Thursday, December 1, 2011

Die Screaming, Susan George

DIE SCREAMING, MARIANNE (1971)
FRIGHT (1971)
STRAW DOGS (1971)


Susan George was astutely described by Leslie Halliwell as "British leading lady, former child actress; usually typed as sexpot."

1971 was a tough year to be Susan George. The blond, olive-skinned actress made the most of her nymphet/spoiled girl demeanour in a trio of cult films, two of which were cheap exploitation, the other a masterpiece which defined her career. DIE SCREAMING, MARIANNE begins with Marianne 'Hips' McDonald (George) - working as a go-go dancer in Portugal - almost run over by sports car driving tourist Sebastian (Christopher Sandford). Returning to England, Sebastian impulsively proposes marriage, and in a Monty Pythonesque turn of events, Marianne becomes married to best man Eli (Barry Evans) instead. Back in Portugal, Sebastian tells Marianne's disgraced magistrate father (Leo Genn) of her whereabouts; The Judge and Marianne's unhinged half-sister Hildegarde (Judy Huxtable) are willing to kill the dancer unless she reveals a Swiss bank account number containing an inheritance of £700,000 and damning evidence on her father, which Marianne's mother secreted away before dying in mysterious circumstances.

DIE SCREAMING, MARIANNE is an antiseptic mystery thriller which never lives up to its title. The film was a troubled production which was suspended because of frictions between its young cast, according to director Pete Walker, yet screenwriter Murray Smith suggests the problems were more financial. Whatever the reason, the meandering script surprisingly lacks nudity, sex and violence after an appealingly garish opening credits sequence, which sees George gyrating to the theme music in a black bikini against a glowing red backdrop. With its extensive location shooting its all too glossy and respectable to ever create the erotic charge Walker yearned for, though the incestial relationship between The Judge and Hildegarde provides some memorable tensions ("I ought to spank you - only you'd like it.")

"The scream you can hear is your own." The scariest thing about FRIGHT is that the dream sequence from THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES plays on television. This is the cover to Optimum's R2 DVD, released in January 2010. 

One of the first films to explore a babysitter tormented by an escaped psychopath, Peter Collinson's FRIGHT is another dull affair. Amanda (George) is hired as a babysitter for Tara (Tara Collinson, the director's son), the infant of Jim and Helen Lloyd (George Cole and Honor Blackman). But unknown to Amanda, Helen and Jim are not a married couple heading out to celebrate their anniversary, but are going to meet a psychologist to discuss Helen’s husband Brian (Ian Bannen), who has been placed in an asylum. Back at the house, Amanda is harassed by would-be boyfriend Chris (Dennis Waterman), and spooked by various noises. When she finds Chris battered unconscious, in her panic she lets in an apparently friendly neighbour. But that person is in fact Brian, who has escaped from custody.

Amanda is a plucky heroine, paving the way for the multitude of final girls to come, and Tudor Gates' script deals with a good many plot elements that would become staples of the bludgeoning slasher genre: the beleaguered babysitter, the boyfriend playing pranks and/or pestering the heroine for sex, the friendly neighbour/visitor who may not be what they seem, phone cords cut et al. Yet it all feels too dated; 'Nanette' sings a tepid song (Ladybird) over the opening titles, Waterman is embarrassing in pink flares and cardigan ("Oi reckon you've got a lovely pair of Bristols"), and Bannen overacts to a point of parody (in his Video Watchdog review, Charlie Largent is more lenient, likening his growls to Karloff while referencing SON OF FRANKENSTEIN). The film also has the most ineffective police force you're ever likely to see, and it is amusing to note that the Constable is played by Roger Lloyd ('Trigger') Pack.

George in STRAW DOGS. Sam Peckinpah's Westcountry Western was accused of glamouring rape and glorifying misogynistic sadism. 

Cast on the strength of these minor outings, George gives an extraordinary performance as Amy in Sam Peckinpah's STRAW DOGS. The film exists at the heart of Amy's world, a rural West of England of which her and American mathematician husband David (Dustin Hoffman) have relocated. The couple soon realise that his intellect and her girl next door image cause resentment, factors festering with the couple's own marital problems. In the final act, David runs over suspected paedophile Henry (an uncredited David Warner) and takes him home, unaware that he has broken the neck of a flirtatious teenager. When the girl's drunken father (Peter Vaughan) discovers that the couple are hiding Henry, a whiskey-fuelled posses besiege David and Amy's abode of Trencher's Farm.

Shot by John Coquillon - who similarly gave us a tableaux of rural English violence for WITCHFINDER GENERAL - STRAW DOGS is a draining experience. The notorious double rape sequence is still troublesome, particularly because of its ambiguity: after initially resisting her first assailant - former boyfriend Charlie Venner (Del Henney) - Amy appears sympathetic toward him, seemingly on the grounds of their past relationship during her formative years. During the climactic pitched battle - which includes a shotgun blast to the father's foot and Venner dispatched in the giant jaws of an antique poachers trap - David becomes as bestial as the raiders, and loves it. David's regression - or progression? - to feral state defending his home feeds Peckinpah's career-long blood lust. The director had read books by Robert Ardrey, who hypothesised that man's voracious appetite for violence is not the product of environment or childhood trauma as Marx or Freud believed, but pure instinctual drives, creating a murderous ape who fashions ever more sophisticated weaponry to satisfy a desire for control of territory. It is this need for territory, not women, that subscribes most to Peckinpah's oeuvre, and the climactic chaos leaves Amy suitably abandoned at film's end.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Terrors Below and Above

X THE UNKNOWN (1956)
QUATERMASS 2 (1957)

Fuelled on the then-current fears of radioactivity,
X THE UNKNOWN is Quatermass without the nuances.

IN the wake of THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT's success, Hammer approached the mentor of their breakthrough picture - Nigel Kneale - for permission to use the Quatermass character in a sequel. When Kneale refused ("I said 'No, you can't - it's mine' - they were funny people"), the company progressed with the Leslie Norman-directed X THE UNKNOWN, from an original screenplay by Jimmy Sangster. The film begins with a sudden appearance of what seems to be a volcanic fissure in military manoeuvre grounds. When a soldier, then a young boy, die of first-degree radiation burns, Dr Adam Royston (Dean Jagger) - a scientist working on a radio signal capable of neutralising bombs  - investigates. Collaborating with McGill (Leo McKern), a representative for Atomic Security, Royston surmises that the opening has unleashed a mass of energy from the centre of the Earth, a sentient being that has fed off natural radiation for millions of years.

X THE UNKNOWN is a sombre slice of 50's Hammer, which uses its premise of internal horrors primarily for budgetary reasons - at least the studio wouldn't have to build expensive sets and spaceships. Royston is no Quatermass, and the sloppish movement of the titular creature (which, when finally glimpsed, looks like chocolate mousse) mimics the film's lack of thrills. Impervious to "Machine gun bullets! Dynamite! Flame Throwers!," this combination of radiation and molten crust is often mentioned in the same breath as the more famous BLOB which followed a year later, yet the latter was an extraterrestrial mineral, and X, in fact, shares more in common with particle masses CALTIKI THE IMMORTAL MONSTER and THE H-MAN, which both surfaced in 1959. Where X THE UNKNOWN does deliver is with its special effects; the disintegrating radiographer - where Phil Leakey placed a heating element in a plastic skull housing a wax mask of actor Neil Hallett - is still a show-stopper.

A stylish French poster for QUATERMASS 2 makes the paramilitary zombie guards centre stage.

When Hammer did return with Quatermass at the helm a year later, the result - in contrast - was one of the finest science fiction films produced by a British studio. Val Guest's QUATERMASS 2 sees metallic meteorites rain down on Winnerden Flats, a town near a highly guarded chemical plant. Professor Quatermass (Brian Donlevy) is startled to discover that contact with the shells causes deadly infection, and that the facilities - supposedly producing synthetic food - appear to be modelled on his own aborted moonbase design. Quatermass uncovers a sinister conspiracy that extends to Government level, and has to battle zombie-like guards who will stop at nothing to protect the top secret complex. With the aid of old friend Inspector Lomax (John Longden), the Professor discovers that the plant is in fact housing an alien invasion, and that gestalt creatures have been arriving inside the meteorites.

Britain's answer to INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, QUATERMASS 2 drips with postwar paranoia. Scripted by Kneale (from his 1955 BBC teleplay) and Guest, the film is as urgently paced as the alien takeover (the actors even indulge in "cue biting"). Kneale was always critical of Donlevy's brutish approach to the beloved scientist, but the actor's forcefulness here actually works with the rapidly unfolding horrors and realisations, especially when the Professor commandeers a guard uniform to infiltrate the plant. This insurrection culminates in a memorable pressure control room scene, where oxygen is being pumped to kill the alien manifestation in the plant domes. When workers venture out to talk to their "superiors," they are murdered and their body parts stuffed into the pipes to impede the oxygen flow, an action, as Jonathan Rigby states in his book English Gothic, is "as grotesque an image of capitalist exploitation as can be imagined."

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Escape from the Asylum

GHOST STORY (1974)
KILLER'S MOON (1978)

Even though GHOST STORY won Best Picture at the Sitges and Paris Film Festivals, it was never released theatrically, languishing on late-night TV before resurfacing on home video a decade later under the title MADHOUSE MANSION (to avoid confusion with Peter Straub's best-selling novel Ghost Story, which was filmed in 1981).

STEPHEN Weeks' GHOST STORY and Alan Birkinshaw's KILLER'S MOON are two films that feature Droog-like asylum escapees, but in very different styles. M.R. James meets P.G. Woodhouse in GHOST STORY, where three mismatched ex-university chaps are haunted in a stately house. Weeks' slow-burning chiller is set in 1930s England, where McFayden (Murray Melvin) invites former college associates Duller (Vivian Mackerell) and Talbot (Larry Dann) to spend a few days at his recently inherited isolated mansion. McFayden eventually reveals rumours that the house is haunted and it is the sensible Talbot - rather than spiritualist Duller - who becomes susceptible to a demonic antique doll and a supernatural gateway which shows Robert (Leigh Lawson) incarcerate his sister Sophy (Marianne Faithfull) in a nearby asylum for incestuous desires. The institution is run by Dr Borden (Anthony Bate) and Matron (Barbara Shelley), and when Sophy's former servant Miss Rennie (Penelope Keith) attempts to free her, the inmates (all played with relish by members of a hippy commune) accidentally escape and run riot.

Tired of behind-the-scenes complications on I, MONSTER (1971) and GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT (1972), Weeks co-wrote, produced and directed the picture under his own "Stephen Weeks Company," so he would have full artistic control. Shooting most of the film in South India gives GHOST STORY a fittingly otherworldly detachment, where the colonial architecture and sun-baked locations act as a backdrop to an exaggerated, dream-state Englishness which is further enhanced by its time-lapping narrative and an atmospheric, experimental score by Pink Floyd collaborator Ron Geesin. The performances are all first rate, especially a post-Rolling Stones Faithfull - who arrived five weeks late on the shoot with her heroin-dealing boyfriend in tow - perfectly cast as the doomed innocent, and GHOST STORY can also boast the only major role of the late Mackerell, Bruce Robinson's inspiration for WITHNAIL AND I. Unsurprisingly, the actor talks like Richard E. Grant, and you can hear traces of Withnail in his indignation at being served a jam sandwich.  

Imagine a film fused with the backwoods sleaze of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, CARRY ON CAMPING, Linda Hayden's sister Jane, and a shot of the old ultra-violence, you would arrive at KILLER'S MOON.

In comparison, KILLER'S MOON is a notorious, badly misconceived slice of Britsploitation. A coach populated by the kind of people who only would appear in 1970s British films - a driver from ON THE BUSES, prim and proper school teachers, and a group of school girls all played by actresses in their twenties - are on their way to a singing contest in Edinburgh when their vehicle brakes down on a backwoods country road. A local groundskeeper leads them to a hotel where they can spend the night, run by Mrs May (Hilda Braid). The bus driver (comedian Chubby Oates) isn’t so lucky, as he meets four men as he goes back to sleep on his stranded vehicle: Mr Smith (Nigel Gregory), Mr Muldoon (Paul Rattee), Mr Jones (Peter Spraggon), and Mr Trubshaw (David Jackson), escaped mental patients in an induced LSD-addled state who are convinced they are living a shared dream in which they are free to rape and murder.

Exactly why this LSD state is good therapy for the escapees is one of the film's many mysteries. In fact, it is difficult to conclude what is the most unbelievable element: is it the fact that the film actually enjoyed a theatrical release after being granted an uncut X certificate by the BBFC, or is it the debacle was co-scripted by Birkinshaw's sister Fay Weldon, who goes uncredited. Or is it the crass dialogue, which includes "All men want to kill their mothers - isn't that what they say?" and "Look, you were only raped. As long as you don't tell anyone about it, you'll be alright." Fittingly for such a demented release, Hannah - a three-legged Doberman Pinscher - gives the best performance. Supposedly attacked by the escapees at the beginning, in reality the dog was awarded the canine V.C. in 1974 for defending her master in an armed robbery - during which she was shot and had to have a leg amputated. Hannah's bravery hit the headlines when her owner - the landlord of the Cheeky Chappie public house in Brixton - was held at gun-point after closing time.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Weird Science

I, MONSTER (1971)
THE ASPHYX (1973)

The performance of Christopher Lee is the highlight of Milton Subotsky's take on the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde story, I, MONSTER.

AMICUS'S I, MONSTER and Glendale's THE ASPHYX are two stylistically-shot early-70s releases which not only centre around warped experiments, but also attempt to adhere to the ever-distinguishing genre of the horror period drama. Set in 1906, I, MONSTER tells of Dr Charles Marlowe (Christopher Lee), a psychologist who rejects the findings of Freud and develops a more immediate treatment which uses character-modifying drugs. Marlowe confides in his solicitor Utterson (Peter Cushing) and friend Dr Lanyon (Richard Hurndall) that his experiments are causing changes in his patients, and rather than continue to subject them to unpredictability, decides to use himself as the test. In the early stages, Marlowe/Blake commits theft and vandalism, but as his addiction increases, his actions escalate to a street knife fight and to the brutal murder of a prostitute.

I, MONSTER was directed by Stephen Weeks on the recommendation of Lee, after the actor had seen the filmmaker's WWI trench warfare featurette for Tigon, 1917 (1970). Weeks only directed four films between 1971 and 1984, yet he demonstrated a visual flair in projects with a fantastic and historical backbone that made him comparable to the much-lamented Michael Reeves (the Utterton's dream sequence is memorable here). In his feature-length article on Amicus in Little Shoppe of Horrors #20 (published in 2008), Philip Nutman is extremely dismissive of Week's filmography, calling GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT (1973) "disappointing and muddled," the dream-like cult favourite GHOST STORY (1974) "painful and dull," and SWORD OF THE VALIANT (1984) "truly wretched." Closer to the truth is that the filmmaker suffered numerous distribution problems and behind-the-scenes tinkering on his films. Week's trails with I, MONSTER included a particularly cumbersome Milton Subotsky script ("I was coming home from - oh, some place at the end of the world") and the folly of abandoning an experimental 3D process during shooting (which Subotsky championed after reading an article in New Scientist). 

In THE ASPHYX, Robert Stephens and Robert Powell are enthralled then repelled by imp-like banshees and cursed immortality.

THE ASPHYX is set in 1875, where Sir Hugo Cunningham (Robert Stephens) returns from a trip with his fiancee Anna (Fiona Webster), and informs his children Christina (Jane Lapotaire), Clive (Ralph Arliss) and adopted son Giles (Robert Powell) that he will soon remarry. A photographic specialist, Sir Hugo shows a series of slides to a psychic investigation committee, which show smudges that he believes illustrates the spirit leaving the body at the point of death. One afternoon, Sir Hugo captures on film the deaths of Clive and Anna in a boating accident, which footage shows a black presence which he terms The Asphyx - a Greek mythological term for the spirit of the dead. Stricken with grief, Sir Hugo becomes obsessed in capturing his own Asphyx so he can become immortal, and when Giles asks for his blessing to wed Christina, Sir Hugo withholds his approval until they too agree to become immortal. Things spiral out of control when Christina is accidentally decapitated, and Giles commits suicide in a gas chamber during their Asphyx-inducing stagings.

THE ASPHYX is a truly sumptuous-looking production, a rich canvas brought to live by LAWRENCE OF ARABIA veterans Freddie Young (photography), John Stoll (art direction) and director Peter Newbrook (who acted as second unit cameraman on David Lean's film). The production design envelops a wonderful premise, yet this ashen-faced tale - very loosely based on the exploits of Parisian gynecologist-cum-neurologist Hippolyte Baraduc - falls short by presenting a series of absurdities. Mainly, we have the implausibility of Sir Hugo not only being a photography and psychic phenomena expert, he also invented the motion picture camera (with zoom lens no less) and seems to master electricity for his Asphyx-turn on a home-made electric chair. After uttering the wonderful line "Bring me a guinea pig," the critter remains Sir Hugo's only friend in the aftermath, despite inadvertently setting in motion Christina's demise by chewing through a crucial rubber pipe. The Asphyx itself is portrayed as a rather risible, shrieking, rod-puppet, and Sir Hugo's rubber mask makeup in the film's contemporary climax - which tidies an opening car crash sequence - is horrendous for the wrong reasons.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Two from Tigon

ZETA ONE (1970)
THE BEAST IN THE CELLAR (1970)

ZETA ONE even manages to make strip poker with Yutte Stensgaard boring. The Danish au pair/model had a versatile association with British pop culture: she auditioned for the part of DOCTOR WHO companion Jo Grant, appeared as the hostess on THE GOLDEN SHOT, and is most famous for her role as Mircalla / Carmilla Karnstein in Hammer's LUST FOR A VAMPIRE.

FOUNDED by Tony Tenser in 1966, Tigon released a wide range of films - from sexploitation to an acclaimed adaptation of August Strindberg's MISS JULIE (1971) starring Helen Mirren - but were most famous for making WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968) and BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW (1971). These two films, however, represent Tigon at its worst. ZETA ONE sees secretary Ann Olsen (Yutte Stensgaard) learning that Special Agent James Word (Robin Hawdon) is investigating Public Enemy Number 1, Major Bourdon (James Robertson Justice). Attractive young women are being abducted from Earth and brainwashed into serving space queen Zeta (Dawn Addams) from Angvia (typically, an anagram of vagina). Word is given the task of protecting Edwina (Wendy Lingham), a stripper who is to be the next kidnap victim, though she is actually working for Bourdon. With the assistance of the inept Swyne (Charles Hawtrey, in a role intended for Frankie Howerd), Bourdon is planning to be the new ruler of this race of scantily clad super women. However, Olsen is another Angvian trying to stop Word from thwarting their unexplained plans.

Described by Films & Filming as "A piece of science fiction pornography," ZETA ONE is a kitsch, one-dimensional romp through the fifth dimension. Based on the swinging sixties London-published Zeta - a magazine which contained captioned photo-stories of naked girls in the name of sci-fi - ZETA ONE opens with a numbingly long strip poker sequence, where after Word and Olson jump into bed and the not so Special Agent narrates the story of his investigation. By the time director Michael Cort had run out of his meagre £60,000 budget, he barely had sixty minutes of footage, and this scene was one of many tweaks to a film that Tenser tried to salvage. The production was an unhappy one, filming in an uncompleted Camden complex where dressing rooms and offices would remain only partially operational. Robertson Justice and Hawtrey seem tired and embarrassed as they await their pay cheques, and the climax - where the aliens, lead by Atropos (Valerie Leon), annihilate a group of hunters by a zap sound effect from their fingertips - brings new meaning to artistic license.

A delightfully misrepresentative German DVD cover for the drab THE BEAST IN THE CELLAR. The appearance of the military at the top of the design - who are key to the plot - seems like an afterthought.

Written and directed by James Kelly, THE BEAST IN THE CELLAR at once reveals its punchline rather than use its more intriguing, original title ARE YOU DYING, YOUNG MAN?. Joyce (Flora Robson) and Ellie (Beryl Reid) are two elderly sisters living in an isolated, rural family house. Murders of soldiers at a nearby base are initially blamed on an animal ("a leopard in Lancashire?"), but the culprit turns out to be the spinsters' brother Stephen (Dafydd Havard), who was walled-up in the cellar before WWII to prevent his enlisting and ending up shell-shocked and disfigured like their WWI father. After continually escaping from his confinement, Stephen appears in his taloned-Neanderthal form to haunt his siblings in a thunderstorm-set climax.

THE BEAST IN THE CELLAR was the first Tigon picture to be shot at Pinewood, yet there is no scope in this static, talkative production; even a 'sex in the barn' scene delivers nothing of interest. The anti-war allegory undoubtedly still resonates, but is ultimately lost amidst the endless regurgitation of dialogue - celery is a particular talking point - which are infrequently interrupted by jarring, quickly edited murder scenes with minor flashes of blood. Publicity was unsurprisingly milked to try to gather some interest (UK trade ads even tried to associate the film to the Edgar Allan Poe quote "and much of madness, and more of sin, and of horror the soul of the plot"), but to no avail. Robson and Reid give stoic performances more associated to the stage, and Robson apparently only took the part after a chance train meeting with Laurence Olivier, who persuaded her to take the offer of work.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Don't Go In The House

THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973)

THE INNOCENTS child star Pamela Franklin plays spiritualist Florence Tanner. The Yokohama-born actress was busy with the supernatural in the early 1970s - appearing in NECROMANCY and the made-for-TV SATAN'S SCHOOL FOR GIRLS - before retiring from acting in 1981.

PHYSICIST Dr Barrett (Clive Revill) is offered £100,000 by elderly Mr Deutsch (Roland Culver) to establish "the facts" about survival after death. The only suitable location for such an undertaking is the foreboding Belasco House, dubbed the "Mount Everest of haunted houses." Barrett is given a week to deliver his conclusions, organising the delivery of his newly perfected (and extremely bulky) electro-magnetic radiation machine, and works alongside mental medium Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin) and Ben Fischer (Roddy McDowall), a physical medium and the only survivor of a previous investigation. The owner of the property was "Roaring Giant" Emeric Belasco, a six-foot-five perverted millionaire who disappeared soon after a massacre at the house. Florence claims to receive visits from Belasco's abused son Daniel, and when Barrett expresses scepticism he is attacked by - in quick succession - a glass, a flying meat rack and a falling chandelier, then a fire starts suddenly. Meanwhile, Barrett's wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt) - accompanying her husband during his stay - is turning into a nymphomaniac, and Florence is being molested by the disturbed spirit of Daniel and later, mauled by a black cat.

THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE beat THE EXORCIST into theatres by six months, and both deal with demonic possession in tandem with sexual language. However, the British entry plays like a children's horror movie, with one of the most laughable endings in genre history: basically, Emeric Belasco was no giant. Scripted by Richard Matheson from his novel Hell House (1971), the writer was apparently "sick with disappointment" after seeing the film, a notion shared by the majority of its audience over the years. At least half of its performers bring something to the table: Franklin takes the acting honours despite the ludicrous situations her character is thrust into, and McDowall entertainingly sleep-walks through his role as the distant Fischer. In comparison, Revill makes for a staid and stuffy scientist - one can only dream of Peter Cushing in the role - and Hunnicutt is miscast as the faithful yet sexually-frustrated wife, who at least can experience some kind of carnal pleasures while in the grip of the Belasco environment.

The cover to Saint Martin's reprinting of Hell House. More graphic and sexually violent than the screen adaptation, the novel also depicts the Belasco property as a luxurious art deco-style palace - complete with swimming-pool and ballroom - rather than the cobwebbed Gothic mansion of the film.

Crowleyesque Emeric apparently shut himself and his acolytes within the mansion ("Look at the windows...he had them bricked up so no one could see in...or out"), the house a haven for murder and debauchery ("Drug addiction, alcoholism, sadism, bestiality, mutilation, murder, vampirism, necrophilia, cannibalism... not to mention a gamut of sexual goodies.") In one unintentionally hilarious scene, sexually-souped Ann approaches Fischer with a sweaty verbal onslaught after rubbing the breasts of a statue ("Together, naked, drunk, clutching, sweating, biting...") Perhaps it was Matheson's intention to subscribe to Crowley's beliefs, and portray a set of individuals with differing viewpoints to illustrate that the only unifying human condition is sensual and sado-erotic pleasure, and to test what is physically and spiritually possible. Barrett is a rationalist who refuses to believe that Tanner and Fischer are anything more than conduits for electrical forces, the two mediums differ over the exact nature of the haunting, and Ann yearns for awakening. 

The film has a misplaced feeling through its not always convincing time-frame captions, and the week of the investigations takes place in the lead up to Christmas, without any mention of the holiday season. This otherworldly quality is enhanced by BBC Radiophonic Workshop veterans Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson’s electronic soundtrack, which exists more as a series of drum-driven oscillations than a formed score, and its distinctive visual style was recently plundered by Edgar Wright for his fake trailer DON'T! in GRINDHOUSE (2007). The special effects though are hardly special, resulting in a ectoplasm scene that has to hide behind some scientific hyperbole (“Premature retraction of ectoplasm causes systemic shock”) and one gets the impression that Matheson and director John Hough think they are making some important statements, though this is hard to see behind its shock tactics and silly sex scenes. This serious stance is underpinned by the opening written assurance from Tom Corbett - a "clairvoyant and psychic consultant to European Royalty" who also acted as technical advisor - to the effect that the story, though fictitious, is "not only very much within the bounds of possibility, but could well be true."

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Beneath the Skin

THE CREEPING FLESH (1973)

Peter Cushing plays man of science Emmanuel Hildern, whose good intentions lead him to disaster, professionally and personally. Once again Cushing delivers a performance that not only saves the film, but offers a poignant parallel to the recent real-life loss of his wife. 

A joint Tigon/World Film Services feature, THE CREEPING FLESH - directed by Freddie Francis - is clearly Hammer-Victorian, though largely shot on redressed sets from Amicus's THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1970). The film has gathered momentum over the years as one of the few period piece British horror classics of the 1970s, yet the storyline - which has to thread together waring half-brothers, a family mental disorder, curing evil through science, an escaped lunatic, and a skeleton which grows back its flesh when in contact with water - is too disparate to create a cohesive whole. Despite fittingly juggling Victorian obsessions of palaeontology and psychology, this overly ambitious mix makes the film needlessly sluggish and the ending - despite its playful twist - leaves a monster roaming for a sequel that never came.

Revealed in flashback, Anthropologist Emmanuel Hildern (Peter Cushing) returns from New Guinea with a giant skeleton. His daughter, Penelope (Lorna Heilbron), has been waiting anxiously for his return, unaware that the mother she believed long-dead has in fact only just died in a mental institution run by her father’s cold and calculating half-brother James (Christopher Lee). Working on the relic - believed to be the legendary Shish Kang, the Evil One - Hildern and assistant Waterlow (George Benson) conclude that evil is a disease of the blood, and that the skeleton may hold the key to a vaccine. Hildern is startled to find that the skeleton’s tissue can regenerate when touched by water, and is certain that its reconstituted blood can create an immunity from evil. He injects his daughter with a serum to stop her being afflicted with the madness that drove his wife Marguerite (Jenny Runacre) insane, but instead it turns Penelope into a psychopathic killer. James grows jealous of Emmanuel's work, stealing his research papers and the bones; but when his coach crashes during a storm, the skeleton develops into humanoid form.
 
By 1973, the world had moved on from Hammer Gothic. Yet THE CREEPING FLESH embraces it, with mixed results.

Cushing and Lee (top-billed for a second-string role) are unsurprisingly the highlight. Emmanuel's eroding mental stability is expertly portrayed by Cushing, expressing tender protectiveness of his innocent daughter and the grief of a widower, to the stern focus of a scientist on the brink of a major discovery. Lee is in his element as the scheming head of the asylum, showing no compassion for the inmates and using them as guinea pigs in his quest for the Richter Prize (“Unfortunately, in the state of society as it exists today, we are not permitted to experiment on human beings. Normal human beings.”) Dauntingly cast alongside Cushing and Lee, Heilbron consistently holds her screen presence, transforming from a repressed young woman to a leering, murdering seductress. Also, Kenneth J.Warren gives a sympathetic performances as the escaped mental patient, Lenny. The scene where a crazed Penelope gleefully sends him to his death - after the escapee acknowledges her as a potential companion - is shocking and saddening.

The unevenness of THE CREEPING FLESH mirrors the haphazard directorial career of Francis, in stark contrast to his illustrious credits as a cinematographer. In the director's chair, Francis worked almost exclusively in horror, struggling to stretch low budgets to accommodate overambitious screenplays (on his apparent typecasting as a genre director, Francis said, "horror films have liked me more than I have liked horror films.") At least Francis enjoyed some familiar faces behind the scenes here, including photographer Norman Warwick, editor Oswald Hafenrichter - who worked on arguably Francis's finest hour, THE SKULL (1965) - and make-up artist Roy Ashton. In fact, a further nod to THE SKULL is the use of the same camera trick of shooting through the eye-sockets of the creature, but the Evil One is more bloody that the earlier example. He made numerous workmanlike pictures for Hammer and Amicus, but usually managed to infuse his assignments with stylish bursts of visual energy. Particularly memorable in this feature is the monster's huge shadow, slowly creeping up and covering the house.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Ripping Yarns

A STUDY IN TERROR (1966)
HANDS OF THE RIPPER (1971)

Jack the Ripper suspect Walter Sickert's 1907 oil on canvas Mornington Crescent Nude, which hangs in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Since the Whitechapel murders of 1888, the few facts of the case have been put aside for the sake of sensationalism and stupidity; in 2001, novelist Patricia Cornwell destroyed some of Sickert's art in her quest to unveil the Ripper's identity.

JACK the Ripper will forever cast his (or her) shadow. Countless films and television programmes have exploited a mythology rooted in one of the first examples of tabloid journalism. Plot devices are often conjured out of thin air for dramatic gain, though the firm facts are so slim that any form of adaptation will shroud it in thick, London fog. A common misconception is that the killer was a Royal surgeon who wore a top hat and cape, and carried a large black bag of shiny surgical instruments. The Sir William Gull/Coachman Netley/Royal conspiracy has its origins in a 1970 article in The Criminologist, before this notion gained momentum in a 1973 BBC documentary which directly inspired Stephen Knight's best-selling The Final Solution (1976). Despite chief protagonist Gull being a physician and never practised as a surgeon - or indeed being a Freemason - the threads of this ripping yarn were nevertheless woven into a 1988 television serial starring Michael Caine, and the Alan Moore/Eddie Campbell graphic novel From Hell (1988 - 98). In reality, the only detailed description of the murderer said the Ripper had "the appearance of a sailor," and actual evidence is limited to the murder of five prostitutes within one square mile of Whitechapel between 31st August and the 9th November 1888.

Some of the more amusing suspects have included Charles Lutwidge Dodgson - the real name of author Lewis Carroll - and Lord Randolph Churchill - the father of Sir Winston. Carroll was thought to have had an unhealthy fixation with virginal purity, though it is unclear why this would have made him a viable suspect, and Churchill seems to be mentioned only because his political career was cut short by a fatal bout of neurosyphilis. American crime writer Patricia Cornwell handily "staked her reputation" by naming British artist and long-standing Ripper suspect Walter Sickert as Jack. The novelist bought 31 of Sickert's works, and claimed that some of his canvases' contain visual references to the crimes; according to Cornwall, Sickert was turned into a killer by a defective penis. Cornwell also claimed a letter written by the killer had the same watermark as some of Sickert's writing paper. There were hundreds of letters from different people falsely claiming to be the murderer, and the watermark in question was on a brand of stationery that was widely available at the time. So much for Cornwell using the title Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper - Case Closed for her 2002 book.

Starlets on display in A STUDY OF TERROR include Edina Ronay as Mary Kelly and Barbara Windsor as a comedic Annie Chapman.

When Compton exploitation producers Michael Klinger and Tony Tenser - together Henry E. Lester, executor of the Arthur Conan Doyle estate and head of Sir Nigel Films - touched on the idea of divorcing Sherlock Holmes from his usual canon of literature to forge a fresh new career in features, James Hill's A STUDY IN TERROR sees a youthful and athletic Holmes (John Neville) investigate the Whitechapel murders. However, the desire to downplay the Ripper aspects and re-establish Holmes and Watson as series characters never took off in a decade of James Bond's and Derek Flint's. Drawn into the investigation when he receives a case of surgical instruments through the post - minus a scalpel - Holmes is lead to the estate of the Osbourne family and the medical mission of Dr Murray (Anthony Quayle). Unravelling the mystery, Holmes and Watson (Donald Houston) are drawn into a tangled web which involves a family feud, blackmail and revenge set against the ongoing slaughter of the East End.

Despite authentic production design and costume, the Whitechapel of A STUDY IN TERROR is that of filmic melodrama and full of prostitutes straight from the 1960s (using the actual names of the victims for the first time on screen). The promise of the film pitting Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's master detective against Saucy Jack is never realised by a script which sees its prime duty as providing a (albeit fictional) solution to the crimes. In a screen career which stretched back to the turn of the century, the casting of the detective was less important here, with Holmes merely a gimmick. The action sequences - where Holmes is equipped with pistol and sword stick - led to Columbia's American ads selling the film under the wing of the then topical BATMAN TV show. Complete with "Pow!," "Biff!" and "Crunch!," Sherlock Holmes was apparently "...the original Caped Crusader."

Eric Porter plays John Pritchard in HANDS OF THE RIPPER. Porter had previously survived Hammer's THE LOST CONTINENT, but was primarily known for his portrayal of tortured solicitor Soames in the BBC's THE FORSYTE SAGA, which won him a BAFTA Best Actor award.

Hammer's HANDS OF THE RIPPER was arguably the studio's finest release of the 1970s, and their first flirtation with Jack since the Exclusive-bannered ROOM TO LET in 1950 (though a third entry, DR JEKYLL & SISTER HYDE, was released two weeks later). Directed by Peter Sasdy, HANDS OF THE RIPPER has a quality of production which contradicts the truth of a company in decline: a lush score, impressive stock sets, and use of real locations and extras provide a fitting stage for a uniformly excellent cast, and even the blood looks real. In a memorable pre-credits sequence set in Berner Street, Whitechapel, a young girl watches as her father is revealed to be a syphilis-scarred man leading a double life as Jack. Anna (Angharad Rees) grows to young womanhood as an orphan, working for a charlatan psychic, Mrs Golding (Dora Bryan). After committing the impaling murder of Golding of which she is not suspected, brusque Dr Pritchard (Eric Porter) - an early practitioner of Freudian psychology - takes Anna home as his ward.

Rees is the antithesis of the usual cleavage-heavy Hammer female lead, her doll-like visage effectively illustrating the innocence behind her curse as the "possessed" spirit of a serial killer. Its an interesting twist on Ripper lore which can be traced back to the "Mad Midwife/Jill the Ripper" theory, which surmised that there was a female covering up a series of botched abortions, a notion quashed by the fact that none of the victims were pregnant. Anna is so fragile the viewer is rendered helplessly sympathetic towards her, despite her acts of grandiose murder (none of which are committed by knife) whenever she becomes entranced by sparkling light: housemaid Dolly (Marjie Lawrence) has her throat slashed by a vanity mirror and left in a bath of blood; Prichard's torso is perforated by a sabre; and in the films standout gore moment, prostitute Long Liz Stride (Lynda Baron) has her face pierced by hatpins. Despite this carnage, HANDS OF THE RIPPER is almost a love story, longer on character relationships and period atmosphere than these exploitative scenes suggest.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Hammer Has Risen From The Grave

WAKE WOOD (2011)

A reworking of W.W. Jacobs’ The Monkey’s Paw (1902) and Stephen King's Pet Sematary (1983), WAKE WOOD also owes debts to the 1973 releases DON'T LOOK NOW and THE WICKER MAN. But despite all these reference points, the film successfully attempts a genuine Hammer rebirth around rebirth motifs.

HAMMER has been in a state of frustration since the 1980s. New beginnings always fizzled into oblivion, including a Warner Bros deal in 1993 which proposed a $100m programme of remakes, a deal with Firstsight Ltd announced at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, and 2003 had a schedule issued by Queensland-based Pictures in Paradise. Then in 2007 it was announced that Dutch media tycoon John De Mol - whose production house invented the BIG BROTHER reality show - had purchased the Hammer rights to over 300 films in the studio's back catalogue, and the company was restarted under the guidance of Simon Oakes. The first output under the new regime was BEYOND THE RAVE - made in conjunction with Channel 4  - which premiered free on myspace in twenty, four-minute segments during 2008. This contemporary vampire serial with blasting techno (selected by dance-music maestro, Pete Tong, innit) and hip street lingo couldn't have been further from expectations.

David Keating's WAKE WOOD was the first of the new Hammer films to be shot, but the last to be released, after Matt Reeves' needless English language version of LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008), LET ME IN (2010), and Antti Jokinen's voyeuristic mis-fire THE RESIDENT (2011). WAKE WOOD tells the story of Patrick (Aidan Gillen) and Louise (Eva Birthistle), who move to the Irish village of Wake Wood after their daughter Alice (Ella Connolly) is killed in a savage dog attack. One night, they stumble upon a ritual led by Arthur (Timothy Spall), and soon learn that the community has the power to bring the recently deceased back to life for three days. The couple desperately want to see Alice again, and so begins the latest ceremony where their daughter is "reborn" via the utilisation of another corpse - a farmer who died in an accident involving a bull - which is systematically pressed, cut, covered in mud and burnt to recreate a suitable husk. 

Arriving in Wake Wood for a fresh start, a young couple become trapped in a tortured existence with their undead daughter. 

Gillen and Birthistle are fine as the grieving parents - Birthistle should be used to menacing minors after THE CHILDREN (2008) - and Spall evidently enjoys his turn as the village elder with nocturnal habits, but it is the wide-eyed Connolly was is the most effective as the dead soul, switching from wholesome child to murderous spawn with relative ease. Made in conjunction with the Irish Film Board and the Swedish Film Institute, WAKE WOOD is a slow-burning and emotionally draining film which draws heavily from past cult favourites. Refreshingly old school with its English eccentricities and grue, this may, however, restrict its modern appeal, and acceptance may be limited to those enveloped in Hammer nostalgia.

During their years of inactivity, many intriguing Hammer projects were mentioned, ranging from Jamaican voodoo film THE WHITE WITCH OF ROSE HALL, epic television anthology THE HAUNTED HOUSE OF HAMMER, and a mini-series based on Peter Norden's Salon Kitty (1970). Yet WAKE WOOD feels like the kind of film "new" Hammer should be making. With any reinvention of such a historic brand, production natures need to be tweaked, but a respect to their heritage is also important. Case in point is the new DOCTOR WHO, which is currently losing its prime time viewers in a whirlwind of riddles and bombastic CGI; it will be interesting to see over the coming years if Oakes will keep the ship away from revenue friendly crowd-pleasers, or commit to earthy releases with one eye on the past.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Pit of History

QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (1967)

One of the best Hammer productions, QUATERMASS AND THE PIT is science fiction just as audacious as 2001, with considerable less pretension. Here the film is being shown in an uneasy double-bill with CIRCUS OF FEAR.

SCIENCE fiction is a genre of ideas, apprehensive about the universe and our role within it; H.G.Wells was obsessed with human insignificance, and George Orwell our capacity for authoritarian evil. Away from the USA-style bug-eyed monsters and space cadets, British SF is sullied by a dark ocean of history and class struggle, yet today we live in a world of perpetual surveillance, apocalyptic pathogens and computer hyperconnectivity which has not only blurred fact and fiction, but eroded boundaries of national identity and personal space (in Fredric Brown’s one-page story Answer (1954), when a new super-computer is asked if there is a God, it replies "Yes, now there is a God.") London, in particular, has suffered at the hands of SF, with differing intellectual richness; DOCTOR WHO featured numerous "creature of the week" alien invasions, and on a more dystopian level totalitarian regimes have been evident in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971) and BRAZIL (1986). More bombastically, American productions LIFEFORCE (1985) found the capital overrun by space vampires, and in REIGN OF FIRE (2002) a hibernating dragon is awakened by construction work on the London underground.

QUATERMASS AND THE PIT is arguably the greatest "London under supernatural siege" picture, and a seminal ideas film. Based on the celebrated Nigel Kneale BBC series, Hammer's version  - directed by Roy Ward Baker from Kneale's screenplay - begins with the discovery of ape men skeletons - rather than dragons - during work at Hobbs End underground station. When a strange metal container is found, it is thought to be a German V2, but this is quashed when Professor Quatermass (Andrew Keir) finds insect creatures inside. He believes that these beings came from Mars five million years ago, and helped humanity to gain racial consciousness. The Martian psychokinetic energy still lies dormant in mankind and the horned insect figures are remembered in human memory as the Devil. Working with Dr Matthew Roney (James Donald) and his assistant Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley), Quatermass uncovers Hobbs End as a hotspot for paranormal disturbances and now - with the full uncovering of the spaceship - the dormant powers become active.

A QUATERMASS AND THE PIT novel was published by Penguin in April 1960, with a cover illustration by the author's brother, Bryan Kneale.

Kneale has always been abrasive of the stealing of his ideas, particularly by DOCTOR WHO. But here the writer borrows from Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1953) - a novel about a race of aliens who resemble the classic image of The Devil - and also Clarke's The Sentinel (1948), a short story which was expanded and modified into 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968). Although the releases are poles apart in budget, both films share a great deal thematically: the impact of alien intelligence upon human evolution and the consequences of that intervention being discovered. But while 2001's alien intelligence is arguably one of teacher and observer, Kneale suggests that Martian genetics are actively malevolent, transferring the Martians own instinct to kill the other into the ape men who they experimented upon. Consequently, the human urge to hate, despise and destroy is explained through the fact that, as is explicitly stated, “We ARE the Martians!”

Kneale's concept of induced human violence is linked with the equally sensational notion that rationalises our conception of haunting and the devil, explaining apparitions ("ghosts... [are] phenomena that were badly observed and wrongly explained") and demonology in one handy revelation. Consequently, QUATERMASS AND THE PIT portrays our layered heritage of old, weird Britain with historical and supernatural clout unlike any other. The film is lensed by Arthur Grant in his trademark muted style, providing a perfect feel for a film so obsessed with bones and ancient mythology. The scenario of unearthing a long-buried evil is addressed with equal zeal in BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW (1970), where a skull is uncovered by a farmer's plough; this artifact turns the young people of a 17th-century village into a cult with a penchant for erotic blood sacrifices. Shooting with an abundance of low camera angles, this amplifies the feeling of being watched by some ancient other.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Planets of Doom

DOCTOR WHO - PLANET OF EVIL (1975)
DOCTOR WHO - THE BRAIN OF MORBIUS (1976)
DOCTOR WHO - THE SEEDS OF DOOM (1976)

The Doctor and Sarah are engulfed by the PLANET OF EVIL.

PRODUCER Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes used many classic horror/science fiction motifs as a springboard for their stories on DOCTOR WHO, creating a greater appreciation of alien concepts and otherworldly environments. PLANET OF EVIL sees The Doctor (Tom Baker) and Sarah (Elisabeth Sladen) arrive on Zeta Minor - a planet "at the very edge of the known universe" - where they discover that a Morestran geological expedition has fallen prey to an unseen killer and only the leader, Professor Sorenson (Frederick Jaeger), remains alive. A military mission from Morestra has also arrived to investigate - at first suspecting the Doctor and Sarah of responsibility - but the culprit is revealed to be a creature from a universe of antimatter, retaliating for the removal by Sorenson of some samples from around a pit that acts as an interface between the two universes.

PLANET OF EVIL is an effective fusing of FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956) and The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), brought to life by a robust performance from Jaeger and Roger Murray-Leach's extraordinary jungle set, a vividly successful illustration of Hinchcliffe's desires to create more believable elseworldsNot only do we have Sorenson as a transforming character, Zeta Minor itself is a living contradiction, as is the unscientific (but suitably dramatic) plot mechanism of matter versus anti-matter. Television sci-fi writers have had a long love affair with anti-matter, which they have used to illustrate that well-known dictum do not tamper. Thankfully, there are usually safety valves between the two states (as in STAR TREK - THE ALTERNATIVE FACTOR (1967)), or a lonely sentinel warning against matter-mixing (SPACE: 1999 - MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (1975)).

THE BRAIN OF MORBIUS features a monster so absurdly weird it challenges Japanese kaiju. Morbius’ brain is eventually encased inside a fish-tank with eye-stalks, on a patchwork body with one arm being a giant lobster claw.

Originally written by Terrance Dicks, THE BRAIN OF MORBIUS was extensively re-written in his absence by Holmes to up the horror quotient and remove the technically challenging notion of a scavenger robot. By Dicks’ chagrined request, the show is given the pseudonymous writing credit "Robin Bland". The final version is a messy mix of Frankenstein (1818) and She (1886) set on Karn, a home world for both The Sisterhood – whose sacred flame produces the elixir of life – and Solon (Philip Madoc) – a mad scientist who is putting together a body for the still-living brain of an executed Time Lord. When the Doctor (Baker) and Sarah (Sladen) arrive, The Sisterhood think they have been sent to steal the last drops of elixir produced by a dying flame, and Solon is after the Doctor’s head to complete his work (though it is left unclear why the scientist doesn’t just use the Doctor’s body rather than the unwieldy mutant he has created).

The ritualistic Sisterhood are laughable with their endless arm-waving, yet the serial’s most ridiculous moment comes when the Doctor solves their extinguishing life-force (“the impossible dream of a thousand alchemists, dripping like tea from an urn”) by removing some soot. Thankfully the scenes with Solon and his Igoresque assistant Condo (Colin Fay) are wonderful galactic Hammer Horror, and the moment where Condo is repeatedly shot predictably caused Mary Whitehouse to stir, claiming the story “contained some of the sickest and most horrific material seen on children’s television.” The graphic nature is indeed memorable, but the lasting talking point is the climactic mind-bending contest between Morbius and the Doctor, mainly because it seemed to contradict WHO lore by indicating that there had been eight previous incarnations before William Hartnell (although an equally viable explanation would have been the faces that appear – which include Hinchcliffe and Holmes in stock costume – where actually Morbius’ former selves).

In THE SEEDS OF DOOM, the humanoid Krynoid suit was recycled from a surviving costume from THE CLAWS OF AXOS, and sprayed green.

Robert Banks Stewart's script for THE SEEDS OF DOOM liberally draws on THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT (1955), THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951), and The Day of the Triffids (1951) for its source material. Two alien seed pods are found buried in the Antarctic permafrost and the Doctor (Baker) realises that they are Krynoids; "I suppose you could call it a galactic weed," begins the Time Lord, "though its deadlier than any weed you know. On most planets the animals eat the vegetation. On planets where the Krynoid gets established, the vegetation eats the animals." After an act of sabotage, one of the pods is delivered to eccentric plant collector Harrison Chase (Tony Beckley) at his English mansion, where assistant Keeler (Mark Jones) is infected. Keeler - whose transformation is accelerated by Chase feeding him raw meat - goes on a rampage, rapidly growing to gigantic proportions before being destroyed by the RAF.

THE SEEDS OF DOOM is a strange Doctor Who because it could be played out without the characters of the Doctor and Sarah (Sladen). Though behind Douglas Camfield's action-orientated direction, the show is easily one of the consistently entertaining Who six-parters. Baker and Sladen often lapse into self-parody, but Beckley is chilling as Chase, portraying a level of Masteresque authority and habit even down to wearing black leather gloves, and it is fun to see John Challis playing a "heavy" like Scorby, far from his future in Peckham for ONLY FOOLS AND HORSES (1981 - 2003). The model work holds up very well, and the various stages of Krynoid transformation are handled with aplomb, but the serial suffers from an antiseptic handling of UNIT and a perplexing final scene; after the TARDIS materialises at the South Pole, Sarah states that the Doctor "...forgot to reprogram the co-ordinates," yet our dynamic duo initially landed at the Antarctic base by helicopter.

This post is dedicated to the memory of Elisabeth Sladen (1/2/1946 - 19/4/2011).

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Virgin of Evil

VIRGIN WITCH (1970)
TOWER OF EVIL (1972)

VIRGIN WITCH's Vicki Michelle would later be best remembered as waitress Yvette in the BBC's WWII catchphrasefest 'ALLO 'ALLO. Unsurprisingly shying away from her schlock past, Vicki can also be glimpsed in QUEEN KONG and THE SENTINEL; she was young, she needed the work.

RAY Austin's VIRGIN WITCH sees two sisters - Christine and Betty (played by real life siblings Ann and Vicki Michelle) run away from home with dreams of fame and fortune in London. This being a 1970's British sexploitation flick, they are promptly picked up by a smooth-talker in a sports car (in this case, Johnny (Keith Buckley)), and swept off to a comfortable flat where opportunity waits around every corner. Christine is hired for a photo shoot by Sybil Waite (Patricia Haines), a predatory lesbian who uses her modeling agency as bait to lure attractive, naïve young women to the pagan coven she acts as high priestess; what Sybil doesn't know is that Christine is gifted with supernatural powers of her own. With Christine arriving at the Wychwold manor house for her assignment - and the innocent Betty in tow - it is soon discovered that the voyeuristic owner of the house, Dr Gerald Amberley (Neil Hallett), is a high priest who is (conveniently) holding a Sabbat that very evening.

VIRGIN WITCH was shot in 1970, but it took two further years to get it into theatres due to problems with the BBFC. The blend of horror and sex was always a problem for the censor, but viewed today it is difficult to understand why such a timid release should be withheld for such a period, particularly as these ingredients were inseparable for British filmmakers at the dawn of the decade. Whereas Hammer’s Karnstein Trilogy was old-fashioned horror spiced up with liberal sprinklings of flesh, VIRGIN WITCH is first and foremost a skinflick, with supernatural and horror elements so ineffectual they scarcely warrant a mention. In fact, the most unnerving thing about the film is that producer “Ralph Solomans” was actually a joint pseudonym for wrestling commentator Kent Walton and Hazel Adair, creator of that zenith of daytime soaps, CROSSROADS.

TOWER OF EVIL's Candace Glendenning has a tough time in this prototype slasher: suspected of a triple murder, her character is actually traumatised because of the Snape Island terror.

Jim O' Connolly's TOWER OF EVIL can boast one of the most delirious plots in British film history. John Gurney (George Colouris) and his son Hamp (Jack Watson) make their way by small boat to Snape, a fog-bound island off the South-West coast of England. On their arrival they discover the mutilated remains of three American teenagers (played with bogus accents by British sex film actors Robin Askwith, John Hammill and Serretta Wilson) before shrieking, naked survivor Penny (Candace Glendenning) knifes John to death and is knocked out by his son. One teen had been killed by a gold Phoenician ceremonial spear, which leads four love tangled archaeologists - Adam (Mark Edward), Rose (Jill Haworth), Dan (Derek Fowlds) and Nora (Anna Palk) - to travel to the island, together with Brent (Bryant Halliday), a private eye intent on clearing Penny's name. As the archaeologists delve deeper into the island, they are attacked by Hamp's demented Neanderthal brother Saul (Frederic Abbot) and his even madder son Michael (Mark McBride); it is claimed that the duo have become unhinged after the death of Saul's "calming influence" wife Martha, whose seaweed-covered, crab-chewed corpse is kept in a rocking chair.

Together with Mario Bava's equally convoluted A BAY OF BLOOD released the previous year, TOWER OF EVIL contains a potent blend of sex, nudity and violence that helped set the template for the American slasher craze yet to happen. Released in the US as HORROR ON SNAPE ISLAND, then reissued as BEYOND THE FOG, this uproarious film also mixes old world Gothic (dark setting, mythical superstition) with a riot of 1970's paraphernalia in its hippie dialogue ("Bravery isn't my bag, man"), psychedelia (Penny's very unorthodox interrogation involves regressive hypnosis induced by disco-lights) and fashion (the use of skin-tight flared jeans leave little to the imagination – and that’s just the men). Ultimately there is something very British in having a dank, foggy island as a hotbed of sexual activity and intrigue, where scrambling crabs over the dead act as a delicious metaphor.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Faking It

SCIENCE REPORT - ALTERNATIVE 3 (1977)
SCREEN ONE - GHOSTWATCH (1992)

Presented and narrated by well-known broadcaster Tim Brinton, ALTERNATIVE 3 purports to be an investigation into the UK's brain drain, uncovering a plan to make the Moon and Mars habitable in the event of an environmental catastrophe on Earth.

IN the 1970s, Anglia Television ran a weekly series called SCIENCE REPORT. The final episode was due to have been broadcast on April 1st, and as the slot was not to be recommissioned, the production team decided to produce a spoof. Written by David Ambrose and directed by Christopher Miles, ALTERNATIVE 3 began by detailing a number of disappearances and deaths of physicists, engineers and astronomers. It was claimed that these people were involved in a secret American/Soviet plan in outer space, and that scientists had determined that the Earth's surface would be unable to support life for much longer due to climate change. In 1957, Dr Carl Gerstein (Richard Marner) proposed that there were three alternatives to this problem; the first was the drastic reduction of humans, the second the construction of vast shelters to house government officials and a cross section of the population, and the third was to populate Mars via the Moon. The programme ends by showing a 1962 landing on the Martian surface; as American and Russian voices celebrate their achievement, something stirs beneath the Martian soil.

Following the grand tradition of CRIMEWATCH and BADGERWATCH, Stephen Volk's GHOSTWATCH involved BBC personnel (hosted by Michael Parkinson, with Mike Smith manning the phones and Sarah Greene and Craig Charles roving reports) performing a live, fake investigation of poltergeist activity. Like the most effective examples, the story centers around family relationships and prepubescent girls, areas which it is felt that the viewer will show attention and compassion. The culprit in this case is a malevolent ghost nicknamed Pipes, from his habit of knocking on the house's plumbing. We also learn that Pipes is the spirit of a psychologically disturbed man, himself believed to have been troubled by the spirit of child killer. In the end, the reporters realise that the transmission itself is acting as a national seance, with the spirits' taking control of the studio and possessing Parkinson. As part of its climatic melee, Greene is sucked into a cupboard and presumed dead, which, at this point, one hopes the programme had been real.

Michael Parkinson adorns the cover of the Radio Times promoting GHOSTWATCH's Halloween night screening. His typically forlorn performance was one of the key elements duping people to be believe the drama was actually showing true, live events.

ALTERNATIVE 3 and GHOSTWATCH illustrate how easily the viewer can be fooled if they are presented in acknowledged formats. Both were fronted by well-known television personalities which instantly lend gravitas, but it is difficult to understand how such a high volume of viewers can be fooled by interviews which are too polished to have been spontaneous, and ignore closing credits which clearly name actors and writers. GHOSTWATCH, in particular, resulted in an outcry of which only the Great British Public could manifest. The BBC were besieged with calls criticising the corporation for the misleading and disturbing nature of the programme, and the ensuing hysteria included the case of Martin Denham - a mental retard so "hypnotised and obsessed" by the show he committed suicide - and a woman who demanded recompense for a pair of jeans because her husband was so terrified he soiled himself. Additionally, a report in the British Medical Journal described two cases of GHOSTWATCH-induced post-traumatic stress disorder in children, the first PTSD caused by television.

The legacies of both programmes are far-reaching. Conspiracy theorists are still feeding and elaborating on the prophetic propositions of Dr Carl Gerstein, and GHOSTWATCH was ahead of its time in the sub-genre of horror vérité, which would break out in everything from THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999), MOST HAUNTED (2002 -10), and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2007). MOST HAUNTED is an interesting faux pas, as after many viewer complaints - usually about "spiritualist medium" Derek Acorah - Ofcom cleared the show of any deception, ruling that the programme was entertainment and not to be taken seriously. Ofcom ruled that it contained "a high degree of showmanship that puts it beyond what we believe to be a generally accepted understanding of what comprises a legitimate investigation".

Monday, March 21, 2011

Hampden House of Horror

HAMMER HOUSE OF HORROR (1980)

The House That Bled To Death is a double-twist shocker featuring a priceless scene where a pipe spurts blood over children at a party. A family move into the dilapidated abode where a man had carved up his wife with an ornamental machete, though the new owners have an Amityville-like agenda of their own.

TELEVISION always served Hammer films well. After all, if it wasn't for the success of their adaptation THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT (1955), it is likely that their vivid re-imaginings of Frankenstein and Dracula would have never been made. By the 1970s, Hammer's usual output of costumed gothique was in its death throes, slices of entertainment that seemed frozen in time. However, the studio's big screen spin-off of ON THE BUSES (1971) was a box-office phenomenon, leading the studio on a comedic vein which included LOVE THY NEIGHBOUR (1973) and MAN ABOUT THE HOUSE (1974). Hammer's attempts to make TV projects of their own resulted in four separate ventures; the series under consideration here was followed by HAMMER HOUSE OF MYSTERY AND SUSPENSE (1984), but earlier projects were TALES OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958) - an abortive pilot starring Anton Diffring - and seventeen episodes of JOURNEY TO THE UNKNOWN (1968).

British horror had largely become past tense from the mid-70s; Tigon's last official release was the Mary Millington sex film COME PLAY WITH ME (1977), and Amicus ceased production after THE PEOPLE THAT TIME FORGOT in 1979, the same year in which Hammer called in the receivers. But two former board members, Brian Lawrence and Roy Skeggs, assumed control and immediately began looking at ways to revitalise the company. Lawrence and Skeggs needed a new base of operations and leased Hampden House in Buckinghamshire - close to Hammer's spiritual home of Bray - to develop a new series for television. A former private house and exclusive Girl's School, the majestic property and surrounding areas are used ad infinitum, and most of the production, including the editing, was overseen there. Assembling their crew, the two men unsurprisingly drafted in a number of former Hammer employees, including directors Peter Sasdy, Alan Gibson and Don Sharp, visual effects man Ian Scoones, and James Bernard scored two stories.

Diana Dors and her brood in Children of the Full Moon, a long way from Oliver Reed and THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF.

Funded by ITC and screened between 13th September and 6th December 1980, the 13 episodes of the HAMMER HOUSE OF HORROR were refreshingly bleak affairs, mixing contemporary horror and titillation in the manner of Norman J. Warren (with Frankenstein and Dracula nowhere in sight). Hampered by meagre budgets, pedestrian scripts and flat direction, the fifty-minute stories are still surprisingly watchable, thanks to their variety of topics - devil worship, time-travelling witches, cannibalism and Nazi pet shop owners - and stars such as Hammer favourites Peter Cushing, John Carson and Robert Urquhart, together with Brian Cox, Jon Finch and Warren Clarke et al (even a young Pierce Brosnan appears as a randy jogger victim, a character so incidental that he's even denied an onscreen death).

HAMMER HOUSE OF HORROR falls into that particular notion lovingly referred to as guilty pleasures. Even the worst entry, Carpathian Eagle, stars Suzanne Danielle as a psychotic seductress/writer who rips out the heart of her victims with a dagger. The best two episodes hold up as memorable slabs of TV horror: The Two Faces of Evil is a dazzling doppelganger yarn with a genuinely jolting prologue, and the delirious The Mask of Satan sees a morgue worker believing he has a disease engineered to bring Satan to Earth. The rest of the output fall somewhere in between; at least Rude Awakening attempts something different in its total abandonment of logic, with adulterous estate agent Denholm Elliott persistently accused of murdering his wife; and VAMPIRE CIRCUS (1971) helmer Robert Young brings some much-needed stylish flourishes to the voodoo-themed Charlie Boy.