New on Blu: THE UNCANNY Review

One of the more curious tax shelter horror films, Canadian-UK horror co-production THE UNCANNY attempted to bring the British horror sensibilities of Amicus anthologies across the pond. The result–a sometimes-campy portmanteau film built around the unlikely theme of killer cats–is a tad uneven at times but really nothing to get your dander up about. Finally out on Blu-ray from Severin Films, THE UNCANNY will be catnip for fans of outlandish horror anthologies, and the culture clash on display makes it a unique addition to the annals of Canadian horror cinema.

Producer Milton Subotsky was no longer with Amicus when he began work on THE UNCANNY, but the film displays many of the hallmarks of his work there. This time out, Subotsky teamed with a group of genre-minded Canadians, including Astral’s Harold Greenberg and director Denis Heroux. The French-Canadian filmmaker who helped kick off Montreal’s softcore sex movie boom, Heroux had since turned to horror with BORN FOR HELL (1976), which he based on the Richard Speck killings. Shooting in Montreal and at the famed Pinewood studios, Heroux puts an impressive cast through their paces in three stories in which cats take revenge on behalf of their owners across different time periods.

Things get going with a wrap-around story featuring a disheveled Peter Cushing as a neurotic author who offers these tales to convince a skeptical publisher (Ray Milland) that all cats harbour evil intentions. The first story he recounts, which takes place in turn-of-the-century London, is the most memorable. In this one, wealthy dowager Mrs. Melkin (Joan Greenwood) rewrites her will to cut out her ungrateful nephew Michael (Simon Williams) and leave everything to the dozens of cats she keeps. When her maid Janet (Susan Penhaligon)–who’s in love with Michael–tries to steal the new will, she ends up having to kill her boss. The house’s feline inhabitants don’t take kindly to the possibility of losing out on their inheritance, and viciously attack Janet, leading Michael to eventually walk in on a blood-soaked scene that makes it clear who the masters of the house really are.

The wonderfully garish carnage that defines the first vignette is pushed perhaps even farther over the top in the film’s final tale, which is almost as enjoyable. This time, Donald Pleasance puts in a darkly humorous performance as 1930s B-horror star Valentine De’ath, who is terrorized by his wife’s cat after he murders her–and on-set “accident” means that the role she plays in their latest horror movie can instead go to
De’ath’s vapid girlfriend (Samantha Eggar). Skulking around De’ath’s spacious mansion and, eventually, the prop torture devices from the film set, De’ath soon gets his own taste of feline vengeance. Pleasance clearly relishes his campy portrayal of the vain and odious De’ath, and even John Vernon shows up to get in on the fun as the cat drops film lights and generally thwarts De’ath’s attempts to celebrate his wife’s untimely death.

Of the three tales presented, the only one that feels particularly Canadian is also unfortunately the least interesting of the trio. After losing her parents in an airplane crash, Lucy (Katrina Holden) and her cat Wellington arrive to live with her aunt (Alexandra Stewart). But when Lucy’s cousin Angela (Chloe Franklin) gets jealous and starts tormenting her, Lucy uses some witchcraft books that used to belong to her mother to shrink the bullying Angela down to size where Wellington can have his way with her. Explicitly set in modern-day Quebec and featuring an all-Canadian cast and conspicuously dubbed dialogue, this segment most resembles other tax shelter productions, but the sub-INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN effects are sadly unconvincing.

Severin’s new release of the film–it’s first official DVD/Blu-ray release on North America–boasts a fine, colourful inter-negative scan that features a few minor blemishes but nicely emphasizes the bright splatters of blood and shifting cat eyes that the film generously provides. In addition to a trailer, the main extra here is a 12-minute interview with star Susan Penhaligon, who offers an enthusiastic discussion about making the film, including her not-always positive experiences working with Heroux and her other famous co-stars, and her concerns over the treatment of the ferocious felines on set.

While it doesn’t offer a lot of variety between its three cat-focused tales, THE UNCANNY is still good fun, and anyone looking to get an Amicus-like fix will certainly want to pick up this solid effort from Severin. When it comes to doling out gore and camp, this unique Canadian-UK effort certainly doesn’t pussy foot around.


New on Blu: THE CHANGELING Review

As the tax shelter era drew to a close in the early 1980s, Canadian film started to display a level of polish and professionalism that far outstripped the rough-and-tumble exploitation films of the 1970s. To appreciate just how far Canadian film had evolved over the past decade, you don’t have to look much farther than Peter Medak’s haunted house flick THE CHANGELING (1981), a still-potent chiller boasting dramatic effects and a memorable performance from George C. Scott. Despite the film’s ongoing importance to Canadian horror, it has, until a recent 4K Blu-ray upgrade from genre specialists Severin Films, received only disappointing home video releases.

Scott stars as music composer John Russell, who rents a large mansion in Seattle following the accidental death of his wife and daughter. But the solitude he seeks is soon interrupted–the house is plagued by paranormal disturbances, including early morning banging, self-filling bathtubs and a rubber ball that mysteriously bounces down the estate’s grand staircase. After discovering a boarded-up room containing a child’s notebook and a small wooden wheelchair, Russell attempts to uncover the house’s history with the help of a woman from the local historical society (Trish Van Devere). Just when he thinks he has it figured out, a seance reveals that the ghostly presence may be even more complicated–and malevolent–than anyone first thought.

Based (loosely!) on a true story, the film is richly dramatic and haunted by an intense and tragic mysteriousness, as Scott’s character pushes forward with his research and eventually connects the ghostly happenings with the strange circumstances of a well-connected political family. The film’s most horrific moments–including the seance, an attack by the empty child’s wheelchair and the fiery conclusion–are relentlessly tense and gripping, and help place the film alongside celebrated classic Hollywood ghost films like THE HAUNTING (1963) and THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973).

An early feather in the cap for producer and one-time Canadian entertainment wunderkind Garth Drabinksy, THE CHANGELING has only improved with age, and you can fully appreciate this subtle and sophisticated genre take thanks to Severin’s excellent Blu-ray. It’s important to note that some technical issues have plagued the release–a few moments of missing audio were dropped on the 5.1 mix and, on the replacement discs meant to correct this error, it appears a slightly less-pristine video master was inadvertently included. Despite this, the currently available replacement disc looks and sounds excellent, and is certainly a major improvement over the previous 2005 HBO DVD release.

Extras are plentiful as well. Severin Films’ David Gregory moderates a commentary track with Medak and producer Joel B. Michaels who offer up many behind-the-scenes stories behind the film that help give additional context. There are also shorter video interviews with music arranger Kenneth Wannberg and art director Reuben Freed that help illustrate the level of craft that was starting to appear in Canadian film at the time. A “Psychotronic Tourist” extra revisits familiar locations from the film, most of which was shot in Vancouver, and filmmaker Mick Garris also provides a short appreciation of the film’s importance. The most interesting addition is probably “The House on Cheesman Park,” an extra that reveals the strange real life story that THE CHANGELING is based on, as presented by an excitable local historian. Rounding out the package are the standard image galleries and trailers.

Anyone interested in Canadian genre films (or the classic ghost films of horror cinema) will want to check out this definitive Blu-ray edition. Despite the imperfect presentation, Severin has done a fine service on bringing this recently neglected classic back into the annals of horror history with the context needed to properly appreciate it. THE CHANGELING is an essential addition to any collection–but just be careful if one day you notice it has come bouncing down the stairs after you.


Motion Picture Purgatory: SPLATTER: ARCHITECTS OF FEAR (1986)

One of Canada’s goriest SOV entries makes its debut on Canuxploitation! A how-to gore FX video that wasn’t really what it claimed to be, SPLATTER: ARCHITECTS OF FEAR is an offbeat but popular VHS store rental that still confuses people today over it’s true intentions–is this supposed to be an instructional video or a post-apocalyptic epic? For his latest Motion Picture Purgatory, Rick Trembles digs into the squibs-and-nudity-packed legend of SPLATTER and it’s strange appeal. Rick sez:



We’re back with a new Canuxploitation episode on Rue Morgue TV. This time, I talk about the wild Montreal-shot film THE PLAYGIRL KILLER (1966), Canada’s very first colour horror movie with a fascinating HG Lewis connection. Check it out!


Motion Picture Purgatory: THE PSYCHIC (1991)

Forget Fulci, this straight-to-video George Mihalka joint mixes ESP and psychology with erotic thriller tropes and comes up with a vaguely satisfying Toronto-shot stew of genre goodness. For his latest Motion Picture Purgatory, Rick Trembles uses his mind’s eye to visualize his take on the film’s vaguely psychic (and definitely horny) college student who keeps flashing on a mysterious serial killer murdering young girls. And hey, isn’t that Billy from Gremlins? Rick sez:

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