Saturday, June 1, 2019

The Doctor and The Devils

BURKE & HARE (1972)

In a scene to rival her orgasmic eye-crossing in LUST FOR A VAMPIRE, Yutte Stensgaard appears as brothel starlet Janet, worse for wear after a drunken threesome with Derren Nesbitt and Francoise Pascal.

KNOWN as THE BODYSNATCHERS and HORRORS OF BURKE AND HARE in the United States, this was the last film made by Vernon Sewell, and a particularly dull take on the West Port serial killers (despite its sexploitative (and CARRY ON musical cue) angle). In 19th century Scotland, slum landlord Thomas Hare (Glynn Edwards) and cobbler William Burke (Derren Nesbitt) learn of a very profitable side-line: to provide dead bodies to anatomical lecturer Dr Knox (Harry Andrews). Initially relying on Hare's lodgers, the pair soon start killing the destitute and vulnerable by smothering them. At the local brothel one of Knox’s students Arbuthnot (Alan Tucker) becomes involved with Marie (Francoise Pascal); when Marie becomes a victim, this links the two disparate threads of the picture together, before ending abruptly to its loutish theme by The Scaffold.

Any cinematic attempt at the Burke and Hare murders will be in the shadow of John Gilling's 1960 masterpiece THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS, and Sewell instead seeks to tap into the same bawdy milieu of early 1970s breast-fixated Hammer. Within the erstwhile taverns all the players repeatedly have time for a "wee dram," and overall make solid efforts at their Irish and Scottish accents. But the historical facts behind the case are more interesting than anything offered here; in 1828 Edinburgh, Irish immigrant Williams Burke and Hare met as labourers on the Union Canal, before embarking on sixteen murders. Existing at a time of great medical science advancement but with corpses on state quotas, even esteemed surgeons would overlook their suspect sources. Eventually Hare turned King’s Evidence to convict Burke, was was publicly hanged and dissected. To this day, his preserved skeleton is on display in the Anatomical Museum at Edinburgh University, and his death mask - together with a book bound in Burke's tanned skin - is on show at Surgeon's Hall.

Francoise Pascal is the pick of the prostitutes in BURKE & HARE's brothel house. The Mauritius-born sexpot flirted numerously with British pop culture, from Norman J. Warren and Pete Walker to CORONATION STREET and MIND YOUR LANGUAGE.

Sewell was a veteran of British cinema, starting as a camera assistant in 1929 (his early Hammer outing THE DARK LIGHT starred Joan Carol, whom he married and who appears as the brothel madame here). A nautical cove, this lifelong fascination often bled into his filmography - collaborating with Michael Powell for THE SILVER FLEET for instance - but his output also often had supernatural themes with multiple flashbacks and complex timelines. Together with the macabre crime thriller THE MAN IN THE BACK SEAT, he is best known for adapting the French grand guignol play L'Angoisse into four releases across the decades: THE MEDIUM in 1934, LATIN QUARTER in 1945, GHOST SHIP in 1952 and 1961's HOUSE OF MYSTERY. In fact this last attempt is Sewell's most beguiling, and may well include the earliest example of the 'ghost in the television' motif.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Have a Butcher's

COVER GIRL KILLER (1959)
THE NIGHT CALLER (1965)

Steptoe and gun: Harry H. Corbett's speech as "The Man" - "surely sex and horror are the new gods in this polluted world of so-called entertainment" - is paraphrased in Frankie Goes to Hollywood's 1984 hit 'Two Tribes.'

WRITTEN and directed by Terry Bishop, and distributed by Britain's low-budget specialists Butcher's, the hour-long COVER GIRL KILLER is a bygone gem. It was made at the same time as PEEPING TOM, Michael Powell's serial killer movie which was a permanent detriment to his career. Cinemagoers could not accept a film so far away from Powell's partnership with Emeric Pressburger, topically covering the growth in seedy under-the-counter merchandise. Somehow such business seems more acceptable in the world of the B picture, and this beguiling Walton Studios piece was a clear inspiration for the 1970s Mary Millington vehicle THE PLAYBIRDS

Using a disguise of pebble glasses and ill-fitting toupee, The Man (Harry H. Corbett) is killing models featured on the cover of pin-up paper Wow! ("not for people who can read") in an attempt "to give man back his dignity." In between drinking endless cups of coffee, Inspector Brunner (Victor Brooks), Archaeologist-cum-publisher John Mason (Spencer Teakle) and showgirl girlfriend June Rawson (Felicity Young) plan to spring a trap. It's all flesh and violence free, but depicts the consequences beyond the girls themselves: a husband and father of separate victims both left grieving for females they could not control. Before his comedic persona took over, Corbett's creepy Soho bogeyman is eloquent and calculating ("I assure you miss, your nudity means nothing to me") as he variously poses as advertising executives and TV producers to snare his prey.

Aka THE NIGHT CALLER FROM OUTER SPACE and BLOOD BEAST FROM OUTER SPACE, THE NIGHT CALLER is a bizarre addition to Britain's monochrome SF/horror epics.

Also distributed by Butcher's was one of the weirdest pictures in the annals of British horror: THE NIGHT CALLER. Directed by John Gilling just before his Hammer "Cornish Classics" PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES and THE REPTILE, this is actually two genres in one. We start with scientists Dr Morley (Maurice Denham), Dr Jack Costain (John Saxon) and Ann Barlow (Patricia Haines) examining a small orb which has descended from the sky ("guided down with fantastic accuracy ... inhuman accuracy!"), complete with a geiger-counter equipped military (headed by John Carson). After forty minutes of science babble the film shifts to a much darker tone, as the sphere transports a shadowy alien with a rubbery claw from Jupiter's third moon, who kidnaps nubile Earth women for repopulation.

These abductions are carried out with a plot device similar to that of COVER GIRL KILLER; this agenda driven alien - named Medra - opens a small business (Orion Enterprises) and lures breeding stock by placing a classified ad in Bikini Girl magazine. The creaking narrative is further undermined by Medra's final speech, promising that all victims will not be harmed (tell this to Ann, who has been slashed and strangled in a sleazy second-hand bookstore). Based on a novel by Frank Crisp and scripted by TOWER OF EVIL helmsman Jim O'Connolly, it is all barking mad, the notion of an alien invader needing to advertise in a jazz mag rather than using scientific superiority is fittingly delirious. Yet the excellent cast keep things watchable, including a priceless scene with Warren Mitchell and Marianne Stowe as worried parents.

Monday, April 1, 2019

The Man in the Crimson Hood

THE OBLONG BOX (1969)

Alister Williamson is doomed Edward Markham and Sally Geeson sexpot maid Sally in a promotional shot for this AIP release.

THE first film to co-star Vincent Price and Christopher Lee, Gordon Hessler's THE OBLONG BOX starts in Africa, where Julian Markham (Price) discovers that brother Edward (Alister Williamson) has been cursed by voodoo. Back in England, Julian keeps Edward chained in a remote room of the Markham estate, his mental and physical states disintegrating. However, Edward plans to escape with the help of Trench (Peter Arne), Norton (Carl Rigg) and witch doctor N'Galo (Harry Baird), drugging him to give the temporary appearance of death; once buried, Trench and Norton will exhume the coffin and grant him freedom. But Trench pockets his fee and Edward is actually dug up by grave robbers - replete with coffin - for the use of Dr Neuhartt (Lee). Wearing a crimson hood, Edward vows to repay "some very important debts" while staying with Neuhartt, blackmailing the physician for his liaisons with body snatchers.

Scripted by Lawrence Huntington with "additional dialogue" by Christopher Wickling, THE OBLONG BOX has the thinnest of connections to its source Edgar Allan Poe story (it all owes more to H.P. Lovecraft - with its arcane lore and a disfigured outsider - and Rudyard Kipling's The Mark of the Beast). Originally to be directed by Michael Reeves before his own premature death, to further WITCHFINDER GENERAL connections Price is reunited with Hilary Dwyer as his younger sweetheart Elizabeth, but the actor - originally to play both brothers - looks disinterested and tired. Although beautifully shot by John Coquillon, it is a picture of missed opportunities; Price and Lee only share one scene together despite their marquee value (in fact, Lee's death scene), and the reveal of Edward's condition results in what looks to be little more than a bee-stinged nose, particularly disappointing after its long build-up.

Vincent Price as the diseased Julian Markham. By this stage in his career the actor grew weary of the Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, particularly within the saturation of the late 1960s horror film market.

THE OBLONG BOX belongs to that horror subgenre - THE MUMMY, PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIESTHE REPTILE, THE GHOUL et al - that echo colonial guilt (remarkably, Hessler's film was banned in Texas for being "pro-Negro"). Julian laments his attitude ("we sinned out there in Africa all right, plundering their land - and we're still stealing their wealth, though they're too innocent to know it") and is revealed to have been the intended recipient of the curse. There is a quiet justice to the conclusion, as Edward bites the hand of his brother, passing on the psoriasis-based condemnation. But ultimately the much re-worked and bloated script carries little gravitas, instead grabbing from more substantive works with no cohesive payoff. This unfocused starting point is further undermined by turgid pacing and padding (the tavern sequences in particular).

Friday, March 1, 2019

Films That Vanished

CRUCIBLE OF TERROR (1971)
SCREAM - AND DIE! (1973)


In the same year as being burned at the stake in TWINS OF EVIL, Judy Matheson gives a memorable performance in the disposable curio CRUCIBLE OF TERROR.

THESE two Seventies horrors are hardly forgotten gems, more underrated guilty pleasures. Ted Hooker's CRUCIBLE OF TERROR tells of painter and sculptor Victor Clare (former pirate radio DJ Mike Raven), who lives in isolation above a disused Cornish tin mine with his troubled wife Dorothy (Betty Alberge) - who has regressed to a second childhood because of Clare's bullying and womanising - and Bill (John Arnatt), Victor's only friend and household cook. Victor's speciality is making bronze statues from murdered young women, which is rekindled when art dealer Jack Davies (James Bolam) and Clare's son Michael (Ronald Lacey, of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK fame) arrive with their wives Millie (Mary Maude) and Jane (Beth Morris). The artist's current muse Marcia (the extraordinary Caroline Munro lookalike Judy Matheson) is a constant presence, but as Jack and Michael try to acquire more pieces for their gallery, the power of possession ultimately trumps the body count.

After appearing in LUST FOR A VAMPIRE and I, MONSTER, Raven was the self-styled "next big thing" in British horror. Such a deluded reputation was severely dashed with this Glendale release (and a yearning that became terminal with his next attempt, the Super 16mm DISCIPLE OF DEATH). Afterwards, Mike retired to become a sheep farmer and sculptor in Bodmin; his distant acting style wanted to draw from Roger Delgado and Christopher Lee, but a more legitimate nod to Hammer's legacy here is the casting of Melissa Stribling, appearing as an art backer. The supernatural conclusion seems a little forced, especially after suffocation by plastic cushion, a screwdriver stabbing, rocks to the head and acid in the face, but the dialogue is priceless and the photography bracing.

Israeli poster for Joseph Larraz's dreamlike SCREAM - AND DIE!

In between his early psycho-thrillers and descent into late 70s Eurosmut, Barcelona-born Joseph Larraz helmed slow-burning British classic SYMPTOMS and perennial cult favourite VAMPYRES. He also made the sluggish English giallo SCREAM - AND DIE!, which is also known as THE HOUSE THAT VANISHED and DON'T GO IN THE BEDROOM. The film opens with glamour model Valerie Jennings (Andrea Allan) witnessing a murder in a fog-enveloped country house. After boyfriend Terry (Alex Leppard) goes missing and her flatmate Lorna Collins (an all too briefly used Judy Matheson) is raped and killed, Valerie discovers that her fresh-faced, mask-making compatriot Paul (Karl Lanchbury) is the culprit. 

Larraz started his career as a comics artist, specialising in action adventures. With a leap to script writing and directing, he attempted to rise above the too-generalistic term Eurotrash Cinema, and even today his output feels under analysed and under appreciated. Allan and Matheson make for alluring beauties, but the nudity doesn't stop there; the film is most (in)famous for sex involving Paul and his aunt Susanna (Maggie Walker). This being Larraz, the sequence holds a real sensual charge, and creeping use of British locations in winter add to the building bursts of depravity. The characters are unrealistic - Valerie brushes aside the missing Terry and the brutal demise of Lorna - yet this adds to an otherworldly canvas which even includes a nude woman and a monkey. 

Friday, February 15, 2019

Tales from Peladon

DOCTOR WHO - THE CURSE OF PELADON (1972)
DOCTOR WHO - THE MONSTER OF PELADON (1974)

Jo, Alpha Centauri and Izlyr discuss affairs of state in the 
fondly remembered THE CURSE OF PELADON.

IN the first serial, the medieval and superstitious planet of Peladon -  led by its young king (David Troughton) - is on the verge of joining the Galactic Federation. High Priest Hepesh (Geoffrey Toone) is opposed, warning that the curse of Aggedor, the Royal Beast of Peladon, will bring doom upon such sacrilege. After the TARDIS gives The Doctor (Jon Pertwee) and Jo (Katy Manning) an ignominious entry, they are taken to the throne room where the delegates are gathered: Alpha Centauri (Stuart Fell, voiced by Ysanne Churchman), Arcturus (Murphy Grumbar, voiced by Terry Bale), together with Lord Izlyr (Alan Bennion) and Ssorg (Sonny Caldinez) of the Ice Warriors. The Doctor is mistaken for the delegate from Earth, and introduces Jo as "Princess Josephine of TARDIS," a neutral royal observer. Exploring the tunnels under the palace, The Doctor runs into Aggedor, a very real creature that can be tamed with a Venusian lullaby. After Hepesh and Arcturus are revealed as saboteurs - and Arcturus is blasted by Ssorg's sonic gun - Hepesh retreats to the tunnels and forms a rebellion.

THE CURSE OF PELADON is a diverse four-parter, mixing monsters and political intrigue with more than a passing nod to the UK being on the brink of joining the EEC after over a decade of negotiations. Playing out within the science versus progress debate, there is also an emotional core of a young monarch yearning for his bride against more pressing duties. The execution of the creatures are a mixed bag, but overall successful in creating real characters behind the masks: Alpha Centauri is a nervous, shuffling phallicesque mass that was instructed by director Lennie Mayne to sound like a gay civil servant, and Arcturus is one of the most bizarre Time Lord adversaries (an abrasive tentacled skull encased in an elaborate survival cell). Aggedor is too small to be threatening, the Royal Beast further undermined by its tepid taming, leaving the Ice Warriors to slowly go about their business as reformed characters.

Terrance Dick's Target novel of THE MONSTER OF PELADON, released in December 1980.

THE CURSE OF PELADON was broadcast during the 1972 UK Miners Strike, which led to many parts of the country undergoing scheduled power cuts. This accounted for a drop in viewers for the last two episodes, and such industrial action inspired the sequel THE MONSTER OF PELADON. Here, a power struggle is in place between Trisilicate miners (sporting Badger hairstyles) and the ruling class, with the workmen calling for improved conditions. Queen Thalira (Nina Thomas) - daughter of the late King Peladon - is sympathetic, but knows her planet is vital to supply the war effort of the Galactic Federation, who are in conflict with Galaxy 5. The Doctor (Pertwee) and Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) arrive at the Citadel, and an apparition of Aggedor has been causing deaths underground. It transpires that human engineer Eckersley (Donald Gee) has created the spirit with the use of a matter projector and heat ray, and is in league with renegade Ice Warriors led by Commander Azaxyr (a returning Alan Bennion), in a plot to seize Trisilicate for Galaxy 5.

Again written by Brian Hayles and helmed by Lennie Mayne, to call THE MONSTER OF PELADON a sequel is overly generous, as it is just a drawn out six-part retread with major liberties. Set fifty years after the first adventure, Alpha Centauri and the real Aggedor are still present, and it seems particularly sloppy to duplicate The Ice Warriors so centrally. But the biggest coincidence is that the mineral Trisilicate - which The Doctor explained in THE CURSE OF PELADON to be exclusive to Mars - is now in such abundance on an alien world. Even Pertwee, in his penultimate serial, seems unenthusiastic, with Sarah Jane left with nothing to do apart from share a limp monologue on women's lib with Thalira and play hostage.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Skeletons in the Closet

NIGHT OF THE EAGLE (1962)
GHOST STORIES (2017)

"Don't see this picture unless you can withstand the emotional shock of a lifetime!;" fresh from THE INNOCENTS, Peter Wyngarde experiences the NIGHT OF THE EAGLE (or in America, BURN, WITCH, BURN!).

THESE two films focus on academics who have to question their sceptic beliefs towards the paranormal. Adapted from Fritz Leiber's 1943 novel Conjure Wife, Sidney Hayer's NIGHT OF THE EAGLE has sociology Professor Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde) discovering that his perfect wife Tansy (big-band singer Janet Blair) is actually a Witch, and has been practising her craft since their honeymoon. Tansy has manipulated Taylor's rising career at Hempnell Medical College, and discovering this, the Professor destroys all of her inventory of magical paraphernalia. Thereafter Taylor suffers a number of sinister situations, one of which is an accusation of "violating" one of his students. It transpires that his path is now being orchestrated by the hostile intent of another faculty wife, Flora Carr (Margaret Johnston), driven by both educational and sexual jealousy.

Fittingly shot in moody monochrome by Reginald Wyer, the movie is underplayed in the tradition of Val Lewton, and possesses a tangible chill. NIGHT OF THE EAGLE is comparable to NIGHT OF THE DEMON in its more adult approach to the uncanny, and Hayers cut large portions of occult and voodoo material from the original script - by Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont and George Baxt - to concentrate on the plight of the Taylors. The Eagle itself - a stone embodiment that rests at the entrance of the school - comes to life with risible results, but it can't take away the fact that Hayer's film is a beautifully played classic of British horror; Wyngarde and Blair convince at every level of their descent, but Johnston steals the show with her permanently off-kilter performance.

"Everything is exactly as it seems;" for GHOST STORIES, horror fans Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman liberally draw from the genre - especially Hideo Nataka's DARK WATER - and even had the set blessed by a Rabbi.

Based on their own Olivier Award-nominated stage show, Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman's GHOST STORIES arrived on a wave of glowing reviews and hype that no film could fully justify. This three-part anthology mashes together Amicus and the BBC GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS strand for old school scares and J-Horror that builds to a hokey finale that undermines its own building premise. Professor Goodman (Nyman) is given a trio of unsolved mysteries by his assumed-deceased idol Charles Cameron: Tony Matthews (Paul Whitehouse) is a night watchman of a disused female correctional facility, haunted by the spirit of a young girl; jittery teenager Simon Rifkind (Alex Lawther) encounters a Satyr in the woods; and country-based stockbroker Mike Preddle (Martin Freeman) is plagued by a poltergeist while awaiting his IVF-induced child.

The performances embrace its emotional tropes of family resentment, belief systems and childhood traumas. Simon's story is the most effective - underpinned by some wonderful black humour (Sooty and Sweep anyone?) - but these powerfully-played themes grate somewhat with its peripheral ghosts and jump scares, and the atmospherically barren landscapes of concrete halls, a daytime pub and an out-of-season caravan park. It's worth a second watch to pick up the easter eggs, but they are not so much Ghost stories as Ghost settings. In conclusion, it contains too odd a mix even for a horror movie, and reeks heavily of Nyman's misdirection and overblown showmanship evident in his association with Derren Brown.

Margaret Johnston in NIGHT OF THE EAGLE. Australia-born to English parentage, the stage and screen actress - also memorable in Amicus' THE PSYCHOPATH - latterly managed an agency with American director husband Albert Parker, whose clients included James Mason, Helen Mirren and Frank Finlay.

The most grounded argument from supernatural skeptics is not so much if ghosts exist, but why the human psyche actually needs them; ultimately it is a longing for comfort, away from the harsh and bleak reality of death. More specifically, the biggest difference in NIGHT OF THE EAGLE and GHOST STORIES handling of their respective Professor's is that Taylor's professional life is manipulated by the constant indignation of females, whether in the name of love - Tandy is even willing to die for him as he has much more to offer the world - or bitterness. Conversely, everything in Goodman's journey is devoid of women; partnerless and childless, he exists in a closed, work-dominated world. Though when Flora Carr sets fire to a pyramid of Tarot cards - the otherworldly equivalent of the character's beloved Bridge evenings - and spits "burn, Witch, burn," Goodman has certainly opted for a less suffocating existence. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The White Male Gaze

DOCTOR WHO - RESOLUTION (2019)

Jodie Whittaker is The 13th Doctor. Her introduction as the Time Lord has been lost amongst endless preaching, the show moving on from what the actress termed "stories being told through a white male gaze." 

WE live in an era of hyper-sensitivity, where everything other than political correctness is greeted with outrage. Now people need 
instant acknowledgement, and all things must be permitted without striving or working for it. There is no middle ground; similar to the ideological stance taken up by the STAR TREK and STAR WARS franchises, DOCTOR WHO now exists in a diversity agenda which has altered its DNA. With such a regimental leftist direction, it is no longer recognisable as DOCTOR WHO, with the adventures of Jodie Whittaker's ditzy, scrunch-faced Doctor akin to the worst fan fiction (the recently concluded series 11 has been scripted by a number of writers with little experience of any genre).

Rightly or wrongly, Steven Moffat built up the Time Lord as God; Chris Chibnall - who had previously refused the showrunner job and turned in a number of disposable episodes for the reboot -  has deflated the programme into a political ideal which cannot work cohesively. As Peter Davison stated about his tenure, three companions are too many; yet here Graham (Bradley Walsh), Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Yaz (Mandip Gill) are not companions but tokens of their ethnicities (even the word "companion" has been phased out, The Doctor preferring "best friends," or "Fam.") The TARDIS may well have a custard cream dispenser, and the 'sonic' is king, but a number of episodes have demonised white males. This has often been by The Doctor herself, reaching its nadir with IT TAKES YOU AWAY, where single fathers are ultimately portrayed as diabolical evil. It's all a sweeping oversimplification, of course, and the seasons most pointed entry - the dawning of civil rights tale ROSA - has a future White Supremacist illustrating Caucasians as a whole.

More Dusty Bin than "junkyard chic," Chris Chibnall's "alien psychopath" Dalek aptly scrapes the bottom of the barrel in DOCTOR WHO - RESOLUTION, which achieved the lowest audience for a festive special since the return of 2005.

In November 2018, rumours circulated that both Chibnall and Whittaker would leave after series 12. With the Christmas Day special moved to New Year's Day, it was then confirmed DOCTOR WHO would not return for over a year. A BBC source to Starburst claimed the new showrunner wasn't happy with the schedule, and Outpost Skaro reported that Chibnall would only carry on if the corporation were able to find his immediate successor. Endless puff-pieces trumpeted the passiveness of The Doctor, with an educational slant closer to the William Hartnell era, but too many social justice warriors forget that it was the introduction of The Daleks that saved the show from early cancellation. Even though Chibnall was adamant no classic monsters would return in his first set, leaks linked the New Year's Day special - RESOLUTION - to The Doctor's most famous foes (possibly because of contractual obligation from the Terry Nation estate). This was confirmed on Christmas Day, as the teaser was played for the first time with an "exterminate!" soundbyte.

What actually materialised starts as an absorbing 'Reconnaissance Dalek' tale. A metal menace scout lands on 9th century Earth, and is eventually defeated and split into three. These pieces of the Dalek in mutant state are buried across the globe by the Order of the Custodians, but the British contingent - in Yorkshire - is killed before reaching his destination. Jumping forward to two contemporary archaeologists - Lin (Charlotte Ritchie) and Mitch (Nikesh Patel) - the strange artifact is brought to life by ultraviolet light, and the squid-like alien uses Lin as a human puppet to create makeshift casing. Although more action-orientated, RESOLUTION soon lapses back into the same grating tropes; UNIT has been deactivated due to budget cuts, and Ryan's absentee father Arran (Daniel Adegboyega) is the latest 'Bad Dad' (not only does a failed bonding scene cut the story dead, Arran is inexplicably shown trying to sell an oven/microwave combo to the cafe owner, which we see more of later). With The Doctor herself a relatively minor character, the highlight is Ritchie's performance as the possessed Lin, and the creepy Kaled itself.