Saturday, October 1, 2016

"It's a Creepy Business, Darling"

WORST FEARS (2016)
HORROR ICON (2016)

The Nucleus DVD of WORST FEARS not only tidies up the anthology, but also completes the mockumentary HORROR ICON.

THIS direct-to-DVD portmanteau collects seven shorts - all but one written by David McGillivray - and surrounds them with new framing footage by Jake West featuring The Storyteller (McGillivray himself). The tales, made between 2004 and 2011, are kept fresh by their different locations - filmed in Marrakech, Lisbon, Nice and London - and underpinned by a typically home-grown seediness and array of familiar faces. This Nucleus Films version is the second attempt at a WORST FEARS splicing, the first - a "horror hostess" cut with news presenter Juliette Foster in the role - premiered at the Electric Picture Palace, Suffolk, in 2007, and was instantly disowned by McGillivray's director Keith Claxton. In this revamp, McGillivray seems at home in the re-shot linkage, his camp fa├žade wryly adding gravitas to the tales to come.

Tincture of Vervain stars "Her Ladyship" Fenella Fielding, disappointed with a provincial group of elderly witches ("I thought you'd like a bickie"); Wednesday has an Eastern European cleaner falling into the clutches of Anna Wing and Victor Spinetti; In the Place of the Dead sees a Djinn literally devouring a disastrous marriage; Mrs Davenport's Throat mixes airport arrivals with Herschell Gordon Lewis; Child Number Four is a creepy child yarn based on Gavin Smith's The Scarecrow; After Image tells of a photographer learning his true fate; and the secret of a strange apartment is revealed in We're Ready for You Now

Are you prepared to face your worst fears? David McGillivray - described by Starburst as "a bit of a legend" - is The Storyteller.

Known for his self-deprecating sense of humour, McGillivrey refers to himself as a "prolific writer, mostly of hack journalism, but also lowbrow films, plays, and radio and television programmes" who "is becoming increasingly unreliable, grouchy and difficult to work with.” Originally a critic for Monthly Film Bulletin, his life-long involvement in theatre was a gift when making the shorts contained here, enabling him to have a list of contacts long enough to fill gaps when they inevitably appeared (especially as no one was paid. The Scarecrow in Child Number Four, amazingly, was even played by passing acquaintance David Brett, of Flying Pickets fame).

The DVD also includes HORROR ICON, which started life in 2007. Now completed and edited by West, this faux documentary attempts to track down the elusive figure of David McGillivray, a long-standing shadow over the heady days of 70's British horror and softcore. Interviewees either refuse to talk about McGillivray or are uniform in their distain, charting a parallel universe that implicates the writer and producer in Columbian drug smuggling. This one-note joke wears thin even though the piece is only thirty minutes long, but it is fun to see Norman J. Warren diss McGillivray, and hear
Pete Walker instantly put the phone down on just the utterance of the name of his partner-in-crime.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Spearhead into the 70's

DOCTOR WHO - SPEARHEAD FROM SPACE (1970)

Autons attack!; their featureless facades a metaphor for characterless, mass-production. Fragments of the plastic-hungry Nestene Intelligence, the Autons brake out of a shop window and fire their wrist guns down a mundane British high street.

AFTER the optimism of the 1960's, Britain in the 1970's is most remembered for its economic disorder, power cuts, IRA bombings and riots. Post-war affluence was indeed fading, though David Bowie's dictum "one isn't totally what one has been conditioned to think one is" also illustrates a period of individualism and complexity. As late as 1971, women were banned from going into Wimpy Bars on their own after midnight on the grounds that the only females out on their own at that hour must be prostitutes; yet only eight years after that rule was lifted, Margaret Thatcher was in Downing Street. Despite all this eclectic nonsense, it was great decade to be a kid: hours pouring over Figurini Panini football stickers and STAR WARS bubble-gum cards, space hoppers, BAGPUSS, View-Masters and Cadbury Curly Wurly.

One of the highlights about growing up in the 70's was experiencing DOCTOR WHO's most vibrant era. Jon Pertwee's initial adventure - SPEARHEAD FROM SPACE - burst onto the screen in colour, arguably the first serial to go for the viewer's jugular. Even though Pertwee was known as a comedy actor, he portrayed the Time Lord as a technology-orientated man of action, who was also keen on "moments of charm." The serial would also signify the plagiarism to come (here, more than shades of Nigel Kneale's QUATERMASS II), but this four-parter did introduce the Autons and a new gritty feel; even UNIT, at the start of their long integration, had blood on one of their cracked windscreens. SPEARHEAD FROM SPACE begins with the TARDIS arriving on Earth in the middle of a meteorite shower, actually hollow globes containing the Nestene Consciousness. This disembodied alien has an affinity for synthetics, and agent Channing (Hugh Burden) has infiltrated the plastics factory to form mannequin-like replicas of establishment figures with the aim of colonisation.

Scientists-in-arms: Jon Pertwee and Caroline John.

The dawn of the 70's not only stifled a hopeful future, equality of the sexes was still a brooding issue. The self-titled Second Wave Feminists fought their corner in a Britain that was renowned for its CARRY ON view of women, and this anger spilled over at the 1970 Miss World contest at the Albert Hall. After compare Bob Hope fuelled the flames by making a number of crass comments ("I'm very happy to be here at this cattle market tonight"), he was bombarded with flour and stink bombs. Newsletters and publications such as Shrew, Spare Rib and Women's Report gathered a momentum of ideas, which developed the theoretical differences between socialistic feminism and the more radical format; as the decade developed, the liberation movement was addressing sexual stereotyping in education. 

With the Time Lord exiled on a near-contemporary Earth, DOCTOR WHO introduced a new female companion; but rather than the screaming, threatened norm, Liz Shaw (Caroline John) was a disciplined scientist and meteor specialist. Shaw could understand the Doctor more on a level footing, but producer Barry Letts decided that she was too intellectual to provide a dramatic balance. Lasting only a handful of serials, Shaw was either too far ahead of the time, or a character who writers struggled to fully relate to. Consequent feministic traits were very haphazard in 70's DOCTOR WHO: sassy, independent reporter Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) regressed to rescue fodder; leather-clad Leela (Louise Jameson)'s usual reflexes were to kill; and we had to wait for the first incarnation of Time Lady Romana (Mary Tamm) for the Doctor to have any scientific sparring partner again.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

"A Living Hell That Time Forgot!"

THE LOST CONTINENT (1968)

Actress/singer/songwriter Dana Gillespie - playing Sarah - makes the biggest impression, thanks to her 44-26-37 assets. Gillespie had previously appeared in the striptease exploiter SECRETS OF A WINDMILL GIRL and Hammer's THE VENGEANCE OF SHE.  

AFTER Michael Carreras hastily made PREHISTORIC WOMEN in the wake of ONE MILLION YEARS B.C.'s worldwide success, he would also be responsible for this Hammer fantasy loosely based on Dennis Wheatley's 1938 novel Uncharted Seas. On his rusty tramp streamer Corita, Captain Lansen (Eric Porter) has a cargo of illegal explosives (ten tonnes of water-sensitive Phosphor B) and an array of motley passengers (including a deported ex-mistress of a Third World president (Hildegard Knef), a blackmailer (Benito Carruthers), an alcoholic pianist (Tony Beckley) and an exiled abortionist (Nigel Stock)). When the ship becomes stranded on the floating swamp of the Sargasso Sea, the travellers must face such terrors as man-eating seaweed and a stranded Spanish galleon complete with Grand Inquisitor (Eddie Powell) and boy king "El Supremo" (Daryl Read).

Featuring imaginative sets and water tanks specially constructed at Elstree, THE LOST CONTINENT is a fun but convoluted picture which drowns under its own hyperbole ("SEE BLOOD-BEASTS battling over female flesh! TORTURE PITS for forbidden lovers! SACRIFICE to giant jaw-snapping molluscs! HELPLESS BEAUTIES attacked by crazed-kelp-monsters!"). It's really three films in one, a "ship of fools" tale, an adventure yarn, and an unintentional monster movie parody that relishes its kaiju-like creatures and cleavage. Originally released in America shortened by eight minutes, this truncated version actually replaced the longer cut in British circulation; DVD releases have restored this largely inconsequential footage, but there is one delirious scene where resident blonde Unity (Suzanna Leigh) is called a "hellcat" and almost punched during sex.

Gillespie's extensive musical output has encompassed pop, folk, rock and latterly blues. After performing backing vocals on 'It Ain't Easy' from David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust, she recorded an album produced by Bowie and Mick Ronson in 1973, Weren't Born a Man.

The Lost World subgenre is a popular staple of pulp novels and cinematic spectacle. H.Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines and the Hollow Earth work Symzonia; A Voyage of Discovery are often considered its printed paper springboard, exploring strange environments typically un-European. But THE LOST CONTINENT was a box office failure, released between Lost World picture peaks such as MYSTERIOUS ISLAND and the affection given to the Amicus/Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptations of the 1970's. Indeed, 1968 was a sobering year for fantastic cinema, a time with little regard for such a dynamic but ultimately empty release.

Monday, August 1, 2016

"We Must Adjust the Truth"

DOCTOR WHO - THE DEADLY ASSASSIN (1976)
DOCTOR WHO - THE ROBOTS OF DEATH (1977)

"Only hate keeps me alive"; opera singer/actor Peter Pratt brings a resonant voice to the black-shrouded, decomposing Master in THE DEADLY ASSASSIN.

GOTHIC as entertainment is usually traced back to Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764), a novel which kick-started a darker supernatural genre that lived amongst decaying settlements and subterranean crypts. Oscillating between romantic sub-plots and conventional reality, Gothic fiction places heavy emphasis on atmosphere and loss of humanity/identity; women are often cast in distress but typically portrayed as the heroine of the piece, while men struggle with a Jekyll and Hyde-type duality. When Philip Hinchcliffe (producer) and Robert Holmes (script editor) took over DOCTOR WHO in the mid-70's, there was a seismic shift away from what Holmes described as "straightforward, dull, children's stories." In the seasons that followed, the Time Lord would experience more oppressive environments and explorations not just of hauntings and possessions, but also early trappings which would latterly be known as body horror. These tales also effected the Doctor himself, changing from the adventurous dandy of Jon Pertwee to Tom Baker, an actor who embraced the outsider at odds with himself and the galaxy.

Holmes' scripts for THE DEADLY ASSASSIN take on board Richard Condon's bleak brainwashing political novel The Manchurian Candidate. The Doctor (Baker) is accused of the assassination of the Time Lord President, but it is in fact a plot by a dying Master (Peter Pratt). Having used all twelve of his regenerations, the Master aims to control the hierarchy so he can obtain the Sash and Rod of Rassilon, which act as keys to the Eye of Harmony, the source of all the Time Lord's power. When the Doctor links his mind into the virtual reality of Matrix (pretty novel for 1976) - which has accumulated the wisdom of his race - he wins a struggle with a hooded opponent revealed to be Chancellor Goth (Bernard Horsfall), who has been used as a pawn. The Master has now gained access to the Eye of Harmony and aims to give new life to his decaying, putrid husk of a body; but in a climactic fight with the Doctor, the Master falls into a crumbling Citadel chasm...

ROBOTS OF DEATH was fittingly chosen to represent the era of the Fourth Doctor at the BFI's 50th anniversary celebration of the show.

THE DEADLY ASSASSIN provides a number of firsts for Who lore: a regeneration number set at twelve; the absence of a companion for the Doctor; the portrayal of a layered society of ranks and chapters (very different from the glimpses seen in THE WAR GAMES and THE THREE DOCTORS); and trivia such as the TARDIS listed as a Type 40 capsule. But for many this spoilt the mystery of the Time Lord back-story, revealing Gallifrey as a planet akin to the doddering House of Lords, or a crusty Oxbridge society (one Time Lord even complains about hearing and hip problems). But within the Matrix the adventure is an irresistible, surreal experience, giving the show its most notorious and sadistically violent moment: the drowning of the Doctor at the hands of Goth as a cliff-hanger to episode three. Providing such a lingering, powerful image for children to mull over for a week was too much for the National Viewers and Listeners Association linchpin Mary Whitehouse, and the scene was shortened for repeats.

Written by Chris Boucher, THE ROBOTS OF DEATH is another tale of duality and deception ("nothing is inexplicable, only unexplained"). Mixing Dune and Ten Little Indians as well as inverting Asimov's First Law of Robots, the TARDIS materialises on a sandminer combing an alien world for minerals. The massive vehicle is run by a small human crew aided by three classes of robots (Dums, Vocs and a Super Voc), and the Doctor (Baker) and Leela (Louise Jameson) come under suspicion when the crew are killed by an unseen assailant. With the aid of undercover agents Poul (David Collings) and robot associate D84 (Gregory de Polnay), the real culprit is revealed as Dask (David Bailie), a scientist raised by robots who has been reprogramming the automatons to murder and to consequently form a superior order ("I see; you're one of those boring maniacs who's going to gloat, hmm? You going to tell me your plan for running the Universe?").

Social activist Mary Whitehouse CBE frequently singled out mid-70's DOCTOR WHO as particularly damaging to young minds. Yet the celebrated "fear factor" and "hiding behind the sofa" mainstays of the programme acted as a liberating and engaging emotion for viewers, who always had the reassurance of the Doctor to guide them through.

Developed under the titles PLANET OF THE ROBOTS and THE STORM-MINE MURDERS, the programme raises above its "people killed off in an enclosed environment" foundation by adopting a highly distinctive art deco production design, a tight script, earnest performances, and effective, lethal robots. Of all the influences listed for Ridley Scott's ALIEN over the years - from the B-movie theatrics of IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE to the otherworldliness of Mario Bava's PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES - don't forget that Boucher's serial has a claustrophobic mining setting and an undercover robot.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Into the Wilderness

CREATURES THE WORLD FORGOT (1971)

In April 1970, a Hammer-Columbia campaign was launched to find the "Screen's New Sex Symbol of the 70's" who would be offered the starring role in CREATURES THE WORLD FORGOT. Au pair, Penthouse pet and former Miss Norway Julie Ege was picked from over 2,000 replies; this is one of many publicity photos that attempted to make Ege the new Raquel Welch, a promotion in contrast to Michael Carreras' intention for a more historically accurate film.

AS exciting as watching cave paint dry, Don Chaffey's CREATURES THE WORLD FORGOT was thankfully the last of Hammer's jaunts through prehistory. After a volcanic eruption kills many members of The Dark Tribe, Mak (Brian O'Shaughnessy) leads the survivors across a desert in search of a new home. They befriend a tribe of fair-haired people, the leader of which presents Mak with Noo (Sue Wilson), who gives birth to twin boys on the same day another woman delivers a mute girl (Marcia Fox), who an old witch (Rosalie Crutchley) adopts as her apprentice. Resentment escalates between the twins Rool (Robert John) and Toomak (Tony Bonner) when - after defeating a marauding tribe - Mak names Toomak as his successor and takes the defeated chief's daughter Nala (Julie Ege in an overwrought dark wig) as his wife. Even though Toomak saves his brother and his men from a forest tribe, Rool abducts and stakes Nala to a cliff-top pyre; Toomak saves Nala whilst the mute girl stabs an effigy of Rool, sending him falling to his death.

Shot in South West Africa, CREATURES THE WORLD FORGOT was another of freelance writer/producer Michael Carreras' attempts to lure Hammer away from their gothic underpinning. Unable to secure the budgets for his extravagant fantasies, the studio's fourth cave girl picture also excluded any cumbersome stop-motion dinosaurs that had delayed ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. and WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH. But the studio also felt the picture could genuinely do without them anyway, punting the production into the then vogue of nihilistic, allegorical fantasies such as if... and 2001. For the late 60's/early 70's cinemagoer, there seemed no room for family-friendly adventures, typified by the box office failure of Ray Harryhausen's dino-cowboy epic THE VALLEY OF GWANGI; as the stop-motion master has noted, "a naked dinosaur just wasn't outrageous enough."

Julie Ege was far from happy with the long shoots in the Namib desert. Homesick and away from a newborn child, the actress also disliked her dark wig and cut-price bikini.

Before even a distribution deal or script was in place, Hammer commissioned Tom Chantrell to produce three concept posters, one of which even pitched a modern setting with jet fighters. Another outlandish concept came from Jeremy Burnham, who envisioned a subterranean world of murderous bat people, a story which was dismissed for the project but assigned another of Hammer's "posters", WHEN THE EARTH CRACKED OPEN. What eventually transpires is a gruntfest which fails to elaborate on its only interesting concept, that of the primeval mysticism and relationship between the characters played by Fox and Crutchley (and for creatures we are limited to an oryx, wildebeest and python).

CREATURES THE WORLD FORGOT acts as both a limp finale for Hammer's prehistoric filmography and the non-start of Ege as an international starlet. Aside from the studio's publicity fanfare, in reality it was the press coverage the Norwegian gained from her largely naked role in Marty Feldman's EVERY HOME SHOULD HAVE ONE that swung the casting choice. Subsequently Ege appeared in a handful of "last gasp" horror and sex pictures and retired from the industry soon after Derren Nesbitt's bawdy THE AMOROUS MILKMAN; working largely in the Oslo public health sector after training as a nurse, she succumbed to breast cancer in 2008.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Strangers on a Train

HOWL (2015)

Similar to DOG SOLDIERS, HOWL benefits from a
contemporary setting and practical creature FX.

PAUL Hyett - more famous his special makeups for THE DESCENT and EDEN LAKE - directs this low budget but polished horror which pits hybrid werewolves against occupants of a stranded late night train (much better than snakes on a plane). London guard Joe (Ed Speelers), unsuccessful for a promotion, and trolley hostess Ellen (Holly Western), are working on the last Alpha Trax out of the capital. The passengers are a motley selection, which includes high-flying alpha male Adrian (Elliot Cowan), professional single mother Kate (Shauna Macdonald), annoying adolescent Nina (Rosie Day), football yob Paul (Calvin Dean) and an elderly couple (Ged (Duncan Preston) and Jenny (Ania Marson)). When the carriages hit a deer and the driver (Sean Pertwee) goes to investigate but never returns, Joe must rise up and protect the commuters from a menace attacking out of the dense forest.

HOWL is widely regarded as the best werewolf picture since AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. Whereas Universal stumbled with their retro-fitted 2010 reboot THE WOLFMAN, Hyett's film doesn't suffer from the American picture's insistence with their outdated monster design: here, the lean and refreshingly non-hairy werewolves are portrayed more like mutations, impressively vicious and sleek when moving in on their prey. On the human side, the characters are stereotypes but well written and played, and in the best horror film tradition not always interacting successfully as the tensions mount. Consequently, HOWL follows in the tradition of the John Wyndham short story Confidence Trick, where an underground train journey to hell explores the effects of belief on the part of the travellers.

Widespread in European folklore, the werewolf concept chiefly developed during the Middle Ages.

Britain has several outlandish "real" werewolf stories. One of the most famous emanates from Cannock Chase in Staffordshire, where there have been sightings since a notorious incident in 1975: a boy claimed to have promised his soul to the devil through a Ouija board, gaining power to transform into a wolf (then stabbed himself to death). Another colourful tale originates from 1920's Lincolnshire, when a local archaeologist discovered a human skeleton with a wolf's head; after he took his find home, his house was besieged by a werewolf. The Buxton, Derbyshire werewolf is more abstract, as it is unclear whether the creature is a physical entity or a supernatural beast (the nearby village of Wormhill claims to be the location where the last wolf in England was killed in the sixteenth century). And on a broader scale, the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides allegedly once hosted an entire colony of wolf men.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Asylum of Horrors

TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS (1973)

"Does anyone here love me?" Joan Collins in Mel, where her husband's attentions shift to a tree which he sculpts into the female form.

OFTEN mistaken for an Amicus portmanteau, possibly because of the contemporary setting, this Freddie Francis-helmed anthology was actually made by World Film Services. TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS was inspired by Amicus' ASYLUM released the previous year, not least because of its mental patient setting, but also by its general outlandishness. Psychiatrist Dr Tremayne (Donald Pleasance) relates four cases to Dr Nicholas (Jack Hawkins, dubbed by Charles Grey): in Mr Tiger, introverted boy Paul (Russell Lewis) confides with an "imaginary" tiger against a backdrop of warring parents; an inherited Penny Farthing causes trouble for antique dealer Timothy (Peter McEnery) and girlfriend Ann (Suzy Kendall); Mel is a piece of tree art that starts frictions between husband and wife Brian (Michael Jayston) and Bella (Joan Collins); and Luau tells of human sacrifice involving literary agent Auriol (Kim Novak) and her daughter Ginny (Mary Tamm), where the latter is consumed to appease an Hawaiian god.

Based on short stories by actress Jennifer Jayne (credited here as Jay Fairbank) - who played Donald Sutherland's vampire bride in DR TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS - TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS is as literal and silly as most of the Amicus product, but elevated to watchable status by its cast (save for Novak who broke a four year hiatus to overplay her highly unlikable character after replacing Rita Hayworth). Jayston and Collins are particularly in tune to their slice of camp nonsense, Bella understandably annoyed not just because of her husbands wandering eye, but also because Mel - the name carved into its trunk - is damaging her cream shag pile carpet. If there is any overall underlying trend, it is a festering resentment with domesticity and the routine of married/working life.

In what is potentially the most interesting tale, Suzy Kendall encounters a haunted portrait and a time-distorting Penny Farthing.

Similar to the unevenness inherent in comedy sketch shows, the anthology subgenre is noted for its varied quality. As Mark Gatiss stated in BBC4's A HISTORY OF HORROR, it is fun to piece together your favourite portmanteau stories into a single outing; Mel could provide the icing on the cake to the wackiest, perhaps together with the reptile sequence from SECRETS OF SEX, the vampire film producer storyline from THE MONSTER CLUB, and the killer piano from TORTURE GARDEN. Yet the origins of the multi-tale film are held in much higher esteem, taking a cue from the episodic structure of Gothic novels The Monk and Melmoth the Wanderer (1876 and 1878 respectively). In fact, it was German silent cinema which first embraced the notion with Richard Oswald's EERIE TALES, Fritz Lang's DESTINY and Paul Leni's WAXWORKS. DESTINY, in particular, opens up The Grim Reaper as a leading character, omnipresent force and deadly puppet master.