reaction from modern genre fans who have a more fixed idea than audiences in 1979 might have had, of what does and does not count as a slasher movie.

The opening act of When a Stranger Calls fine-tunes the fright dynamics and sombre tone of the original short with Dana Kaproff’s newly orchestrated score, which skilfully underscores musically the sense of dread, fear and emotional turmoil felt by babysitter Jill Johnson (yes, she now has a name) as her situation becomes more and more macabre and threatening. Even the house itself and objects within it such as umbrella stands, etc., are made to feel, with skilful direction, like a malevolent participant in the action. Events culminate at the moment Jill has to attempt to keep the caller talking on the line so that the Police can trace the call, whereupon she asks him “what do you want?” To which the anonymous voice chillingly replies, “your blood … all over me!” The distinctive looking Carol Kane, best known at the time for her recent appearance in Woody Allen’s Anne Hall (1977), brings a completely unique quality to the role of the nervous babysitter. In a way, the character she plays is far more diffident and hard to read than her short film predecessor, although Kane’s confidently understated delivery helps sell the irony of her character’s later change in circumstances -- which we will learn about when we return to her seven years later in the final act. 

With a much bigger budget in play, the film has a more confident flow and the narrower, confined spaces of this version of the Mandrakis household bring a claustrophobic atmosphere to the proceedings which is completely opposite to the approach taken by Walton in the short, where the house and its interiors seemed vast and the babysitter was often made to look tiny -- isolated in the frame by a frequent use of wide angle lenses. Nevertheless, despite minor differences, Walton reproduces here all the main beats and many of the more effective shots from The Sitter. The cinematographer this time out was Donald Peterman, and although this was his first feature -- and he actually tried to quit the job at one stage because he found providing consistent lighting for the glaring white walls of the house interiors very hard to accomplish on the timescale allocated for filming the opening portion of the movie -- his work comes across as assured and brings an extra sheen of professionalism to what was still a relatively low budget picture. In fact, Peterman, who died in 2011, ended up being the most successful person involved in the making of When a Stranger Calls, becoming a frequent collaborator later in his career on many of Ron Howard’s movies.

One of the scariest things about the urban legend on which this opening segment is based is the unfathomable, motiveless, taunting malevolence demonstrated by the anonymous killer’s actions, with two defenceless children dead upstairs in the house before the campaign of terror against the unsuspecting innocent charged with their care is even underway. He is, essentially, the bogeyman of fable and lore: a bringer of violence and chaos to the presumed stability of a domestic space normally cast as a haven of nurture and peace, which is here depicted as vulnerable to catastrophic disruption from within. But after starting off in that distinctive manner, the film then chooses to proceed in a markedly different direction during the middle act. Both the short film version and the first part of When a Stranger Calls end with the patrol officer who became the first person to arrive at the scene, explaining to the recently arrived lead detective on the investigation that the babysitter escaped unharmed but that the children upstairs were not so lucky -- as the parents, now finally home after their night out, are consoled in the background (the film adds the almost comically macabre detail of having the children’s bodies glimpsed being removed from the house by grim-looking officers carrying their remains in what look like bin bags).

In the movie, though, Patrol Officer Garber (70s Blaxploitation star Ron O'Neal) also informs detective John Clifford (Charles Durning - a Hollywood mainstay with a string of roles in well-loved movies to his name which include three early efforts directed by Brian De Palma) that they now know the actual identity and occupation of the killer: he's an English merchant seaman by the name of Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley). We then cut to seven years later and discover that Duncan has somehow escaped the psychiatric facility he has been treated in since his capture and is, once again, on the loose in New York City. This is where the film now departs from normal slasher convention. Rather than the tense claustrophobic thriller of the first twenty minutes, it takes on something of the form of a procedural investigation reminiscent of many a TV cop show of the same period. Clifford is now an ex-cop working in a private capacity for the murdered children’s father (Carmen Argenziano), who sets out not to bring Duncan to justice but to execute him before he can strike again. The truly unusual and bold move Walton’s screenplay then makes is to spend the majority of the rest of the picture exploring in detail and with some sympathy the nature of Duncan’s warped psyche, but without backtracking at all on the grisliness of his crimes as he drifts, rootless and alone among the denizens of squalid all-night bars and homeless shelters. 

Rather than a terrifying figure of dread, he suddenly seems, here, to be so small and unassuming, even pitiable. We witness Duncan cast out and totally adrift, lost in the unforgiving sprawl of big city life and unable to make even the most superficial connections with other people; begging on the streets for small change among assorted derelicts and street life, but attracting little attention unless it’s of the hostile variety. In his very first scene of the picture, he’s viciously beaten up by a bar patron for harassing Colleen Dewhurst’s jaded, middle-aged barfly character – who eventually feels guilty for rejecting Duncan’s advances after witnessing what happens to him afterwards, even though she was well within her rights to resist his clumsy, persistent pestering. This is not an imposing bogyman figure who strikes immediate fear into the hearts of all who encounter him, then, but rather a person we end up feeling strangely sorry for. Indeed, he’s only able to inveigle his way into the life of Dewhurst’s Tracy Fuller at all because he seems so unassuming and non-threatening that she’s not instantly spooked when he later follows her home and casually wanders into her apartment. The tension for much of this portion of the movie comes through wondering if and when Duncan is finally going to lose it again, with Tracy being caught between the demands of two psychologically damaged men: Duncan and Clifford.  

The rundown urban locations through which an increasingly shabby Duncan is often pictured stumbling purposelessly, and the film’s constant focus on his disintegrating mental health bring to mind several films from the same period, namely Abel Ferrara’s Driller Killer (1979) and Bill Lustig’s Maniac (1980), which also focus on the inner lives of fragile male killers within the concrete anonymity of a tumbledown city environment. But both these are much more nihilistic in tone than Walton’s film, which operates at the more respectable, mainstream end of a disreputable spectrum. Despite our fears for Tracy and her well-being, we are still made to feel conflicted about Clifford’s drastic form of vigilante justice and we even feel scared for Duncan at times, despite hearing Clifford persuade Tracy to help him lure the escaped asylum patient into a trap by telling her how Duncan used his bare hands to literally tear apart the Mandrakis children in their beds (“their bodies couldn’t be reconstructed for burial without six days of steady work”), a feat he managed to accomplish in complete silence, without alerting babysitter Jill Johnson at any point! 

The implication that Clifford could be thought to be in his own way just as dubious as the killer is suggested in Adam Rockoff’s chapter on the film for his book Going to Pieces, which is about slasher movies made between the years 1978 and 1986, where the author tells of Charles Durning rereading the script the night before a scene and approaching Warton during filming to confirm, “I’m the bad guy, aren’t I?” Everybody in When a Stranger Calls is damaged or made to seem vulnerable in some way: Clifford because of his failure to prevent the deaths of two children and his need to find a means to make up for it; Tracy, who is trying to live her life as a single woman in a big city but finds succour at the bottom of a bottle in sleazy bars; and even Duncan himself, a mentally unhinged man who was  the victim of an abusive institutional regime of excessive drugs and electroshock therapy overseen by the formidable  Dr Monk (played by Rachel Roberts: a former star of British ‘kitchen sink’ drama in the 1960s, who at around this time had become known for her role in Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) where she played Mrs Appleyard). At one point, Duncan is pictured curled up naked on the floor of a men’s public washroom in a foetal position while he has a total breakdown. Few other such thrillers would depict their chief antagonist in such an abject state as this. At one stage, Walton explicitly connects Duncan’s vulnerability in this situation to Jill Johnson’s earlier plight: when Duncan takes refuge in an abandoned warehouse Walton shows him cowering in the dark using a shot filmed from outside the building so that he is framed by the window just as Jill had been to emphasise her isolation. “No one can see me,” he mutters to himself. “No one hears me. No one talks to me. I don’t exist. I was never born!”   

The role of Curt Duncan was played by British character actor Tony Beckley in a manner somewhat reminiscent of a similar character he’d essayed for Robert Hartford-Davis in the offbeat 1972 shocker The Fiend (Beware my Brethren). Here, Beckley played a lonely psychologically underdeveloped part-time security guard turned sex killer living with his repressed Christian fundamentalist mother. She works as a home-based church organist for an abusive preacher upstairs while he makes tapes of his victims’ death throes in the basement, surrounded by items of their stolen underwear! The film resides very much at the exploitation end of the British horror market, but some of the mannerisms of the awkward Norman Bates-like character Beckley played in that film appear again in Curt Duncan, leading one to speculate about whether or not The Fiend could have been the inspiration for Walton’s casting of Beckley in the lead role here. The actor, star of some of British cinema’s best-loved classics such as The Italian Job (1969) and Get Carter (1971), was apparently very insecure about appearing alongside the likes of Carol Kane and Charles Durning, and he died not long after the completion of the film from a terminal illness he was suffering from during the shooting. But these facts only highlight the quality of vulnerability his character places centre stage in a move where that is completely at odds with expectations for this genre of film, especially given the opening.

The final act is slightly problematic motivation-wise, though, given all that has just transpired. It’s basically another urban legend-style suspense sequence which brings back Kane as Jill Johnson. But now, seven years later, roles have changed and she has become the upwardly mobile married mother of two children employing a babysitter while she and her husband go out to celebrate his recent promotion. The twist is that while she’s at the restaurant Jill is informed that there is a phone call waiting for her. When she takes the call at the reception desk, to her horror the voice on the other end of the line turns out to be the very same one that terrorised her all those years ago. Once again it utters only one sentence: “have you checked the children?” Curt Duncan has finally tracked Jill down, and there follows a skilfully orchestrated, nail-bitingly nightmarish finale that places her in mortal fear for the lives of her offspring, and concludes with a classic jump shock sequence when she climbs back into bed alongside her husband, only to find that it’s now actually Duncan who’s beside her, turning over to manically leer into her eyes. Although equally as effective as the first twenty minutes, this ending does require Beckley to revert to type in his portrayal of Duncan as a generic, cackling mental patient on the loose, all the subtle grace notes and ambiguities of his former performance sacrificed in the name of traditional scare tactics. It does rather confirm the sense that the opening and concluding acts belong in different films from the middle one.

When a Stranger Calls performed extremely well at the box office for its budget. It has now earned its place in the annals of horror history as an important addition to the ranks of the movies that heralded the slasher boom of the 1980s. However, its director struggled thereafter to turn this unexpected success into a consistent directorial career, at least on the big screen. Fred Walton did helm post ‘golden era’ slasher April Fool’s Day in 1986, but otherwise, his work has mainly been restricted to episodes of network TV series and cable sponsored television movies. In 1983, though, the latter platform did produce an extremely strange but worthwhile sequel to the original babysitter peril classic made for Universal’s TV division, which Walton wrote as well as directed. When a Stranger Calls Back also features the characters of retired detective John Clifford and former babysitter Jill Johnson, both played by the same actors as in the original: Charles Durning and Carol Kane. 

The film opens just like the first movie, reprising the motif of the young babysitter who is put in charge of two children while they are left to sleep upstairs. Played this time by a fixture of the period’s horror scene, Jill Schoelen, Julia’s ordeal begins when there is a knock at the door and a stranger asks to use her phone because his car has broken down outside and he needs to contact his auto club. Unwilling to let him in, Julia eventually agrees to take down the phone number he shouts out to her and call the organisation herself. However, the phone line has mysteriously gone dead and no external calls can be made. In this film, the phone is the source of the scenario’s suspense because of its malfunction rather than the focus of the main threat as in the original. Julia does not want a stranger to know that the house phone is not in working order because she is alone and otherwise defenceless, so she pretends to have made the call anyway in the hope that the man outside will just go away. When he persists in trying to wrangle his way into the house at the same time as objects in the house also start to go missing or get moved about, a tense twenty minutes of baffling mystery begins that end with the discovery that the children upstairs have somehow disappeared from their room -- meaning that there must have been someone inside the house with her all along! A menacing figure eventually does reveal himself to Julia but, just in time, she manages to unbolt the front door and get away – only to meet the parents coming up the driveway as she exits the house screaming.

 Five years later and Julia is now a college student, trying to put the past behind her but failing. The intruder was never discovered, but neither of the two children she was babysitting that night was ever seen or heard from again. When she notices items being moved about in her apartment once more, Julia becomes convinced that the stranger who tormented her that night five years previously has returned, and is somehow gaining entry to her third floor, triple-locked room in order to continue his campaign against her. 

Once again Walton handles the suspense and mystery aspects of the film with a great degree of confidence to produce a taut, sometimes disturbing thriller that belies the apparent blandness of the 90s TV movie aesthetic embodied in much of its imagery. Watched today, the opening act is even more evocative of the first Scream movie, which was to appear only three years later. But with the re-introduction of Carol Kane as Jill Johnson -- now a college counsellor who runs ‘Take Back the Night’ self-defence courses for young female students on campus -- the film looks at first like it might be content to settle into a routine afternoon mystery thriller format, but with a high concept villain who has an exotic psychological profile reminiscent of the type found in Robert Harris's Hannibal Lector novels. When disbelieving police officers bring Jill in on the case, she soon becomes the only person to believe Julia’s story. The experience the young student had closely mirrored Jill’s own run-in with Curt Duncan a few years previously (by the way, there is no mention of the executive husband Jill had acquired in the last act of When a Stranger Calls, or even her two kids). Jill contacts her old friend John Clifford (Durning), who seems considerably less damaged than in the original movie -- having apparently overcome his murderous vigilante urges in the intervening years -- and together they set out to help the vulnerable student, whose mental stability looks to be crumbling fast as the daily torments she’s experiencing in her apartment pick up in intensity. 

The older Jill Johnson has developed into a tough and resourceful heroine in later life and Walton’s willingness to spend a considerable portion of the movie highlighting the multiple issues around women’s safety and how to deal with the trauma of the aftermath of being attacked by a man is a neat way not only to bring some authenticity to the plot but of connecting the present circumstances of this character with her history regarding what happened to her during the first film -- although one doesn’t need to be aware of, or to have seen, When a Stranger Calls to understand and appreciate the movie. This sequel differs from its predecessor, though, in allowing the plot to spiral out into the outer stratospheres of unlikelihood, so much so that it ends up feeling more like an episode of The X-Files than it does an ordinary suspense thriller. Once again, the antagonist has a similar mental affliction to Curt Duncan. In his case, it’s rooted in an existential hopelessness which has nurtured in him a bizarre zen-like disbelief in the reality of his own (or anybody else’s) identity. The events of the opening sequence are investigated by John Clifford, who rejects the accepted idea that there were two people involved – one to terrorise Julia from outside the house and the other to break in and kidnap the children. Instead, he hypothesises that they are looking for a ventriloquist who specialises in throwing his voice!

Actually, the truth turns out to be even more bizarre than that: the man who has been tormenting Julia (Gene Lythgow) also has the ability to make himself unnoticeable, a trick of effectively rendering himself invisible to the human eye. He accomplishes this by using elaborate body paint to merge himself into the shadows of his victims’ apartments. He can throw his voice to make them think he’s in one part of the room, then quickly dash from his real location while they're distracted to move stuff about and freak them out! There’s one scene where this ‘knack’ is effectively illustrated in Jill’s house when the intruder merges in with the pattern of the brickwork that's part of a sidewall. The film does indeed appear to play fair when you watch this sequence back a second time: the intruder is positioned right in front of the viewer for some time, yet remains unnoticed until a pair of eyes suddenly appears and blinks in the centre of the screen. You will realise then that he has been stood there all along: naked, apart from a G-string, and painted in the same shade of brown defining the wall behind him -- with the same patterning. It’s clever and spooky, but it’s probably also best not to dwell too long on the amount of time it would take and the logistics it would involve to achieve such a feat!

This film was made in conjunction with the cable channel Showtime, so though in a lot of respects it has the tone of a 90s Hallmark TV movie it also features copious amounts of female nudity and one or two quite unpleasant scenes. One in particular, in which the child killer visits a comatose victim in her hospital bed and, after having stared at her unmoving form for what seems like an age, starts karate chopping the unconscious patient in the stomach -- lightly at first, but then with increasing and sickening severity -- is particularly unnerving. The villain this time out, although similarly mentally unstable, remains much more threatening and sinister and has a strange ventriloquism club act involving a creepy faceless puppet (we see him performing it in a burlesque club that has a topless bar), which looks like something David Lynch might easily have conjured up for the red room scenes in Twin Peaks. Ultimately, When a Stranger Calls Back makes for an inessential but entertaining twist on the original: a fitting tribute to a classic that honours its returning characters whilst also being unafraid to push plausibility as far as it can possibly go in the name of excitement. Its inclusion makes a nice addition to the new special edition disc and, when you also factor in the 1977 short film that kicked off this entire mini-franchise, brings considerable clout to a release that effectively constitutes a complete picture of Fred Walton’s work in this sub-genre. Therefore, it is easy to pronounce it an essential purchase.

Aside from the films The Sitter, When a Stranger Calls and When a Stranger Calls Back -- all newly scanned in HD, this limited edition also comes with a number of retrospective interview featurettes about the film, featuring director Fred Walton, actors Carol Kane & Rutanya Alda, and composer Dana Kaproff -- all of whom have plenty of anecdotal information to relate about the shooting of the film while also providing overviews of their varied careers in the industry. First pressings also include an Original Soundtrack CD; a 40-page bound booklet with a new essay by Kevin Lyons; a reversible poster with new and original artwork; and rigid slipcase packaging.  


Wednesday, 31 October 2018


Charles Band created Empire International Pictures to facilitate the independent production and theatrical distribution of many distinctive horror films and science fiction and fantasy pictures, which were made throughout the middle period of the 1980s, usually containing a large dollop of comedy at their core -- the intention being to exploit the emerging home VHS market. After Luca Bercovici’s horror comedy Ghoulies was an unexpected box office hit for the Company, Band was able to purchase Dino De Laurentiis’s Cinematografici in Rome, and set about creating Empire’s very own mini studio system. Troll emerged at the very start of this golden period and came about as a result of ideas Band and director John Carl Buechler had already been discussing on the set of Ghoulies. Buechler’s friend, the mystery novelist and Ex Starlog and Fangoria editor Ed Naha, was brought in to script the film after having successfully turned his hand to writing genre screenplays for Roger Corman – and the result is one of the oddest middle-eighties horror fantasy genre products of all time: a bizarre hybrid of comedy, children’s fantasy, FX-driven horror and -- believe it or not -- musical! Largely dismissed at the time as an embarrassing misfire, Troll proved successful enough to spawn several unofficial and totally unrelated sequels, the first of which went on to earn itself a reputation for being the ‘best worst movie of all time’ until it was challenged recently by Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. Both Troll and Troll 2 are now released on a single disc by Eureka Entertainment as part of a two-disc collection that also includes the Troll 2 documentary Best Worst Movie, alongside an extensive suite of extra features.

The first of these two movies was overseen by the man who was to go on to direct Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood in 1988, and features an offbeat but diverse cast made up of Emmy and Golden Globe winner Michael Moriarty; the teenage star of the then-recent hit movie The NeverEnding Story, Noah Hathaway; ‘60s singer-musician & actor Sonny Bono; Revlon model and Charlie’s Angels star Shelley Hack; plus it marks the first screen appearance of Seinfeld regular Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Troll comes with 'cult' stamped through its centre like a stick of rock but is distinguished by two performances that stand out as particularly special. Child actor Jenny Beck is compelling as the teenage hero’s mischievous Troll-possessed kid sister Wendy, and Phil Fondacaro brings an unexpected poignancy to the film in a dual-role playing sensitive University lecturer Malcolm Malory while also being the man in the rubber suit and make-up who plays the ugly Troll creature itself. These two embroider the throwaway tongue-in-cheek fantasy surrealism that motors the movie with the kernel of emotional truth which is most likely the key to its continuing popularity. Hopefully, Eureka’s new release will also encourage a whole generation of new fans to seek out what is undoubtedly a peak example of 1980s fantasy horror weirdness …

Twelve years before JK Rowling published the first Harry Potter novel, Troll introduced us to a fictional world of magic and spells in which a young teenager, also called Harry Potter (Noah Hathaway), discovers he has hidden powers that will be needed in order to thwart the plans of an evil wizard. The wizard Torok has been turned into a Troll a long time ago after losing the war he was responsible for starting between the humans and the fairies. Banished to a separate fairy realm as a result, he now plans to destroy the world by turning the inhabitants of a San Franciscan apartment complex (which happens to exist on the border between his world and ours) into a variety of impish fairy creatures, upsetting the natural balance that has existed between the two worlds for eons. This plan is put into practice, unfortunately, just as the Potter family are moving in on the ground floor. Little Wendy Potter becomes its first victim after she stumbles upon the horrible diminutive Troll creature living in the apartment building’s basement. He keeps her body imprisoned in a glass coffin in the fairy dimension whilst he possesses her mind and steals her likeness to use as a disguise to help him wreak havoc throughout the rest of the building. Gradually, various modern apartments get turned into bucolic mini fairy grottos after being paid a visit by this impish Troll disguised as the innocent little girl. And their inhabitants, such as Sonny Bono’s playboy lothario and a young Julia Louis-Dreyfus, find themselves transformed into a menagerie of bizarre creatures who soon all get to join in with a choral trolls’ sing-along! Eventually, Harry Potter Jr gives up trying to convince his oblivious parents (Moriarty and Hack) that something truly weird is going on right under their noses; and he is certainly wasting his time in trying to persuade them that his sister is no longer really his sister.  A chance meeting with a little old lady called Eunice St Clair (Lost in Space’s June Lockhart) introduces him to a world of fairy magic and sorcery. He finds out that she is really Torok’s one-time fairy princess, and has been living in the human realm to guard the gateway between the two worlds, hoping to ensure that Torok doesn’t manage to cause any real harm. Harry also discovers that he is the only person who can save his sister ... and possibly, the world.

Shot in Italy with matte painting backgrounds of the Golden Gate Bridge, Troll is truly a deranged piece of comedy-fantasy, and possibly the 80s’ most successful attempt at making pure surrealism out of FX-laden content -- a sub-genre Empire Pictures was becoming particularly adept at during this period. The film works primarily because the tone keeps shifting in unpredictable ways and one is never sure how to react to the bizarre sights and strange manic performances it presents across an entertainingly offbeat eighty minutes or so. The combination of animatronics, puppetry, matte work and optical effects, as well as stop-motion animation, produces a shifting tapestry of outrageousness -- a cartoon grotesquery that gets even stranger as the film progresses and with each new viewing. Beck gives an incredibly committed performance as the possessed child but also manages to convey the idea that beneath all that Troll mischief she’s responsible for, the sympathetic little girl is still present. This is particularly evident in her scenes with Phil Fondacaro when he’s in human form as the terminally ill lecturer Malcolm who befriends her. The role feels like an actor’s gift, intended as a ‘thank you’ for all those Troll and Ewok roles that ’little people’ usually have to put up with as their lot in life. Malcolm is probably the one straight role in the whole movie that has a genuine depth to it, and the friendship with Wendy, despite being played for laughs when Wendy’s unwitting parents prepare a children’s party to greet their daughter’s ‘little friend’, has genuinely touching moments -- such as when Malcolm discusses his fatal medical condition with the uncomprehending Troll/child.    

Despite its reputation -- garnered in the early years of internet fandom -- for being ‘the worst movie ever made’, Troll 2 plays exactly as you’d expect a film would play when it's been shot in the US by non-English-speaking Italians and produced by exploitation maestro Joe D’Amato; with goblin costumes (there are no trolls in Troll 2) ‘designed’ by Grindhouse star Laura Gemser, and a cast made up largely of non-actor Mormons with no previous experience in front of a camera. Fly-by-night Italian film producers coming to the US and shooting off the grid without permits to make unofficial low budget sequels to successful Hollywood genre movies was a common enough practice throughout the eighties, although by the end of the decade, when Troll 2 went into production in the picturesque village of Porterville, Utah, even this formula was struggling to remain profitable, as the Italian film industry was entering into a steep decline that was effectively side-lining the careers of even its bigger names at the time.

The director who had come to America to make this movie in the summer of 1989 with a crew of non-English-speaking technicians, was Claudio Fragasso, who’d been deeply involved in Italian genre films throughout the 80s, when he’d co-written ‘masterpieces’ of their kind such as Rats: Night of Terror and Hell of the Living Dead. He had partnered up with his screenwriter wife Rossella Drudi to script Lucio Fulci and Bruno Mattei’s Zombie 3, but the couple’s most infamous collaboration came after Fragasso had begun directing low budget genre fare himself, and Drudi wrote him a script about vegetarian Goblins who turn people into plant matter because it makes them more easily digestible. So what is it about the film that has captured the imagination of so many down the years, and resulted in the sell-out screenings and the dippy Troll 2 parties we find documented throughout Best Worst Movie, the accompanying documentary on this release?  

As is so often the case, a lot of the noise that has accompanied the film down the years has only a tangential relationship to the actual work itself. There are some obvious production factors one can point at to explain the strangeness of some of the content and we can happily describe the most puzzlingly obtuse scenes to give some idea of why the film has developed its almost mythic status amongst devotees of bad movies and disciples of camp the world over, but the thing to keep in mind -- and that actually clinches the deal -- when considering Troll 2, is that this is not at all a badly made movie. Sure, continuity lapses give away that it’s clearly been made in a bit of a rush, like almost all films of its ilk; but these Italian crews were, nonetheless, skilled artisans who thought nothing of working under such conditions, and Giancarlo Ferrando’s cinematography is routinely excellent (something that can now be appreciated properly in full HD). Composer Carlo Maria Cordio delivers one of those typically Italian (and instantly familiar) Demons-inspired synth-based rock soundtracks that genre fans will recognise from countless late-period Fulci films. The screenplay may be bonkers but it keeps moving at a decent lick throughout; so unlike many ‘bad movies’ it’s never a chore to watch. Even when it inevitably starts to get bogged down in the final act (the film is still at least fifteen minutes too long), it entertains with the sheer ludicrousness of its spectacle. Has there, for instance, ever been a concept in any movie more ridiculous than the idea of a family being under siege in their house because they refuse to eat a bag of sandwiches? (tossed outside their barricaded front door with the threat “eat these sandwiches, or we will have to kill you violently!”) 

Troll 2 genuinely is a bad movie, but one that’s been done really well, with never any intention on the part of the film-makers to deliberately play up the camp factors. This is what ensures its camp value is actually off the scale. In that regard, the film represents an almost alchemical combination of elements coming together in just the right sequence and proportion to produce an effect that was never intended by anyone involved with the production, but which has resulted in Troll 2 obtaining (in an admittedly small-scale kind of way) a cultural durability very few other films in the grand scheme of things can ever hope to come anywhere near replicating.

Most of what makes Troll 2 special comes across as a result of the cultural contrast that's highlighted by how a mostly non-professional cast of actors approached their roles in the movie while running up against routine Italian filmmaking practices of that time period. You can find echoes of the effect this produces at work in almost any Italian film shot in the US with US actors during the 1980s (which is why even the best of those films often don’t play particularly well with your average modern cinemagoer). But Troll 2 pushes these processes way past the point of no return until it becomes simply impossible for an audience to suspend its disbelief and make allowances in the way that usually becomes necessary at some point during almost any movie.

Consequently, the film will either be rejected by the viewer or he or she will learn to watch and appreciate it in a different manner from most other films. When this happens in ‘respectable’ cinema, it’s called arthouse; when it happens in genre movies it either becomes a testament to a ‘so good it’s bad’ aesthetic, or the work gets filed away as a cult flick. Best Worst Movie, the documentary, is actually pretty good at providing pertinent material for the attempt one might want to make to get to grips with exactly why Troll 2 affects its audiences in the way it does. What comes across here is how seriously Fragasso and Drudi took their work at the time, and to some extent still do even today; with a straight face Fragasso describes Troll 2 in similar terms to how a director such as Aldo Lado might describe the political intent behind a movie of his like Late Night Trains (which, to the rest of the world looked like a knockoff of Last House on the Left, but set on a train) and solemnly explains how his film “examines many serious and important issues” concerning the institution of the family and the many threats it apparently faces. Even more puzzlingly, Drudi insists her offbeat screenplay was “a ferocious analysis of today’s society”. It’s not like Fragasso and Drudi didn’t intent the film to be funny; it quite clearly is conceived as a fantasy parable that takes certain elements from the structure of fairy tales and combines them with an Italian horror movie aesthetic that has a lot in common with the Demons franchise, particularly in how it replaces blood red gore with a more ratings-friendly green goo to take the film completely out of the realm of horror and into the zone of fantasy. Drudi also intended the film to be a knowing dig at vegetarianism, which she satirises by representing the heroes constantly have to fend off all sorts of unpleasant ‘healthy’ food options that actually poison them, and will either make them grow twigs and eventually turn into potted plants to be tended lovingly by the Goblin Queen, Creedence Leonore Gielgud (Deborah Reed), or melt into a putrid green slop that is actually the chlorophyll mulch her ugly burlap sack-wearing goblin brood use to feed on. In one of the deleted scenes from Best Worst Movie, Rossella Drudi also mentions how she had previously suffered from an eating disorder at one point in her life -- after which all those tense scenes in which we witness the wholesome Waits family being offered mountains of colourful but sickly-looking food and drink by goblins in human form, and the various schemes the ten-year-old hero Joshua (Michael Paul Stephenson) resorts to at the behest of the ghost of his dead Grandpa (played by the inherently avuncular Robert Ormsby) in order to avoid ever having to eat anything at all, suddenly begin to resonate with a whole new level of meaning.

The most important factor in determining how the movie turned out and was received, though, is the language barrier that existed between the English-speaking cast and the exclusively Italian-speaking crew. The script was written in Italian by Drudi and translated by her into English using a Webster’s Dictionary, producing that ‘tin ear’ effect that’s so enhanced by the fact that since some of the cast were not professional actors they simply did not have the skills to even begin convincingly selling the poorly rendered dialogue. Fragasso was also apparently improvising on set and changing elements of the scrip as he went along (the jaw-dropping scene in which Joshua decides that the best way to stop his family eating a feast left for them by the goblins will be to stand on a chair at the dinner table and piss on the food, was allegedly one of these improvisations) adding to the confusion of the cast (who couldn’t understand much of what was in the script at the best of times) and producing much of the head-scratching incoherence of the narrative. The cast was selected from open auditions, and it’s the movie’s potpourri of local theatre actors, hopeful neophytes, and enthusiastic amateurs -- each of whom seem to be individually pitching their performance for a slightly different imagined movie – which is responsible for many of the most beloved moments of ‘wrongness’ this film encompasses, as each member of the cast set about tackling in their own unique way the eccentricities of Drudi’s script. On the one hand, we have Deborah Reed, who plays the ancient stone-hugging druid Goblin Queen deliberately as a pantomime character -- or like the Wicked Witch of the West from the Wizard of Oz but with a chainsaw. On the other, there is the crazed performance of Don Packard as Nilbog's drugstore owner, a local mental patient who took the role as a form of therapy and was apparently completely stoned the whole time the movie was being shot. 

Best Worst Movie started life as an attempt by the film’s former ten-year-old lead, Michael Paul Stephenson, to understand in later years how the film that he once thought would make him a movie star but in fact became an embarrassment, has suddenly morphed into a cult phenomenon that has resurfaced to turn him into a cult celebrity for a small but often obsessively devoted group of fans. His performance in Troll 2 is defined by the solemn but teary childlike earnestness he brings to the character of Joshua: the little boy whose dead Granpa Seth continues to visit him as a ghost to warn of the danger he and his family are in when his dad agrees to a house exchange venture that sees the family going to live in the home of the Presents clan in the small town of Nilbog (for the slow on the uptake, that’s Goblin spelt backwards).  Other highlights include Joshua’s feisty bodybuilding sister Holly (Connie Young) and her bizarre dysfunctional relationship with boyfriend Elliot (Jason Wright): a man who seems unnaturally devoted to his geeky friends, who follow the Waits family to Nilbog in a Winnebago and all sleep together in the same bed. Meanwhile, the trolls – sorry, Goblins! – were cast with dwarfs dressed in sacking and made up with amateurish masks; the ludicrous sight of them at the beginning of the film, jogging through woodland carrying their little wooden spears while Carlo Maria Cordio ’s synth-rock theme hammers away on the soundtrack, is just the first indication of the madness to come.

Stephenson began shooting his documentary in 2006 and continued over a period of four years. During that time, and since the final edit, the doc has come to be defined by one of its original stars more than any other. In fact, the story of Troll 2, as envisioned in this film, is the story of George Hardy, who plays Joshua’s no-nonsense dad Michael Waits and appears in many of Troll 2’s funniest scenes. Hardy was practising dentistry in Utah when the Troll 2 producers were casting for the movie in the area and he continued to do so throughout the shoot. After the film was completed he simply forgot all about it and was convinced his dreams of becoming a movie star had come to nothing when the film failed to appear in theatres. He went back to practising dentistry and set up his own family practice in his hometown of Alexander City, Alabama – which is where he has been for the last twenty years.

Alexander City appears to be a small, close-knit community of mainly elderly residents, only slightly bigger than Nilbog itself, where the extrovert and charismatic Hardy is well known and has become loved by everybody over the years as a respected local pillar of the establishment -- famous for dressing up as a rollerblading tooth fairy every year for the annual Christmas Parade. Best Worst Movie starts out as an endearing portrait of a small community with rather a traditional outlook on life, trying to wrap its collective mind around the idea that one of its most beloved sons has become a cult horror movie hero to lots of people up and down the country. When Troll 2 first came out on VHS and people there started to discover that their local dentist was in a horror film, especially after it started screening regularly on TV, the whole thing was at first treated as just a minor in-joke within the community. There’s an amusing interview with Hardy’s father where he admits: “we didn’t know whether to tell people about it or kind of keep it quiet” -- as though he was talking about a terrible family secret; but then the movie started to pick up a cult following which grew thanks to the early internet, and Hardy, always one for the limelight, decides to make himself known to the fan community online via his Myspace page. Before long he is being followed by the documentary makers as he travels all over the States to appear at screenings signing autographs and acting out scenes from the movie in front of wildly appreciative fans.

Hardy is shown fully enjoying every aspect of his newfound status as a doyen of bad actors in bad movies. He’s only too happy to engage with the hipster fans on their terms and laugh along with them at this ‘terrible’ movie he made all those years ago. The delight in his voice when he tells people back home in Alexander City how he was in “the worst movie ever made of all time!” is only outshone by their politely bemused reactions to this revelation, especially when, in attempting to publicise a screening In Alexander to raise funds for the local school system (“it’ll be a great fun thing to do after church”), he can’t resist the urge to act out his most iconic scenes in front of them like a small child eager to impress his disinterested adult relatives (“… and then I say: ‘you don’t piss on hospitality! I WON’T ALLOW IT!!’ ”). As it goes on, the documentary begins to add discordant notes of melancholy and irony and an almost unbearable level of pathos to the mix. When Hardy and Stephenson start to reach out to the other members of the cast and, eventually, to director Claudio Fragasso, flying him over for a special screening in Los Angeles and to be reunited with the entire cast during an event held at the original shooting location, it brings to light enough poignant mini-portraits of failed lives, loneliness, broken dreams and bitter realisations to fill a whole Betty & Joan-style Ryan Murphy mini-series, and Best Worst Movie effectively becomes the Grey Gardens of cult movie documentaries.

It is undoubtedly touching to see someone like Don Packard, who has struggled his entire life with mental health issues, given a whole new lease of life after experiencing the adulation of a fan screening; but it’s also disturbing to see Grandpa Seth -- or rather Robert Ormsby: a local theatre actor who never made another movie after this  -- sitting alone like a hoarder amid the disorganised clutter of his small house, casually telling us how he has frittered away his whole life (“but then, what else is there to do with a life but fritter it away?”) By the time Hardy tracks down his former co-star Margo Prey, who played his wife Diana in the movie, we’ve reached an almost Lynchian level of family psychodrama. Hardy and Stephenson have an awkwardly comic encounter with Margo and the ninety-five-year-old housebound mother she now cares for at home all by herself after they finally discover them living together in virtual seclusion in a house protected by a threatening ‘no trespassing’ sign. Even after breaking the ice and rekindling old memories of Troll 2 by persuading her to join them in acting out a scene from the film in her living room (with the confused mother impassively looking on), they are still ultimately unable to persuade Margo to join them for the planned cast reunion.

But by far the most awkward moments, though, during this middle section of the documentary at least, occur when director Claudio Fragasso and his screenwriter wife Rossella Drudi, fly over from Italy to America to explore for themselves the phenomenon of Troll 2’s newfound success. Fragasso clearly seems to be expecting an experience somewhat like that which greeted Lucio Fulci when the ailing director was first made aware, towards the end of his life, of the extent of the fandom then emerging around his gialli and his 80s horror movies, and got a chance to experience some of that fan worship not long before he died. What we witness instead with Fragasso, is a man gradually acclimatising to a very different situation as he learns to recalibrate his expectations and come to terms with the fact that people are laughing at things during the movie screenings that were never intended to be funny. Eventually, he convinces himself that being known as the director of the worst movie ever made is just as much of a compliment as being the director of the best movie ever made -- but not before we witness him haranguing an actor at a Q&A as he disputes their recollections of a chaotic movie shoot.

Gradually, the documentary broadens its scope to become an examination of the inherent bathos that attends the life of a cult movie actor. Disillusionment starts setting in for Hardy after a poorly attended memorabilia event in Birmingham in the UK, which produces some of the most cringe-making footage you will ever see (“we’ve come fifteen-thousand miles and no-one’s gonna frickin’ come to this table!”). But by the time he and some of the other cast members find themselves at a horror convention In Dallas, Hardy has decided that this whole scene is not really for him. For one thing, it becomes obvious that the insular small-town Alabaman in him is uncomfortable around people he considers to be ‘freaks’ and ‘weirdos’; and soon the dentist has completely overshadowed the cult movie star: “This place gives me the creeps,” he admits. “There’s tons of gingivitis around here. I guarantee you only about five per cent of these people flosses their teeth on a daily basis.” But there’s also the realisation that, like him, most of the other actors he meets at this event have only ever been known for one movie, and have often done nothing else since. The epiphany hits him: “It just seems like their whole life is built around what they did twenty or thirty years back.” It’s explained to him, as he and the others leave, that these kinds of events are “what actors do when they can’t get work. It’s basically the unemployment line for working actors.” Eventually, George Hardy, having experienced briefly what it’s like to have gained a modicum of fame, is happy to go back to his dental practice and a stable life in small-town  Alabama, although he doesn’t rule out starring in Troll 3 -- a project Claudio Fragasso is apparently hard at work on! 

Troll 2 appeals to the kind of people who appreciate that imperfection can have its own wonders and rewards; that you can basically make art out of the leftover puzzle pieces that don’t really fit together and still end up with something that works on its own terms, even if most of the world will never fully understand the attraction. This special UK edition from Eureka Entertainment contains hours of extras relating to both movies, including commentaries, making of documentaries, interviews and fan contributions – as well as a collector’s booklet. The 90-minute documentary Best Worst Movie also features over an hour of deleted scenes and interviews not included in the final edit.