Monday, January 15, 2018

Unnatural Born Killers


For CORRUPTION, Peter Cushing's trademark commitment and professionalism is tested in this notoriously nasty offering.

SHORTLY before making the lowest point of his filmography - THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR - Peter Cushing made his most controversial. This Titan production, directed by Robert Hartford-Davis, sees "The Gentleman of Horror" cast as respected surgeon Sir John Rowan. When his aging model fiancée Lynn (Sue Lloyd) starts an impromptu photo session with Mike (Tony Booth) at a swinging Sixties party, the photographer and impeccably suited surgeon's clash of personality boils over into a fight, where an arc light falls onto Lynn's face in front of horrified onlookers. Developing "an entirely new way of controlling the endocrine system to promote tissue growth," the doctor's yearning for pituitary glands to restore Lynn's looks leads him to murder, under the increasing demands of his wife-to-be. While at a Seaford holiday retreat a group of beatniks invade, and Rowan's colleague Steve (Noel Trevarthan) and Lynn's sister Val (Kate O'Mara) piece together the string of outrages. 

Dubbed "gratuitously violent, fearfully sick, but it was a good script" by Cushing, the posters to CORRUPTION stated that "no woman will be admitted alone to see this super-shock film." Rowan's murder sequences are still jaw-dropping today, amplified by the use of hand-held close-ups. With hair flapping around his sweaty crazed glare, the actor's slaying of a topless prostitute - stabbing her repeatedly on the floor before smearing his bloodied hands on her breasts then removing her head - is not only British horror's most shocking sequence, it also points towards the Seventies sleaze to come. The delirium is added another two layers with the arrival of Georgie and his gang in Seaford - an out of left field final act which sees a massacre by an out-of-control surgical laser - and amid production bickering, the "is it a dream?" ending.

Alice Lowe continues her outlandish comedic career with PREVENGE.

Written, directed and starring Alice Lowe, PREVENGE defies description - in a good way. Too easily labelled a sardonic, jet black comedy, it is also a meditation on loss and the mental process of pregnancy. Shot in two weeks to accommodate Lowe's real-life condition, and enveloped by an outstanding Goblinesque score by Toydrum, textures increase with subsequent viewings to reveal - almost - an art film. Ruth (Lowe) is a pregnant woman who goes on a killing spree, seeking revenge on the people she claims accountable for her partner's death on a climbing trip; struggling with her conscience and prepartum psychosis, the unborn child speaks to Ruth from the womb, coaching her to kill ("If you don't do as I say blood will be shed, one way or another.")

Lowe's performance flicks between deadpan, psychotic, angst and turmoil (possibly in equal measures). The casting is strong with numerous fan-favourites: DAVID BRENT LIFE ON THE ROAD's Jo Hartley as the Midwife, GAME OF THRONES' Gemma Whelan as Len, and THE WITCH's Kate Dickie as a businesswoman who succumbs to a throat-slitting straight out of Argento. One sequence is spontaneously filmed in Cardiff on Halloween night, and it is this ethic which makes PREVENGE seem consistently fresh in style if not always in content. The murders are effective, but the visuals seem to unfold in some other brooding universe, and Lowe has mischievously likened the feel to BLADE RUNNER. Yet you can see her thinking; in Ridley Scott's milestone, Vangelis' jazz-influenced score underpinned the yearning of remembrance, driving the narrative similarly to Toydrum's often thunderous electronica.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Neither Blood Nor Legacy


Mills and Boon meets George A. Romero as Michael Petrovitch shifts from misty-eyed romance to the annals of the undead.

IN July 2017, Screenbound collected these three pictures in a handily disposable budget DVD. Adapted from his own novel by ITN newsreader Gordon Honeycombe, NEITHER THE SEA NOR THE SAND sees Anna Robinson (Susan Hampshire) taking a winter break in Jersey from a lifeless marriage, where she falls in love with introverted Hugh Dabernon (Michael Petrovitch). Hugh has a strange affinity with the rugged coastline, and his antiques dealer brother George (Frank Finlay) takes a disliking to Anna, who threatens the insular Dabernon lifestyle. While the inseparable couple are in the North of Scotland, Hugh suddenly has a fatal heart attack, and is issued a death certificate. Through the strength of love he is reanimated; now without conventional speech (conversations are limited to what may well be Anna's imagination), Hugh physically deteriorates, leading the lovers to a watery grave.

Originally optioned by Hammer, director Fred Burnley attempted to ensure that the film would not be known as "another Tigon horror movie" (Tigon would be rebranded LMG by the time of release), but regardless of genre expectations, it was labelled by Time Out as "one of the worst films of the decade." NEITHER THE SEA NOR THE SAND - nor entertainment - is a ponderous love story without charisma, and a supernatural tale with little Fortean interest (reincarnation within Dabernon history is briefly hinted, as is Robinson being a witch). With no connection on screen, Hampshire and Petrovitch are doomed from the onset, Hampshire's theatrics grating with Petrovitch's distant portrayal; when Hugh's rigor mortis starts to set in, there is no difference to our male lead's performance. What remains is ninety minutes of meaningful stares and glances.

The Peasants are revolting: Oliver Reed not so much chews the scenery than spits it out in BLUE BLOOD.

Directed by Andrew Sinclair, BLUE BLOOD is a delirious story of Devil worship set and filmed at Wiltshire's Longleat House. Gregory (Derek Jacobi) is a young aristocrat who complains of modern England while maintaining a servant lifestyle, which includes new German Nanny Beate (Meg Wynne Owen). Entrusting control of the house to butler Tom (Oliver Reed), and in a complicated relationship with his estranged singer wife Lily (an icy Fiona Lewis), the Lord succumbs to the unholy practises of the under classes, governed by his leading manservant. Adapted from Alexander Thynn's novel The Carry-Cot by Sinclair, Thynn is the 7th Marquess of Bath and grew up in his family's seat at Longleat (and to further the in-house connections, BLUE BLOOD features Thynn's wife Anna Grael as Gregory's mistress Carlotta). UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS on acid, Reed's ham performance is either extraordinary inept or one that plays to the general foolishness; moving like an automaton, Tom's Satanic control is built up by a series of almost freeze-framed red-hued images of black masses and sacrifice, usually depicting Owen, Grael and Lewis draped around him while holding a bloodied knife.

THE LEGACY is another tale of Mansion-based Satanic shenanigans. Designers Maggie Walsh (Katharine Ross) and Pete Danner (Sam Elliott) leave California to work for an anonymous British client. On reaching their destination they are involved in an accident with a limousine, which is actually owned by their benefactor, Jason Mountolive (John Standing). Inviting them to his estate, Mountolive introduces Walsh and Danner to five guests, who die in a variety of ways: Maria (Marianne Broome) drowns; Clive (Roger Daltrey) chokes to death; Karl (Charles Gray) is burned alive; Barbara (Hildegard Neill) is pierced by a splintered mirror; and Jacques (Lee Montague) falls from a roof. All had chequered pasts, and were spared punishment due to Jason's unorthodox interventions: his mother being Lady Margaret Walsingham, a practitioner of witchcraft. It transpires that Walsh is actually Mountolive's great-granddaughter, and Jason's last acts were to kill the other heirs so Katharine can continue Satan's work.

British character actor John Standing is under the emaciated
makeup of a dying Occultist in THE LEGACY.

Although graced with exquisite cinematography both externally (the lush country setting) and internally (white cats on marble staircases), this tepid Anglo-American production suffers from an inappropriate upbeat soundtrack and lengthy dull patches between the body count. Directed by Richard Marquand, THE LEGACY is all too twee to adhere effectively to the twin 70s fixations of black magic and haunted houses (to further amplify the Seventies feel, we have an opening credits "love-in" with a song from Kiki Dee). The original treatment was written by Jimmy Sangster and "polished" by British SF author Patrick Tilley and Paul Wheeler; Sangster unsurprisingly disowned the film as the "tinkering" involved moving the setting wholesale from a rundown Detroit hospital to the grounds of Mountolive's Ravenhurst.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Short-Lived Revival


Mark Letheren is haunted by unearthly vistas in A VIEW FROM A HILL.

THE BBC GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS strand from the 1970s returned with these two entries. Both add a layer of weird science to their ghostly goings-on, as the laws of physics are played with fancifully. A VIEW FROM A HILL - adapted from M. R. James by Peter Harness and directed by Luke Watson - sees young Fitzwilliam Museum curator Dr Fanshawe (Mark Letheren) discovering some homemade binoculars while cataloguing the archaeological collection of the late father of debt-laden Squire Richards (Pip Torrens). The field glasses - created by deceased local watchmaker and amateur necromancer Baxter (Simon Linnell) - give Fanshawe visions of Fulnaker Abbey in all its splendour and a gibbet on Gallows Hill, in reality locations now dissolved. It transpires that Baxter's "very peculiar ... 'abits" of boiling the bones of condemned men resulted in a noxious fluid, some of which has remained sealed inside the binoculars. 

Never previously adapted on film or television, A View from a Hill was first published in the May 1925 edition of the London Mercury, and in the same year formed part of the A Warning to the Curious and Other Ghost Stories anthology. Harness and Watson successfully evoke the washed-out landscapes and corner-of-the-eye creepiness of the best 70s output and it is also beautifully played; moving James' Edwardian setting to the post-WWII decline of country estates, social status is reflected as weary condemnation. When Fanshawe makes clear to Richards that he is an archaeologist and a doctor, the Squire caustically responds "have to get you to take a look at my feet."

Greg Wise is more Indiana Jones than M.R. James in NUMBER 13.

NUMBER 13 - adapted from James by Justin Hopper and directed by Pier Wilkie - had been brought to the screen on two, presumed lost, occasions: as part of NBC's GREAT GHOST TALES of 1961, and as a second season episode of MYSTERY AND IMAGINATION in 1966. Originally appearing in the 1904 Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, the location of the story is moved from Viborg, Denmark, to Winchester Cathedral, where Oxford academic Professor Anderson (Greg Wise) is sucked into a spatial-distorting hotel room occupied by a sixteenth-century diabolist. It seems somewhat out of place that Anderson is a handsome adventurer, and the Phantom's hand is black-gloved like a Dario Argento serial killer. NUMBER 13's other frissons are similarly abstract: the English hotelier using the centre panel of Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights, and a mention for Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

National Parklife

XMOOR (2014)

"The Beast is waiting on the dark side of the moor." 
Melia Kreiling makes for an appealing final girl in XMOOR.

WRITTEN and directed by Luke Hyams, XMOOR was described as "the best British horror in years" by the Sunday Sport. American students Georgia (Melia Kreiling) and boyfriend Matt (Nick Blood) travel to North Devon and West Somerset to capture footage of legendary Panther The Exmoor Beast - and a £25,000 prize. Joined by animal tracker and sub-machine gun owning Fox (Mark Bonnar), it transpires that Fox is actually searching for a serial killer, who has methodically dumped dead prostitutes in a section of the terrain. With surveillance set, the trio are hunted by The Beast (James Lecky), who leaves his daughter (Jemma O'Brien) in his land rover while going about his fiendish business. Although the viewer is spared from handheld footage, the final act is unnecessarily convoluted, cheapening the character arc of Georgia who is the film's only asset. Actually filmed in Northern Ireland, XMOOR is a generic movie with a final reveal that copies THE BIGFOOT TAPES, a film that also leads the audience to human depravity rather than what they tuned in for.

The Beast of Exmoor National Park has been sighted since the 1970's, although it became notorious in 1983 when a South Molton farmer claimed to have lost over 100 sheep in the space of three months. In response to increased reports of livestock death and sightings, the Ministry of Agriculture ordered the Royal Marines to send snipers into the hills; when the Marines were recalled, attacks allegedly increased. The Ministry continued to study the reports into the mid 1990's, before concluding that The Beast was either a hoax or that the reports had been mistaken identifications of creatures native to the Exmoor area. In January 2009 a carcass of an animal that has washed up on a beach in North Devon left many locals speculating that it was the body of the infamous Beast, but was later revealed to be a decomposed grey seal.

Graham J. McEwan's Mystery Animals of Britain and Ireland (1986) is a good starting point for big cats, black dogs and freaks of nature.

Sightings of Alien Big Cats (ABC's) in the British landscape often occur in clusters - affectionately referred to as cat flaps - and are certainly nothing new. The 1976 Dangerous Wild Animals Act - legislation which possibly lead to the release of privately owned wild cats - is a theory which was developed by the West Country's other favourite ABC, The Beast of Bodmin Moor in Cornwall. This is a feline than can be traced to animal trainer Mary Chipperfield allegedly releasing three Pumas into the wild following the closure of her Plymouth Zoo in 1978; and in 1994, an official Government conference was organised by then MP for North Cornwall Paul Tyler, who claims to have seen a Puma within 100 yards of his home at Rilla Mill.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Echoes from Beyond


Irene Shubik's Play for Today: The Evolution of Television Drama is an account of her career that has become the standard reference work on the subject. Shubik had devised ABC's OUT OF THIS WORLD before moving to the BBC, where her influence on the development of the single play encompassed OUT OF THE UNKNOWN, THE WEDNESDAY PLAY/PLAY FOR TODAY, WESSEX TALES and PLAYHOUSE.

DAPHNE Du Maurier's THE BREAKTHROUGH tells of Saunders (Simon Ward), sent to a remote government lab to help prove a theoretical energy. The experiment involves a subject close to death, as well as in a computer-induced hypnotic trance and telepathic communication. The person is a mentally deficient but psychically gifted child - possibly affected by the death of her twin - who can report the dying sensations posthumously. Lacking any clear resolution and suffering from limiting studio sets and stifled performances, there is too much speculation to enable the drama to breath, even in its Suffolk exteriors. THE BREAKTHROUGH reminds of THE ASPHYX, which also documents spirits and near-death experiences before similarly descending into absurdity, but far more melancholic is William Trevor's MRS ACLAND'S GHOSTS, where tailor Mr Mockler (John Bluthal) receives a letter from stranger Mrs Acland (Sara Kestelman). The woman tells him of how the three ghosts of her childhood siblings have continued to make appearances to her; Mockler discovers that Mrs Acland is now in a mental institution - having been placed there by her husband - and was in fact an only child.

After these try-outs, BBC2 PLAYHOUSE mutated into THE MIND BEYOND. In the first three tales Meriel the Ghost Girl explores the contradictory nature of psychic experiences, opening with George Livingston (Donald Pleasence) witnessing a convincing séance, only for the authenticity to be questioned in a film noir pastiche and re-evaluated by young reporter Robina Oliver (Janet Street-Porter, of all people); Double Echo sees autistic teenager Alison Fisher (Geraldine Cowper) treated by Harley Street Dr Mallam (Jeremy Kemp), only for the pair to develop a telekinetic bond that can see into the future; and in The Love of a Good Woman, after the death of his first wife, Henry Ridout (William Lucas) remarries and builds a new life in a harbour town. But his dead wife' s restless spirit communicates with him through his young daughter.

Penguin released The Mind Beyond to accompany the series, which was edited by Shubik. All the writers provided prose versions of their teleplays, with the exception of Stones, which was adapted by the producer herself.

The second half of the series starts with The Daedalus Equations, where mathematical variables from a dead scientist are channelled into money-grabbing psychic fraud Eileen Gray (Megs Jenkins), yet the equations continue; Stones details the plans of a Stonehenge relocation to Hyde Park to boost tourist revenues, with academic Nicholas Reeve (Richard Pasco) realising that the disappearance of three children is linked to their fathers ownership of the last-known copies of Stonehenge Defended; and The Man with the Power is a second coming of a (black) Christ story, where Boysie (Willie Jonah) embarks on a divine quest, leaving his girlfriend, home and job.

The opening titles of THE MIND BEYOND usher the viewer into a world of haunted faces and electrical impulses, a twilight domain away from rational human senses. The eight PLAYHOUSE's under consideration here typify the giddy pseudoscientific and paranormal so prevalent in 70's BBC drama, but the centre staging of mentally-disturbed characters - and Livington's questionable interest in the naked Meriel the Ghost Girl - clash with the more conventional yarns of mysteries better left alone; and in The Man with the Power, religious allegory seems a leap too far. But the productions are a goldmine for familiar faces: Anna Massey is the brittle wife of Henry Ridout, Linda Hayden's sister Jane admits to being Meriel, and Michael Bryant and Peter Sallis appear in The Daedalus Equations as earnest professor and lurking intelligence man respectively.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Plays for Yesterday


Peter Firth and Judi Bowker toil within the Victorian façade of

THE only novel written by Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray explores the Aesthetic Art movement as drama; that is, art over intellectualism. While observing Basil Hallward (Jeremy Brett) painting a portrait of Dorian Gray (Peter Firth), Lord Henry Wotton (John Gielgud) preaches his world view of beauty being the only aspect of life worth pursuing. This prompts Dorian to wish that his canvas would age instead of himself, and he consequently explores his sensuality, starting with a courtship of actress Sibyl Vane (Judi Bowker). But after a poor performance Dorian rejects Sibyl as the acting profession was her beauty; and on returning home, Gray notices that his painting has started to deteriorate. After receiving news that Sibyl has committed suicide, Dorian begins to exploit his looks for a debauched life. In anger, Dorian blames his fate on Basil, and stabs him to death. Deciding that only full confession will absolve him, Dorian destroys the last vestige of his conscience; stabbing the picture, Gray recoils bloodied on the floor, aging rapidly while the painting regains its original form.

A critical success and labelled the "most Wildean," this feature-length BBC DRAMA OF THE MONTH - written by playwright John Osborne - also includes definitive portrayals of the hedonistic Gray, aristocratic dandy Wotton, and infatuated artist Hallward. Lord Henry seduces Dorian through a poisonous wit that aims to shock; though naïve, Wotton's radical theories send Dorian in a tailspin, Gray's early insecurities making him the perfect clay for the Lord's willing hands. This version also accentuates the gay subtext more than most, especially in the relationship between Dorian and Alan (Nicholas Clay), when the latter is asked to draw on his chemical experience to dispose of Basil's body. Such homoerotica plays a large role structurally: Basil’s painting depends upon his adoration of Dorian; similarly, Lord Henry is overcome with the desire to seduce Gray and mould him in his own image. As a homosexual living in an intolerant society, Wilde asserted this philosophy partially in an attempt to justify his own lifestyle. For although beauty and youth remain of utmost importance at the end, the price one must pay for them is exceedingly high.

John Stride plays a beleaguered husband in the sinisterly subdued

The BBC's successor to THE WEDNESDAY PLAY, PLAY FOR TODAY would be transmitted between 1970 and 1984 and become the flagship for respected anthology drama, specialising in social realism but also dabbling in everything from biopics to science fiction. John Bowen's A PHOTOGRAPH touches on the dark underbelly of rural intervention, were The Otways - upper crust Radio 3 presenter Michael (John Stride) and working class schoolteacher Gillian (Stephanie Turner) - are a dysfunctional couple living in the city where their festering resentments cover work, Gillian's mental state and an under-performing sex life. When Michael receives a strange photograph in the post depicting two girls in front of a caravan, it is only the beginning of a journey that will see Gillian and her family - including mother Mrs Vigo (Freda Bamford) - control Michael's guilt ("That's country wine, that is.") Very much a companion to Bowen's other rural terror for the strand ROBIN REDBREAST - where Bamford appears as the same matriarchal manipulator - A PHOTOGRAPH pitches Gillian's spiralling depression against Michael's increasing determination to solve the puzzle.

Alan Garner's adaptation of his own semi-mystical 1973 novel for RED SHIFT in essence deals with similar themes to A PHOTOGRAPH - that of the indispensable quality of locations and relationships - but is a fragmented and ambitious exploration on a cosmic scale. At the core of RED SHIFT's narrative is the neuropsychological notion of engrams, or how the brain stores memory. This elemental and subconscious notion is theorised to affect behaviour over time and repetition, and here we see the lives of three men living in the same part of Cheshire – one in the present, one in the seventeenth century, and one during the Roman occupation – with their existences linked by common circumstance and the appearance of a talismanic stone axe head.

PLAY FOR TODAY - RED SHIFT's billing in the Radio Times asks "what links the destinies of three couples separated by time, but living in the same place? Is there a force drawing them together - or is it driving them apart?"

The present day relationship between Tom (Stephen Petcher) and Jan (Lesley Dunlop) is solidly written and played, taking in the difficulties of a long-distance relationship and the generational, blinkered sexual views of Tom's parents (Bernard Gallagher and Stella Tanner); in contrast the historical sequences suffer badly from stilted dialogue and budgetary restraints. While Tom obsesses over astrology he declares that he is too "blue" and needs a "red shift"; since cosmological red shifts result from galaxies moving away from each other, this can be read as a metaphor for his need to re-evaluate his life. But there are also many occurrences of red in the story; after a massacre, Macey (Andrew Byett)'s skin is painted red by the tribal girl using dye from alder bark, marking him a "redman" and an ancient symbol of rebirth.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Demons of the 1970's (Part II of II)


"Changes in the weather always upset me ... I don't know why;" Angela Pleasence battles with her twisted psyche in SYMPTOMS.

UNLIKE his exploitative VAMPYRES, José Larraz’s SYMPTOMS is a slow-burning triumph, a film that was unexpectedly chosen as an official British entry at Cannes. Neurotic waif Helen Ramsey (a mesmerising Angela Pleasence) has invited girlfriend Anne (Lorna Heilbron) to stay at her English woodland estate. Anne is welcoming the retreat to write and evaluate the end of a romance, but Helen's behaviour becomes increasingly erratic as questions are asked of the portrait of Cora - Ramsey's disappeared friend and possible lover - and the brooding presence of handyman Brady (Peter Vaughan). Helen's manifestations of Cora mirror Anne's unease in the house, under the shadow of Cora's body festering in the lake after a passionate embrace with the burly handyman.

Larraz has long favoured mansions in his pictures, and the warring of the sexes; here they are quite literally foundations for exploring the horror motif of characters yearning for lost loves. Taking several inspirations from REPULSION, the director uses a mirror and the ticking of a clock to replicate Roman Polanski's idea of lulling the viewer into a false sense of security, before delivering bludgeoning shock tactics. Vanity Celis points out in her essay which accompanies the BFI Blu-ray that Larraz' contribution to the sexual anxieties of the Gothic tradition is "a safety net found in the auxiliary subtext of lesbian love," and the production - similar to Jorge Grau's THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s 28 WEEKS LATER and Alfronso Cuaron’s CHILDREN OF MEN - captures the English landscape more effectively than native filmmakers, creating an agitation that resonates more deeply in the outsider's eye.

Mia Farrow brings a tragic vulnerability to her role in FULL CIRCLE, part of a Seventies Anglo-Canadian co-production deal which yielded lesser pictures THE UNCANNY and DEATH SHIP.

An eerie atmosphere of love and loss is also central to Richard Loncraine's FULL CIRCLE, based on Peter Straub's 1975 novel Julia. A decade on from her subjection to Polanski's ROSEMARY'S BABY, Mia Farrow is again entangled with an unearthly child, playing a mother grieving the loss of daughter Katie (Sophie Ward) who chokes to death at breakfast. During her self-imposed isolation at an old house in Kensington, Julia is stalked by another girl ghost, who led a gang in the brutal murder of a German boy in 1938. As a "feeling of hate" infiltrates the dwelling, the murderous infant is identified as Olivia Rudge, and Julia traces Olivia's mother (Cathleen Nesbitt) to a Swansea mental institution, who admits to killing her offspring and accuses her visitor of doing the same.

In a moving final scene Julia welcomes the ghostly Olivia into her arms, the camera then pans around an armchair to reveal that Julia has a fatal neck wound. This not only brings us full circle from Katie's demise, but leaves the viewer wondering if Olivia has claimed another victim from her otherworldly plane, or the tortured mother has committed suicide. The willowy Farrow carries the whole burden of grief superbly, and quite rightly male players are kept to the margins (husband Magnus (Keir Dullea) is purely abandoned, and friend Mark (Tom Conti) suffers an unnecessarily sensationalised death)). The film also benefits from beautiful cinematography and a piano/synthesiser score which manages to underpin and elaborate on the unease.