Wednesday, March 6, 2019


Documentary films aren’t always the most popular item when it comes to choosing a movie to watch. Those at the box office rarely achieve much notoriety with the exception of politically motivated films. But when I began hearing about FREE SOLO it wasn’t about how bad it was doing but how good the movie was. I heard Dana Perino on THE FIVE say it was one of the best movies she’d ever seen and one of my friends in film making said it was amazing. When it won the Oscar for best picture I decided maybe it would be worth checking into. It was.

The movie focuses on a mountain climber by the name of Alex Honnold whose claim to fame is as a free solo climber. If you’re not aware of what that is, these are climbers that climb what appears to be mountains or rock formations with apparent flat surfaces without the use of ropes, harnesses or other protective equipment. It’s just a person with their own natural abilities, their feet, hands and sometimes entire bodies climbing to the peak.

Honnold is well known in the climbing community but this film focuses on his greatest challenge to date, El Capitan in Yosemite Park. El Capitan is a 3,200 foot vertical wall that Honnold has climbed with the aid of equipment several times. Each of those times there were moments when he fell. To climb without these aids seems like madness.

The film takes a look at everything that goes into his story spending most of its 1 hour and 40 minute running time on that with only the final portion of the film focusing on the actual climb. We learn about Honnold’s past and his family. We learn what drives him. And we learn about his personal life.

Most of the year he spends climbing, driving from one location to another and living in a van. That’s the life that he has chosen. His love life is composed of women he’s met in the past but as he says in the film if he had to choose between a woman and climbing, climbing would always come out on top. In spite of that he has a girlfriend as he is about to prepare for the climb, Sanni McCandless.

Part of the movie tells us of how they met and her acceptance of the career he has chosen. Yes, she knows he could die any day that he chooses to climb, but she accepts that. Or does she? While a climber and outdoor person herself, the stress of what he intends to do does take its toll on the couple to the point she doesn’t stay for the moment he makes his attempt.

The film takes us into the making of the feature as it is being shot. Directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Vasarhelyihas filmed other climbs that Honnold has attempted documenting his abilities. This time around we watch as the crew must deal not with the potential loss of their subject but how to film the expedition as well. How will they overcome recording the sound as he climbs being unable to place a regular microphone on him? How will they get the shots they need of him climbing from all angles? Their solutions are nearly as harrowing at times as his climb with the exception that they are rigged.

Injuries nearly put Honnold on the wait list. If he misses his opportunity it will be another year before he can make the attempt again. He wonders if his personal life with Sanni will affect his ability to concentrate as does she. He notes that until the two of them came together he never suffered injuries and how he’s had more than one since being with her. It’s just another stress item to carry with him as he climbs.

The pacing of the movie will be slow for those who are used to car chases and shootouts when it comes to their movies. But the payoff is well worth watching the entire film. Like a well-crafted puzzle the film takes the pieces and puts them in proper order to understand and celebrate the achievement that comes at the end. We learn about Honnold, we see how he gets here, we watch him prepare, we learn about the film crew and their struggles, we see his personal life and then we watch as he climbs attempting to make history. It’s no spoiler to know the ending since had he failed headlines would have proclaimed that far more than the success he achieved which is kind of twisted to think about.

National Geographic is behind this film and their claim to fame has always been the ability to capture on first photographs and late on film the most amazing natural sights a person can imagine. This film is no different presenting the most hair raising and stomach churning moments as Honnold makes the climb. The Oscar the film received was well deserved. The film played on the National Geographic channel but for those who don’t get that it is available for purchase or rent right now. I would highly recommend this film and to pay attention to it rather than having it just be on. Some will find Honnold crazy and others inspiring. How you feel about him will be determined only by watching the film.


Growing up in the sixties the selection of horror films broke down into three categories. There was the classic Universal horror films, the low budget drive-in horror films and then there were the Hammer horror films. All of these played non-stop on the late night horror host circuit and were discovered by those of us who snuck out of bed and pressed our eager faces up against the cathode ray in hopes of being frightened, the sound turned down low as to not wake anyone up.

In the case of Hammer films we had another reason not to wake anyone. As most of us were hitting puberty Hammer provided enough cleavage that we were glued to the set for reasons other than being frightened. What we didn’t realize at the time was that we were being treated to some of the greatest horror films made since those early Universal classics.

As the sixties bled into the seventies though Hammer found that the typical period horror film no longer drew in the audiences that they once did. In keeping up with the times they began to include not just cleavage but actual skin in their films. This led to more their films popping up in drive-ins again if not cut down versions of their films on TV. Which brings us to COUNTESS DRACULA.

Made in 1971 following the mild success of THE VAMPIRE LOVERS and LUST FOR A VAMPIRE Hammer turned towards another blood craving villain that actually had nothing to do with Dracula. Based loosely on the true Countess Elizabeth Bathory who was said to bathe in the blood of virgins here we have the story of Countess Elisabeth Nadasdy (Ingrid Pitt) whose husband has recently died. When the will is read his horses and stable have been left to Imre Toth (Sandor Eles) the son of a fellow warrior, his library to historian Fabio (Maurice Denham), his armor to his right hand man Captain Dobi (Nigel Greene) who’s been having an affair with the Countess for years and the remainder of his estate is to be divided between his wife and daughter Countess Ilona Nadasdy (Lesley Anne-Down).

Both the Countess and Dobi are less than happy with the outcome of the will. After scolding (and scalding) a servant girl who gets her tub too hot, the Countess cuts the girl on accident. After she leaves though she notices that the blood has made her skin youthful again. Seeing this as a secret to eternal youth she forces her handmaiden to bring the girl to her. Killing her she bathes in her blood and now looks as young as her daughter.

Conspiring with Dobi they capture the girl on her way home and imprison her in the forest. The Countess takes on the disguise of her daughter and beings flirting with young Imre much to the displeasure of Dobi. But as time passes the effects of the blood bath wear off and more blood must be spilled for the Countess to retain her youthful appearance. As the body count rises so do suspicions as to where the girls are disappearing to. Before the final reel secrets are revealed, escapes are made and the death toll includes more than just the girls.

The movie works well as a horror film with a slight twist to the vampire legend mentioned in the title. There is no drinking of blood, no throats bitten nor bats flying about. Instead we just have women killed and their blood bathed in, only seen once on screen along with the exposed flesh of the voluptuous Pitt. But it was enough to make the film a money maker, not quite as well as the original Hammer Dracula films but still decent box office numbers. It also solidified Pitt as a star and popular with the horror crowd.

What I found most interesting here while watching was how great the production value of the entire movie was. If the name had been changed and the horror angle not played up for attention the movie would have been a decent period piece on its own. The sets, costumes, acting, direction, cinematography all combine to make a sumptuous film that deserves to be seen and praised more than it has to date.

The movie has been released for a while now from Synapse Films who have specialized in restoring so many horror, cult and drive-in movies to blu-ray. They’ve done a fantastic job here that proves their dedication to preserving movies without trying to take on too much has done them well. They’re a name to be respected with this and many other releases they’ve brought out.

With this release the picture is amazing and their blu-ray edition is gorgeous. If that weren’t enough they’ve added a number of extras that should interest fans as well. Those include an audio commentary track with Pitt, director Peter Sasdy, screenwriter Jeremy Paul and author Jonathan Sothcott, “Immortal Countess: The Cinematic Life of Ingrid Pitt” a short documentary on the actress, an archival audio interview with Pitt, a still gallery, the theatrical trailer and reversible cover artwork. All of this combines to make the most comprehensive copy of the film you will find.

With releases like this it is no wonder that Synapse is a force to be reckoned with. Along with a few other specialty companies theirs is one that will continue to supply those of us who still believe in owning physical copies of movies like this. Their Hammer titles are all worth adding to your collection and one can only hope that they gain the rights to more.


In writing about COUNTESS DRACULA I talked about how Hammer films was one of the mainstays of horror during the sixties while growing up. While its impact lessened in the seventies it didn’t stop them from still trying to release horror films to a fan base eager to see what was coming. A change over in leadership did them more damage than good but they still brought out films that the public was going to, just not in the numbers they once were. That’s sad because the product they were releasing was actually quite good.

HANDS OF THE RIPPER is one of those movies. It could have languished on the shelf with no one recalling it or taking time to view it ever again but thanks to Synapse Films the movie was brought out on blu-ray and not only looks great but includes several extras that fans will enjoy. The care with which Synapse has taken to make sure the film exists for fans should be applauded and makes one wish they were handling all Hammer titles.

HANDS OF THE RIPPER opens with Jack the Ripper on the run, avoiding a frenzied groups of street people armed with torches by ducking into his home. There his wife realizes that he is indeed the Ripper and he to silence her she becomes his next victim, all in view of his young daughter sitting in her bed.

Fifteen years pass and the girl has grown, now being looked after by Mrs. Golding (Dora Bryan), a fake medium bilking people of their money by pretending to talk to their deceased loved ones when in actuality it’s the young girl Anna (Angharad Rees) hiding nearby. At the latest séance she is conducting are two prominent citizens, Dr. Pritchard (Eric Porter) along with his son and politician Dysart (Derek Godfrey). Leaving afterwards Pritchard comments to his son that the woman is a charlatan, sets him off in a cab and waits for his own.

In the house we find that Mrs. Golding uses Anna for more than just voices when she offers the girl to a well paying Dysart. When he shows her a necklace he’s brought the sparkles hit the light just right and send the girl into a trance. When Mrs. Golding comes in to help the upset Dysart, Anna kills her and Dysart goes running. Pritchard sees him leave the house, enters and finds the young girl near catatonic and Golding impaled to the door.

Taking her under his wing Pritchard decides to try and cure the girl using the new methodology of psychoanalysis brought about by someone called Freud. Taking her into his home he sets her up in her own room as his son and his blind fiancé arrive. She is to stay in the home as well.

As Anna prepares bathe and dress to meet the doctor, his son and fiancé at the restaurant the handmaid assisting her goes to put on a necklace left for her to wear. The baubles sparkle, she enters her trance like state and kills the woman. When Pritchard arrives home to find what has happened he covers up the murder, still intent on helping the girl.

The movie progresses like this, with the bloodline of Jack the Ripper stuck firmly in the girl’s mind due to what she witnessed as a child. Pritchard continues to attempt to help her while the police begin looking for the killer on the loose. It all ends with a satisfying finish that brings everyone into the fold.

What surprised me most about the film is something I noticed while watching COUNTESS DRACULA. The film stands on its own, not as a horror film but as a solid drama with undertones of horror. No one would guess that from the ad campaign the film employed but the production values on this film rank up there with any major studio at the time. It’s a period piece that rivals many larger budgeted films. The cinematography is wonderful here, the acting well done by every single player on screen and the direction well handled.  Except for the fact that blood is spilled non-horror fans would find this an enjoyable film as well.

As I said Synapse has done a wonderful job with this. Not only does the film look amazing it includes those extras I mentioned. Those include “The Devil’s Bloody Plaything: Possessed by Hands of the Ripper” a featurette on the film, “Slaughter of Innocence: The Evolution of Hammer Gore” a motion still gallery showing the progression of the gore found in Hammer films from their earlier items through their later ones, the U.S. Television introduction to the film, the original theatrical trailer and TV spots, “Hands of the Ripper” motion still gallery and an isolated music and effects audio track. That this many extras could be found speaks well of Synapse. They strive to offer not just the best version of the film to be found but bonuses that are worth watching as well.

As I said before I wish Synapse was handling more of these classic Hammer films. With so many still unavailable let’s hope that it happens.