Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Paranormal Activity

THE OMEGA FACTOR (1979)

Burning ambition: this fondly remembered supernatural series 
ignited the wrath of moral crusader Mary Whitehouse.

BBC Scotland's THE OMEGA FACTOR is a forerunner to THE X-FILES, but without the budget or pretention. Born from the ashes of the cancelled second series of journalist drama THE STANDARD, here the lead protagonist is occult writer Tom Crane (James Hazeldine). Crane's latent psychic abilities lead him into Department 7, a government agency which investigates the paranormal, where he is partnered with family acquaintance Dr Anne Reynolds (Louise Jameson, a recently resigned Leela from DOCTOR WHO). Crane joins the organisation as a means of finding rogue psychic Edward Drexel (Cyril Luckham) and assistant Morag (Natasha Gerson), both involved in the death of his wife; yet, after Drexel is killed, Tom becomes increasingly aware of another shadow enterprise, one which strives to assemble the cream of extrasensory perceptive individuals.

For a programme steeped in otherworldly abilities, THE OMEGA FACTOR feels strangely grounded because of its lack of money and threadbare effects. This enhances Hazeldine's already standout performance, mixing his drive to avenge his wife's death, to come to terms with his own powers, and the vain attempt to assimilate within Department 7 with a secretive superior, namely psychiatrist Dr Roy Martindale (John Carlisle). Like any anthology shows - here with a wide range of writers and directors over ten episodes - there is an inherent unevenness in style and quality, encompassing a heady and diverse set of topics: spectral analogue technology (VISITATIONS), sonic weaponry (NIGHT GAMES), sleep deprivation (AFTER-IMAGE), poltergeists (CHILD'S PLAY), and even astral projection to political means (OUT OF BODY, OUT OF MIND). 

James Hazeldine and Louise Jameson are the Mulder and Scully 
of BBC paranormal drama, with added intimacy. 

POWERS OF DARKNESS is the episode the show is most remembered for, infamously labelled "thoroughly evil [and] one of the most disturbing things I have seen on television" by Mary Whitehouse. History student Jenny (Maggie James) is possessed by a witch, culminating in an altar ritual involving a dead blackbird and a Demon. Mixing a seance, drug use, knife violence and human combustion, this fed into Whitehouse's disgust at any portrayal of Eucharist abstraction, and general distrust of popular entertainment. Two weeks later BBC Scotland Head of Drama Roderick Graham admitted that the BBC's own standards of decency had been breached during ST ANTHONY'S FIRE, where a woman kills her husband with a bread knife. The BBC's Guidance Notes on Violence, which dictated permissible levels, specifically mentioned that dramas were to avoid violent acts that could be easily copied. Graham stated that "the point has been forcibly made to those who were responsible for the programme".

The penultimate entry, DOUBLE VISION, is unnerving because it is so understated. Tom keeps seeing his dead wife Julia (Joanne Tope) in and around Edinburgh; in DON'T LOOK NOW fashion, when running after her, the red-coated figure darts around corners and remains constantly out of touching distance, like the dream sensation of a goal forever out of reach. For the husband to discover this was an elaborate ploy leaves an unsavory taste, as the show leads to its THE PRISONER-like conclusion. The final episode - called ILLUSIONS - ends fittingly on a closed door, leaving further adventures to be picked up in a series of Big Finish audio dramas, where Jameson returns as Reynolds, now head of the department.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Daleks, Daloids and Phaleks (Part II of II)

ABDUCTED BY THE DALEKS (2005)
DOCTOR LOO AND THE PHALEKS (2005)


28 years after Katy Manning's notorious spread in Girl Illustratedthe mutants from Skaro return to menace nude Earth women in ABDUCTED BY THE DALEKS. Needless to say, the BBC and the estate of Terry Nation swiftly moved to pull the plug on any legal distribution.

AS the DOCTOR WHO reboot hit television screens in 2005, these two zero-budgeted "Daleks Do Porn" abominations attempted to cash in on the return of the Time Lord. The softcore ABDUCTED BY THE DALEKS, with a story by "Billy Hartnell" and directed by "Don Scaro" - in reality London based magazine distributor Trevor Barley/Roman Nowicki - mixes Eastern European models and The Doctor's most famous foes for 55 long, erotica-free minutes. Not even a title change to ABDUCTED BY THE DALOIDS - while retaining the Dalek name on all prints - could fool the BBC from threatening legal action (there is also an unlicensed use of Pink Floyd). As for the actual plot, four women (including a Dalek agent) accidentally hit an Alien "Grey" in their car. In full party dress and high heels, they investigate in woodland famous for being a hunting ground for The Serial Skinner killer. But before long they are being taken captive by Daleks, who show a preference in interrogating their prisoners nude.

After surviving an encounter with a scared hunter and his machine gun, plus the Serial Skinner, the Dalek agent explains to the police that the metal menace wanted to impregnate their slaves. The film even makes the long passages of naked girls wandering through the forest monotonous, obliquely mirroring the Time Lord's reputation of endlessly running around corridors. Shot in different aspect ratios, there is also plenty of on-screen goofs (visible Dalek operators, the boom mike handle) and a surreal title card warning of strobe effects. Even the writhing of the starlets when strapped to a stark metallic wall is unsynchronised, though best of all is the impromptu actress switch between Lina Black and Maria Vaslova, presumably due to a no nudity clause.

In DOCTOR LOO AND THE PHALEKSWhovians recoiling from Tom Baker talking to the phallic appendage of THE CREATURE FROM THE PIT are likely to suffer chest cramps at the sight of the Phaleks.

The hardcore DOCTOR LOO AND THE PHALEKS - also known as DOCTOR LOO AND THE FILTHY PHALEKS - was made by the short lived UK porn studio Doll Theatre. And for anyone still distraught on the casting of Jodie Whittaker as the latest Doctor, remember that Britain's leading sex actress Alicia Rhodes got their first. Dr Louise Flangebatter (Billie Piper lookalike Rhodes) travels through space in her luxury toilet Turdis ("wherever there's scum she'll flush it away"); picking up damsel in distress Quimberly Dickmore (McKenzie Lee), the pair travel with house shag-bot Kay Nine to Skrotum 4, where they encounter Emperor Minge (in a gimp mask) and Lady Sodomi with her army of oversexed Phaleks. Pretty inconsequential to the greater scheme of things, the Phaleks are painted water butts, with rubber dildo's attached to the base of their garish red casing.  

Friday, June 1, 2018

Daleks, Daloids and Phaleks (Part I of II)

DR WHO AND THE DALEKS (1965)
DALEKS - INVASION EARTH 2150 AD (1966)
DALEKMANIA (1995)


In December 1966, Dell Movie Classics published a comic strip adaptation of DR WHO AND THE DALEKS with art by Dick Giordano and Sal Trapani. This was the first appearance of any printed story related to Doctor Who in the American market. 

MADE during the rise and fall of Dalekmania, these two cinema adventures - starring Peter Cushing as a non-canon Doctor Who - are concise versions of THE DALEKS and THE DALEK INVASION OF EARTH. Faithful to the BBC programmes, the lead character however is portrayed as a bespectacled Grandfather figure, a dotty human inventer rather than William Hartnell's crotchety alien. And although they are credited on-screen as AARU films because of finance from Regal International's Joe Vegoda, both films are widely accepted as Amicus releases.

Originally to be directed by Freddie Francis, DR WHO AND THE DALEKS was a financial rather than critical success. Hastily scripted by Milton Subotsky, who described the production as "a science fiction comedy," its greatest asset is its vivid 2.35:1 colour photography. This gives the previously monochrome Daleks a hierarchy of red, blue and gold, and real scope by making the most of Shepperton's expansive sound stages. DALEKS - INVASION EARTH 2150 AD is much more sombre, though both entries have a cast that dwells on relations (granddaughter Susan (Roberta Tovey) appears in the two movies, while her older sister Barbara (Jennie Linden) is in the first film, and Doctor Who's niece Louise (Jill Curzon) the second). This matinee-mentality is completed by comic relief: accident-prone Ian (Roy Castle) is Barbara's new boyfriend, and constable Tom Campbell (Bernard Cribbins) inadvertently joins the crew for the later tale.

Despite rescheduling due to Peter Cushing's virulent bout of flu, DALEKS - INVASION EARTH 2150 AD is the more rounded of the two films.

With Vegoda buoyant on the initial box office success, Subotsky was less excited about a sequel, correctly perceiving that Dalekmania was already waning. Darker and more violent in tone, DALEKS - INVASION EARTH 2150 AD had the adverse effect on its audience to the day-glo yarn set on Skaro. Despite improved critical reaction and its bigger budget (thanks in part to Sugar Puffs, where product placement can be seen throughout the feature), costs were not recouped and plans for a third picture shelved. A far superior piece, the gritty INVASION strips away the juvenile escapism to reveal characters in real peril, a world away from the Thals' golden hair and heavy eye shadow from the first movie.

Kevin Davies' hour-long DALEKMANIA documentary - which has accompanied home disc releases on numerous occasions - is a charming look at this motion picture birth and death. The framing device of a ticket taker - played by Davros himself, Michael Wisher - welcoming two excited children perfectly sets the scene for a series of interviews where the players recount fond memories of their time within the most neglected part of WHO history. Amongst the participants we have Thal Barrie Ingham - delighting that his portrayal has appeared in a comic strip - and stuntman Eddie Powell, recalling his on-set accident while being exterminated. Most touching though are Roberta Tovey's recollections of working with director Gordon Flemyng and particularly Cushing, where it is alleged the actor only agreed to make the second film if Tovey also returned.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

"I'm Fiona ... Fly Me!"

HARDCORE (1977)

Based on her 1976 book Fiona, HARDCORE charts the rise of Fiona Richmond, the "frankly sensational adventures of a liberated lady."

MAKE no illusions, there is no hardcore in James Kenelm Clarke's fictionalised sex odyssey of Fiona Richmond. A mockumentary before the term was coined, the model/non-actress turned writer - portrayed by Richmond herself - recounts her carnal exploits to an acquaintance at her publisher's South of France whitewashed villa in 80 tidy minutes. These encounters include her chemistry teacher (who pockets her panties), becoming a member of the mile high club, and frollicking at the back of a moving mixed vegetables delivery van with John Hamill. With its above average production values and beautiful cinematography by Mike Molloy, HARDCORE is the Rolls Royce of British sex comedies, and actually achieves some laugh-out-loud moments. With the opportunity to film in the heatwave of 1976, even the British locations have a welcoming sheen.

Particularly unsettling when viewed today is the scene at the chemistry lab, where the then 31-year-old in school uniform receives her "punishment." Throughout, Richmond plays herself with a wilful abandon that attempts to hide her stilted style, and thankfully she has a parade of seasoned performers for support: Ronald Fraser as the Soho impresario who first employs Fiona (she strips off, puts a vase of flowers over his head and punches him to get his attention) and Victor Spinetti as the proprietor of Men Only (both characters interpretations of Richmond's lover Paul Raymond). On the peripheral, Harry H. Corbett manages to be hilarious in his split-second cameo as Art, and for trivia hounds, an early scene shows Kenelm Clarke's 1974 movie GOT IT MADE playing on television, which featured future DOCTOR WHO Romana Lalla Ward. The picture caused a furore as it was later edited - incorporating sex scenes that the cast had no knowledge - and reissued as SWEET VIRGIN. When Raymond's Club International published photos of the hardcore action alleging Ward was a participant featured, the actress successfully sued.

Richmond with Paul Raymond, the uncredited financier of the picture. Raymond ensures that his businesses are on show, such as his Revuebar, the Windmill and Whitehall theatres, and the Men Only offices.

Released in the United States as FIONA, the only facts the project brings to the table is that Richmond is indeed the daughter of an vicar, was once an air stewardess, and that she earned her stripes as a columnist for Men Only. The rest is cloaked in her persona as a free-spirited 70s sex goddess, who was regularly seen along the streets of Soho in her yellow E-type Jaguar (a gift from Raymond). Alongside her writing "career," Richmond was the headliner in a succession of Raymond-sponsored West End stage shows and revues before screen roles beckoned, and when the cinematic sex market tired at the end of the 70s, Fiona achieved some kind of respectability on TV game shows such as CELEBRITY SQUARES and BLANKETY BLANK. Although Richmond's popularity pre-dated Mary Millington, the draw of Fiona waned upon the arrival of the fresh, sexual liberation qualities of Millington. The tall brunette became overshadowed by the short blonde, with punters preferring Mary's girl-next-door demeanour to Fiona's more remote sophistication.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

"New Thrills! New Faces! New Horror!"

HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN (1970)

In the same year that David Prowse became The Green Cross Code Man, the Bristol native appeared in the second of his three roles as Mary Shelley's most famous creation.

JIMMY Sangster's HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN is detested by Hammer purists for its comedic tone, and plays out as a parody of the previous respected entriesThe film opens with Victor Frankenstein (Ralph Bates) at school, accompanied by friends Elizabeth (Veronica Carlson), Stefan (Stephen Turner) and Henry (Jon Finch). Victor arranges for the death of his father and travels to university in Vienna, where he acquires sidekick Wilhelm (Graham James) and impregnates the daughter of the Dean. Returning to Ingstad, Victor starts a series of experiments, using corpses delivered by a local body snatcher (Dennis Price) - who lets his wife do the digging. After electrocuting Wilhelm for complaining about his work - which includes reanimating a tortoise - Victor poisons Elizabeth's professor father (Bernard Archard) for his brain, but the organ is damaged and the resulting patchwork man is a mute thug (David Prowse).

Initiated as a start-over remake of CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, the picture dispenses with Peter Cushing's services and tries to introduce a younger generation (a failed attempt, as Cushing returned four years later in FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL). Despite the traditional 19th Century setting, HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN is very much of its time - as illustrated by Bates' hair and puffy shirts - and quite anarchic, mixing additional plot threads (Elizabeth's finances, Stefan's crush on Victor) with comic relief (a severed arm making a V-sign) and grue (Victor's hands smearing his face with blood). Duelling femmes fatale O'Mara and Carlson are always watchable, but only Price can deliver a performance at the correct pitch. Bates, at this point being groomed to become the studio's next big star, is not so much a mad scientist but a psycho scientist, enjoying the thrill of the kill and rejoicing in the fact that he has this powerful monster ready to do his bidding. And when the creature eventually appears - an hour in, and sporting white cycling shorts - Prowse goes through the motions with a checklist of victims and a perfect physique which bestows its fragmented origins.

"You’ve put on weight in a couple of places"; Kate O’Mara is the bed-warming housekeeper of Hammer's relaunch of its Frankenstein franchise.

Reusing the Karnstein Castle set from THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, and even shooting most of its forest scenes on Elstree stages, there is a distinctly cheap and recycled feel. Furthermore, HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN was not helped by a misleading marketing campaign, where it went out on a double bill with the sombre and gristly SCARS OF DRACULA (as Sangster states in Wayne Kinsey's Hammer Films: The Elstree Studio Years, "if people had gone to see it knowing it was shot light hearted they would have enjoyed it more [instead of] thinking it was a Gothic horror.") However, this twin feature did hold the distinction of the first Hammer movies to be totally financed by British companies, thanks to a deal between Sir James Carreras and ABPC/EMI. However, Hammer's new partner would only distribute to England and the Commonwealth, leaving Carreras able to acquire just a small American distributor - Continental - to impossibly cover the whole of the United States market. 

The notion of deriving humour from such pseudo-scientific source material is an interesting one. Since Frankenstein was published in 1818, and Boris Karloff's seminal interpretation hit screens in 1931, Mary Shelley's serious text - and similar works - generate mythical themes and uncomfortable laughter. As the initial power of the book recedes in a collected consciousness, the tome gathers extraordinarily wide responses, snowballing a range of spoofs and humorous asides now over 200 years on. The level of comedic takes is mind-boggling, even to the point of delicious meta-levels: Mel Brooks' celebrated YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, for example, used many pieces from James Whale's original laboratory set, and even in The Beatles film YELLOW SUBMARINE we had the Monster drinking a potion and becoming John Lennon.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Haunt of Fear

Nostalgia and the Rise of Hauntology

"When Bagpuss wakes up, all his friends wake up too." Bagpuss, Professor Yaffle and the Organ Mice in the fondly remembered BAGPUSS from 1974. The titular cat's description of "saggy ... and a bit loose at the seams" typifies the disjointed melancholy of the Hauntology movement.

POPULAR culture surrounds us in a whirlwind of nostalgia. Nostalgia was first described as a psychosomatic disease, rooted in the desire of soldiers to return home; this longing for the motherland is so strong that it induces a doleful, mental state. Swiss physician Johannes Hofer first used the term in 1688, and the disorder came to be associated particularly with Swiss soldiers, who were so susceptible to nostalgia when they heard a particular milking song, that its playing was punishable by death. Confusing the past and the present, and the real and the imaginary, our preference for the sights, sounds and smells of yesteryear often has its foundation in the carefree wonders of childhood. It was Immanuel Kant who stated that people who were steeped in nostalgia were triggered not so much for an actual place as for the time of youth. David Lowenthal's The Past is a Foreign Country considers that nostalgia preys on the past to construct a form of escapism; and by savouring these ruins of artificiality, author Susan Stewart condemns the condition as a "social disease," maintaining that the past is something unspoilt, utopian and unreachable.

British television in the 70s exists in what writer and radio presenter Bob Fischer describes as "cosy wrongness," a grainy and blurred netherworld that - because of its pre-digital, incomplete heritage - can be a nostalgic notion that actually extends to the early 80s Video Nasty flap of VHS degradation. BBC shows of the polyester decade - such as DOCTOR WHO, A GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS, THE STONE TAPE and COUNT DRACULA - showed the corporation embracing the Gothic, but also fortolded how this portentously gloomy sub-genre would mutate into visual art Hauntology. Hauntology was coined by Jacques Derrida in his 1993 book Spectres of Marx, and taken up by critics who referenced contemporary culture's persistent recycling and incapacity to escape old forms. If nostalgia is sentimental perspective, Hauntology bleeds into our psyche like a spectre who gestures towards what is inevitably an intellectual abyss. 

Music Has the Right to Children was the debut studio album from Boards of Canada, and hailed as a seminal Hauntology work. The piece was described as a "thing of wonder" and "the aural equivalent of old super 8 movies."

Fischer has also highlighted the children's programme BAGPUSS as a prime example of 70s "vague disquiet." This strange shadow world’s mixture of scrambled memories and weird, bygone images is explored in the Hauntology concept, where the presence of being is replaced by absent or deferred parallels, a yearning for a future that never arrived. Hauntological music has been particularly tied to British culture, an alternate reality constituted from the stagnation of the postwar period. This soundscape is expertly captured by the 1998 album Music Has the Right to Children by Scottish electronic duo Boards of Canada. Subsequently, musicians and artists whose formative years were in the 70s have developed their own Hauntology analogue synth brands and universes. In 2005 Jim Jupp and Julian House founded Ghost Box Records and the fictitious world of Belbury, an eerie English village straight out of John Wyndham. Similarly, writer and graphic designer Richard Littler created Scarfolk together with spoof book covers and dystopian government pamphlets that evoke the distinct Penguin Classics and Public Information Films so entrenched from the period. 

Thursday, March 15, 2018

True Blue (Part II of II)

THE PLAYBIRDS (1978)
CONFESSIONS FROM THE DAVID GALAXY AFFAIR (1979)

"A Murder Thriller with Thrilling Bodies!" THE PLAYBIRDS provided Britain's premier 70s sexpot Mary Millington with her most substantial part.

BECAUSE of the unfathomable financial success of COME PLAY WITH ME, executive producer David Sullivan quickly announced his next venture, with lover Mary Millington taking on a more sizable role. Proclaiming the follow-up would be the "hottest film ever to be screened in Britain," THE PLAYBIRDS is actually an overblown exercise in self-promotion, but does capture the tawdry aspects of 70s Soho amongst its car chases and bombastic theme tune. Belonging to a genre of British film that rejoice in the psychopathic killing of models (COVER GIRL KILLERPEEPING TOM et al), Harry Dougan (Alan Lake, as an on-screen persona of Sullivan) is a racehorse-owning millionaire glamour publisher, who starts a series of supernatural-themed spreads that has attracted a deranged killer (who the press term "The Chopper.") After dispatching two ladies of sexploitation royalty (Pat Astley and Suzy Mandel), the murderer becomes involved in a cat-and-mouse game against Scotland Yard's finest (Glynn Edwards and Gavin Campbell, with Millington as undercover WPC Lucy Sheridan).

The in joke of pouring a 4'11" porn non-actress into a Police uniform - especially one as harassed by the law as Millington - is quickly forgotten as Sheridan is more at home to her new assignment than somnambulantly delivering dialogue at cop shop meetings. Developing her talents as a sauna prostitute, Lucy soon has a lesbian fling and sleeps with Dougan to achieve her goal to become a Playbirds centrefold. Regardless of the film being moulded as a Mary vehicle, the real actress with sex appeal here is Mandel: it was no mistake that she shared equal space on Tom Chantrell's eye-popping posters of COME PLAY WITH ME and THE PLAYBIRDS alongside her more illustrious colleague. The cherubic Mandel could actually deliver her lines with a knowing twinkle, and was a mainstay of 70s smut in this country until she emigrated to the United States. If you actually care about the murder investigation you have a variety of suspects beyond Dougan, but the final "shock ending" will leave no one satisfied.

The start of a stormy union: Diana Dors and third husband Alan Lake on their Wedding Day, November 1968. In 1972 after his release from prison, Lake broke his back during a horse riding accident, starting a descent into alcoholic violence and eventual gunshot suicide.

The following year Sullivan attempted to cash-in on the CONFESSIONS name with CONFESSIONS FROM THE DAVID GALAXY AFFAIR, another Roldvale production distributed by Tigon. Lake gives one of the most self-indulgent lead performances in British film history as the titular super stud astrologer, who may - or may not - have been involved in a Securicor robbery five years previous. Behind his sparkling medallion, large lapels and annoyingly knowing swagger, Lake regularly breaks into a series of excruciating impressions (embracing anyone from Basil Rathbone to Bruce Forsyth, and anything from racism to homophobia), and also breaks wind in one jaw-dropping love-making scene. Despite this goggle-eyed eccentricity, Galaxy is still irresistible to women, refers to his penis as Fido, and sleeps with the entire female cast except for real-life wife Diana Dors, who plays the new owner of his apartment block.

In new levels of cinematic tedium, there is endless offering and pouring of drinks (often involving the police, tokenly fronted again by Glynn Edwards) but the film is saved from total disposability by the appearances of Rosemary England (Miss Beauty Bust) and - in a subplot incidental to the main narrative - Mary Millington (high society heiress Millicent Cumming). Never having experienced orgasm, Cumming hooks up with Galaxy in a multi-positional sequence played out against the astrologer's mirrored headboard. Despite this lengthy scene being one of the most explicit in a British sex comedy - one press release even insinuated that Lake and Millington actually had intercourse, much to Dors' disgust - the picture was a box office and critical disaster.