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.