Thursday, February 15, 2018

"Tops in Total Horror!"


The daughter of UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS actress Rachel Gurney, Sharon Gurney's brief screen career began on television, before graduating to memorable roles in WOMEN IN LOVE and DEATH LINE.

RELEASED in the United States under the nonsensical banner CRUCIBLE OF HORROR, this ambiguous, dreamlike melodrama takes its cue from Henri-Georges Clouzot's celebrated psychological thriller LES DIABOLIQUES. Walter Eastwood (Michael Gough) runs his upper middle class family with suffocating repression: wife Edith (Yvonne Mitchell) has retreated into painting from years of neglect, son Rupert (Simon Gough) is a facsimile of the patriarch working for the same insurance firm, and it is only rebellious daughter Jane (Sharon Gurney) who strives for a life beyond these watertight walls. When Walter discovers sixteen-year-old Jane has been sleeping with a friend from his golf club - and that she has also stolen money from the premises - he horse-whips her to sleep, while in an adjacent room Rupert turns up the volume in his headphones. Listening to her daughter's cries of pain, Edith is awakened from her trance-like state, and the following morning openly whispers to Jane "lets kill him."

Creepy and compelling, Michael Gough is perfect as the overbearing head, illustrating his unwholesome air early on when Jane returns home on her bicycle, only for him to instantly clasp the still-warm seat. One reading is that Edith imagines everything after the beating of her daughter, yet spliced frames of jagged close-ups, a possible rape and a bag full of masks adds to the disorientation. When Edith corners Walter at his grouse shooting weekend - explaining that "I recently bought a copy of the Marquis de Sade, it's full of the most unutterable filth, but it opened up a few windows for me, I thought it might help to understand you" - it begins a middle third which sets up much but delivers little. Walter may well have been poisoned by the females of the clan, but his body won't stay still, moving from its bed to a crate marked "Mrs E Eastwood, Velvet House, Richmond" and creating a floating mental state for the mother who fades altogether as Water retains his place at the breakfast table.

Similar to the filmography of Peter Cushing, Michael Gough never disappoints, even in a wooden crate. His underappreciated performances as a parade of slimy villains should rank higher with the icons of the genre.

Described by producer Gabrielle Beaumont as a political film, THE CORPSE was actually filmed in the Spring of 1969, a period when the feminist movement were questioning the persistence of gender stereotypes; here, the emotionally and physically-abusing male is always in control, with his understated British venom. Consequently, the project can be viewed as an allegory for the ineffectiveness of rebellion within the traditional family unit, to the point where the mother even longs for a fresh outlook she knows will never come ("I'd like to go back to school, start again") and that the father will always return even if he is dead. To add to the frisson, Gough stars with his real-life son and daughter-in-law.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Sexual Encounters of the Close Kind


FIRE MAIDENS FROM OUTER SPACE hid behind poster hyperbole in an attempt to shroud its crushing tedium.

SCIENCE fiction movies of the 1950s can be divided into four firm camps: alien invasion pictures, those obsessed with the effects of atomic radiation, and generally more sombre films dealing with space exploration. Last and certainly least is an odd set where humankind encounter either planets full of women, or those where alien females visit Earth for mating. In this male-centric sub-genre, Britain could match the worst of Hollywood: for every CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON and QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE, we can boast DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS and FIRE MAIDENS FROM OUTER SPACE. This turgid set of releases illustrate the wider treatment of women within the science fiction field; at the time of pulp magazines, female SF writers were extremely rare, harbinging the view that they could not capture the adventures of muscle-bound heroes, especially within an imaginative context. This leads to the main question of why the mythology is so hegemonic where there is no factual basis for it.

Regularly disowned in the same breath as other 50s SF misfires ROBOT MONSTER and PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACEFIRE MAIDENS FROM OUTER SPACE opens with the launch of an Anglo-American rocketship to Jupiter. A compelling voice guides the craft through thick "space fog" to the planet's 13th moon, where the crew - led by Luther Blair (Anthony Dexter) - meet the Atlanteans, descendants who once inhabited Earth's lost continent. It is unclear how or why the sole survivors now populate a planetary satellite; patriarch Prasus (Owen Barry) and his many beautiful "daughters" may now inhabit outer space, but they have clearly not forgotten their very English etiquette. Although a subplot involving a Fire Maiden (Susan Shaw) overstepping her ancestral mark is quickly forgotten, ultimately the Atlanteans need men for breeding purposes, and to aid them in destroying The Creature ("the man with the head of a beast"), a lumpy-faced caveman in a black bodysuit who wanders their boundaries.

The cover to Jezebel's 2006 R1 DVD for Norman J. Warren's OUTER TOUCH/SPACED OUT (under their brand "Sexy Retro from the Saucy Seventies.")

This painfully dull fantasy was written and directed by Chicago-born Cy Roth, a filmmaker whose style is to vaguely aim the camera in the direction of the players. Having made two Z-grade war movies, Roth surpases himself here in a travesty filled with preposterous chauvinism ("A woman! You can say that again, with all the necessary ingredients"). Its special effects are lifted from other productions - the meteor shower from ROCKETSHIP X-M, a rocket landing from KING DINOSAUR - and the Jupiter landscape is a well-kept woodland (even less demanding patrons awaiting the "electronic monster" promised in the trailer must have been disappointed by the slow-moving neanderthal). The only interesting points to make are both oblique to the film itself: the 13th moon of Jupiter wasn't actually discovered until 1974, and its use of classical music within a SF setting - here Borodin's 'Polovetsin Dances' - occurs more than a decade before 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.

Two years prior to INSEMINOID, Norman J. Warren made OUTER TOUCH, an amateurish, aptly-named space sex comedy. Described by the director as "CARRY ON meets FIRE MAIDENS FROM OUTER SPACE" and "dreadful, in a nice kind of way," a malfunctioning cargo spacecraft lands on Clapham Common, and four hapless Londoners are taken on board: research assistant Oliver (Barry Stokes), his "no sex before marriage" fiancee Prudence (Lynne Ross), dog-walking plank Cliff (Michael Rowlatt) and masturbation-happy shelf-stacker Willy (Robin Askwith substitute Tony Maiden). Aboard the ship are cigar-chomping Skipper (Kate Ferguson), engineer Partha (Ava Cadell) and general assistant Cosia (Glory Annen), aliens under heavy makeup and disco clothing who are soon educated on the joys of the male reproductive organ ("Have you got a weapon down there? It's changing shape!").

Ava Cadell is fascinated by Tony Maiden's heady reading material in OUTER TOUCH. Hungarian Cadell was a former hardcore actress 
who is now an internationally-renowned sex therapist.  

OUTER TOUCH is typical of the British sex comedy in that, although providing an abundance of writhing nudity, is softcore without any sexual charge, though repressed Prudence enjoys temptation of the flesh by the end of the picture (while Oliver typically keeps his glasses and socks on). Of its design, scaffolding covered with plastic sheets were used for certain sections of the craft, and such Ed Woodesque ingenuity sits awkwardly with the beautiful spaceship exteriors culled from SPACE: 1999 (due to a variety of shots used, its appearance changes through the course of the film). Although usually a footnote in the career of Warren in this country, the picture was re-edited, re-dubbed and featured a new soundtrack for its release as SPACED OUT in the United States, where it has acquired something of a cult following. 

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.