Saturday, November 14, 2009

Carry On Hammer

CARRY ON SCREAMING! (1966)

Delicious Fenella Fielding is the highlight in this Hammer pastiche.

AS British as you can get, the CARRY ON series spanned twenty years with hardly a pause for breath. In the process they became a national institution, evolving from typical 1950s comedy fare into the motion picture equivalent of a seaside postcard - saucy, lewd but underlying inoffensive. Each entry featured a well-defined character that rarely altered from film to film; Sid James generally headed the cast as the lecherous old devil, Bernard Bresslaw was his gormless side-kick, Kenneth Williams the camp authority figure, Charles Hawtry the effeminate chap brimmin with enthusiasm, and either Kenneth Conner or Jim Dale as the likable bumbler. From a female perspective, Barbara Windsor was the sex kitten, and Joan Sim played James’ long-suffering wife/girlfriend.

Part of the charm was the strange fantasy world that they created; where else could Windsor be constantly presented as the most desirable woman in the world, and what other set of films would have Bresslaw and Peter Butterworth in drag be mistaken for real woman? By the early 1970s, not only did the CARRY ON’s keep reviving the same “ideas,” they were already popular on television, which itself was churning out re-treads. Considering the fact that audiences could sit and enjoy the same joke over and over in the comfort of their own home, its hardly surprising that the films began to decline in popularity. With the parody of Just Jaekin’s French 1974 soft-core hit CARRY ON EMMANNUELLE (1978), the initial run came to an inglorious end, failing to adapt to the changing tastes of audiences and film distributors - a similar downfall to Hammer.

Delirious Kenneth Williams as zombie mad scientist Dr Orlando Watt.

In fact, Hammer had much in common with the CARRY ON’s; both were made on small budgets by a regular production team, both employed a repertory of actors, and the films were dismissed by the critical establishment for many years. CARRY ON SCREAMING! opens with a suitably daft song, then immediately sets the mood with a shot of a creature walking through a misty wood. The night-time sequences are inevitably filled with fog, a cliché mocked in a scene in which Valeria (Fenella Fielding) is enveloped in a huge cloud after asking if the Sergeant (Harry H. Corbett) minds if she smokes. The film ably captures the lurid Eastmancolor look of Hammer, especially with the laboratory set, in which Watt (Kenneth Williams) memorably cries “Frying tonight!” as victims are plunged into a vat of bubbling wax. Aided by Oddbod (Tom Clegg) and Oddbod Junior (Billy Cornelius), Watt kidnaps young women - virgins, for some reason - and vitrifies them, to be sold as store dummies.

The standout performance belongs to the graceful Fielding as the voluptuous Valeria, a worthy companion to Vampira, Elvira and Morticia Addams, with a striking difference: Valeria wears a blindingly scarlet dress instead of the traditional vampire black. Williams also relishes his role as Watt - animated by regular juicing of electricity - and comes across as a fusion of Peter Cushing and Ernest Thesiger.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

HD Hound from Hell

AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981)
BEWARE THE MOON: REMEMBERING AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (2008)

Nightmares and curses abound in John Landis' horror-comedy.

BLOODIER than the slashers of the time, but was still recognisably a John Landis film, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON follows David (David Naughton)’s gradual realisation of man into wolf. Victims hang in limbo to haunt him; this enables his best friend and travelling companion Jack (Griffin Dunne) to keep him company - despite advancing stages of decomposition - and subsequent victims joyously suggesting ways to kill himself and severe the curse bestowed upon him.

Back in 1981, the film kept audiences (and critics) off-balance with its mix of gore and humour (which does not make the film a comedy). Apart from the show-stopping transformation sequence - which Landis wanted to withstand the scrutiny of a harshly lit set - AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON contains many rending nightmare scenes (and nightmares within nightmares) which add to the quirkiness. It also surprisingly mocks the need for silver bullets, and is not wholly successful in the director’s insistence for a “four-legged hound from hell,” rather than more of a Wolfman. The cumbersome movement of David’s finished state is shown too much, and is only really effective in long shot (such as the tube station murder).

“Have you ever talked to a corpse? Its boring.” Griffin Dunne is at war with his character on and off screen.

But there is no doubt that the movie still packs a considerable punch. The performances are earnest yet sympathetic (though Nurse Price (Jenny Agutter) inviting David to stay at her home seems as abrupt as the jolting jump-cuts), and while it is true that Rob Bottin’s biped werewolves caused a sensation for THE HOWLING (1980), AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON was so completely different in tone that fans had no trouble in embracing both. The rumoured re-make would be an abomination; no CGI could do justice to the intensity and sadness of David’s metamorphoses.

With the film’s arrival on Blu-Ray, the major new draw is Paul Davis’ accompanying documentary BEWARE THE MOON: REMEMBERING AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (2008). Besides Landis and make-up artist Rick Baker’s extensive involvement, almost all the main cast and behind the scenes personnel are interviewed, in particular Dunne, who has much to say about the physical and psychological effects of looking and acting as a corpse. Davis presents the programme from the original locations as they appear today, therefore serving as a great guide to making your own pilgrimage.