Saturday, December 15, 2012

Composite Beings and Zombie Bikers

SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN (1970)
PSYCHOMANIA (1972)

In SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN, two hikers out on the moors are being shot at by Nazi-like soldiers. The female ambler is  played by a pre-LUST FOR A VAMPIRE Yutte Stensgaard, who is subsequently taken to a castle for torture.

BOTH these pictures come from a period in British horror where more outlandish themes were being explored rather than the increasingly dated Hammer Gothics. Gordon Hessler's SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN is a conspiracy thriller like no other, an AIP/Amicus co-production that features a delirious mix of body parts, gallows humour and police pursuits. With the major draw of Vincent Price, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, the film basically is another take on the Frankenstein legend. Opening with a runner collapsing in a London park and finding himself waking in a strange hospital where he's missing a leg, the story weaves its way through three main plot threads: rogue general Konratz (Marshall Jones) murdering his way into power of an unnamed Eastern bloc country; serial vampire rapist Keith (Michael Gothard) preying on young women he picks up in 'happening' nightclubs; and Dr Browning (Vincent Price)'s Composite programme, a plan to infest the world with controllable beings of organic and synthetic tissue.

Based on the 1966 SF novel The Disorientated Man by "Peter Saxon" - in reality a pen name used by W.Howard Baker and Stephen Frances - the film rights were picked up by Milton Subotsky, who turned in his usual old-fashioned treatment which was re-written by Christopher Wicking. The resulting screenplay is remarkably faithful to the book, apart from dropping an alien explanation for a paranoid political message. Price fares best of the top-billed stars, with Lee and Cushing given disposable roles: the former as a government official and the latter as a very disposable military superior. However it is Gothard and Alfred Marks - who apparently ad-libbed much of his dialogue as Inspector Bellaver - who give the most memorable performances. Marks shines in the grand pantheon of disgruntled police inspectors that populate British horror, and in a part described by Jonathan Rigby in English Gothic: a Century of Horror Cinema as resembling "a bionic Mick Jagger", Gothard carries out a very unpleasant alley attack and later there is a celebrated car chase sequence. Its all infectiously ridiculous, capped by a maniacal climactic battle between Browning and Konratz, filled with a vulcan-like shoulder squeeze and hearty swings of a gas cylinder.

John Cameron's score is the highlight of PSYCHOMANIA, essentially a rock soundtrack that achieves the gravitas of a sweeping orchestra.

Don Sharp's PSYCHOMANIA tells of Tom Latham (Nicky Henson), the leader of The Living Dead motorcycle gang, who terrorise the Home Counties and hang around standing stones called The Seven Witches. Tom's mother (Beryl Reid) is a medium aided by butler Shadwell (George Sanders), and there is a mystery surrounding the death of Mr Latham ("Why did my father die in that locked room? Why do you never get any older? And what is the secret of the living dead?") When Tom achieves "the ton," he crashes off a bridge and dies; the gang bury him upright on his bike, and he comes back to life a couple of days later, terrorising the local populace and convincing his gang members that in order to come back from the dead you only have to believe you will. Only Tom’s girlfriend Abby (Mary Larkin) refuses.

PSYCHOMANIA's incoherent and kitsch charm mixes the trademark tranquil eccentricity of British horror with Frog cults and zombie bikers, becoming a metaphor for teen rebellion and anger at the establishment (all the members of The Living Dead want to do is cause trouble and "blow some squares’ minds"). The film was almost universally blasted by critics on release - The Times wrote that PSYCHOMANIA was only fit to be shown at an "SS reunion party" - but today this Benmar production is a guilty pleasure. Like Tom's early exchange with Shadwell, there are more questions than answers: what actually occurred at Tom's birth?; what is the history of the magic room?; who is Shadwell servant to?; and did Mrs Latham's powers turn seven witches into the standing stones? Henson is the lifeblood, but Sanders' bizarre presence has the distinction of seemingly being the film that drove the actor to suicide. Leaving behind an aptly Wildesque note, Sanders wrote "Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck."

Saturday, December 1, 2012

"What a strange evening it is"

A GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS - A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS (1972)
A GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS - LOST HEARTS (1973)

Peter Vaughan plays a treasure hunter stalked by an ancient protector in A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS.

EACH Christmas from 1971 to 1978, the BBC broadcast late night, self-contained supernatural dramas which would become known under the umbrella of A GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS. The first five episodes were all based on stories by M.R. James - THE STALLS OF BARCHESTER, A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS, LOST HEARTS, THE TREASURE OF ABBOT THOMAS and THE ASH TREE. Charles Dickens' THE SIGNALMAN was chosen for the 1976 episode, but the final two installments were original teleplays in contemporary settings: Clive Exton's STIGMA and John Bowen's THE ICE HOUSE. The first seven entries were directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, and the transmissions under consideration here are two of the most fondly remembered and pivotal in the evolution of the series. A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS is a masterpiece and, considering it was broadcast between 11.05 and 11.55pm on Christmas Eve 1972, attracted an astonishing nine million viewers. Because of its critical and public success, all subsequent entries were shifted from General Features to the BBC's Drama department proper, and as Clark has lamented, despite larger budgets, his vision for the tales was suddenly imposed upon by screenwriters and script editors.

A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS tells of Mr Paxton (Peter Vaughan) - a clerk who has lost his job in the great depression - travelling to the East Anglian coast hoping to discover a last surviving Saxon crown, one of three that were put in place to protect England from invasion. Following in the footsteps of an archaeologist who was murdered twelve years previously searching for the crown, Paxton boards in a hotel which only has one other guest, Dr Black (Clive Swift, playing a returning character from THE STALLS OF BARCHESTER). Increasingly haunted by a mysterious figure, which may be the ghost of William Ager whose job was to guard the relics, Paxton actually finds then - with the aid of Dr Black - returns the crown, only to be bludgeoned to death at the point of excavation. Black leaves on a train, with the station guard opening the carriage door under the misapprehension that there was someone wishing to board the same compartment...

LOST HEARTS ghost children Giovanni and Phoebe - played by Christopher Davis and Michelle Foster - peer through windows with their Chinaman's Fingernails, drawing on the age-old fallacy that fingernails continue to grow after death.

Inspired by the bleak open beaches and dreamy isolation of Jonathan Miller's OMNIBUS adaptation of James' 'Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad,' A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS works both as a classic ghost story and as an enduring piece of drama. As David Kerekes notes in Creeping Flesh: The Horror Fantasy Film Book Volume 1, the chilling shot of a man hunched over in Paxton's hotel room predates the finale of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT by close on thirty years, and the sequence where Paxton encounters a machete-bearing farmer is an illustration of how an effectively-staged scene can win over anything effects-laden. What makes Paxton's demise all the more starling is that you feel for a man who just wants to make a name for himself, driven by hurt pride rather than by any malicious intent. Surprisingly, the biggest change from the source story is Paxton himself: far from Vaughan's down-trodden, working-class adventurer, the Paxton of the original tale - first published in 1925 - is young and scholarly, but without personal connection. This leaves another layer to the printed story's undertones of post-WWI invasion and young lives lost.

LOST HEARTS, written by Robin Chapman, is based on one of James' earliest and less subtle tales. In fact, the writer once told his illustrator James McBryde that he "didn't care much about it," and the story was only included in his first collection at the insistence of the publisher. Stephen (Simon Gripps-Kent), a young orphan, is sent to live with his eccentric relative Mr Abney (Joseph O’Conor). Stephen is haunted by the spirits of two children - both orphans like himself who had briefly lived at the house - and learns that Abney dabbles in ritual sacrifice to seek immortality. The ghostly children are wondrous, swaying in unison to ethereal hurdy-gurdy music, but away from the obvious Faustian element there is a child abuse sub-text that won't go away, no matter how often Clark denies this oft-made reading. Instead, the director sees it as a children's fear of monsters and that "[their] father or mother may turn into an ogre or a witch."

Thursday, November 1, 2012

"Analyse a spook?"

DEAD OF NIGHT - THE EXORCISM (1972)
THE STONE TAPE (1972)

Anna Cropper plays Rachel in the DEAD OF NIGHT episode THE EXORCISM. Cropper also appeared in the 1975 West End stage version of the story, after Mary Ure died from an alcohol and barbiturate overdose following a disastrous opening night.

DEAD OF NIGHT was a series of self-contained supernatural stories broadcast on BBC2 in 1972. Taking its name from the Ealing portmanteau film of 1945, this incarnation ran for seven fifty-minute episodes, and only three - THE EXORCISM, RETURN FLIGHT and A WOMAN SOBBING - are known to survive in the BBC archives. RETURN FLIGHT - shown on the 12th of November - is a surprisingly banal and predictable aviation-based story from the pen of Robert Holmes; A WOMAN SOBBING - shown on 17th December - is a solid yarn which greatly benefits from the wide-eyed performance of Anna Massey as a bored housewife and mother who hears a female voice crying from the attic space. The two programmes under consideration here have a fluid association with the series: THE EXORCISM was conceived as a stand-alone work but shown as the DEAD OF NIGHT opener, and THE STONE TAPE was included in the same production block for "internal" reasons, but was broadcast as a singular play on Christmas Day.

THE EXORCISM begins with Edmund (Edward Petherbridge) and his wife Rachel (Anna Cropper) showing Dan (Clive Swift) around their recently renovated cottage. As Dan's partner Margaret (Sylvia Kay) helps prepare Christmas dinner, Rachel plays a clavichord, but realises that she has no idea what the tune is. There is a power cut, and the telephone is also suddenly inoperable. After digesting their meal, all four suffer shooting pain; Dan finds that the door won't open, the windows can't be unlocked, and the outside has been plunged into total blackness. Rachel falls into a trance, and relates the experiences of a woman whose husband was hanged when trying to obtain food for her and their two starving children, while the squire and his family indulged in sumptuous meals. We learn that the wife locked herself and the children in their house and waited to die from starvation, hoping that the house would recall the injustice of their deaths.

After appearing uncredited as a six-year-old child in Hammer's film version of THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT, Jane Asher is reunited with the work of Nigel Kneale in THE STONE TAPE.

Written and directed by Don Taylor, THE EXORCISM is the standout surviving episode of DEAD OF NIGHT, and different in tone to the famous run of ghost stories made by Lawrence Gordon Clark for the BBC in the 70s. Instead of the seeping vistas of M.R. James and Charles Dickens, THE EXORCISM is reminiscent of Luis Buñuel's absurdist 1967 comedy THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL. A socio-political spook story, the programme is highlighted by some choice but resonant dialogue; after Dan surmises that the couples "should concentrate on how to be socialists and rich", he later tells Margaret not to be afraid as they have been privileged. The coda, where a newscaster reports that the four friends have been found dead apparently from starvation, provides a chilling conclusion to a real time, claustrophobic play which has been enhanced by a sparse but solid cast: Swift is particularly suited to his role, and Cropper's performance in her possessed state is alarmingly believable.

THE STONE TAPE has Peter Brock (Michael Bryant), head of Ryan Electrics research, working on a new recording medium. Scientists move into Taskerlands, an old Victorian mansion, that has been renovated to act as their facility. Foreman Roy Collinson (Iain Cuthbertson) says that the refurbishment of one of the rooms remains uncompleted, as builders refuse to work on the grounds that it is haunted. The researchers explore the area and hear the sounds of a woman followed by a scream. Computer programmer Jill Greeley (Jane Asher) - who is susceptible to the paranormal - sees an image of a woman running up the steps in the room and falling, apparently to her death. Inquiring with the local villagers, they learn that a young maid died there, and Brock realises that somehow the stone has preserved an image. Becoming more desperate under mounting pressure to deliver results, Brock wipes the image. Jill realises that the maid was masking a much older recording, and is confronted by a malevolent presence. Transported to a proto-Stonehenge, she falls to her death, with the elder force claiming a replacement for the ghost girl.

The BFI's STONE TAPE DVD of 2001 includes an audio commentary by Nigel Kneale moderated by critic Kim Newman. Containing an array of interesting trivia and asides, Newman states that this programme - however dated in equipment and fashion - remains seminal because it portrays a technological development we are still living through.

Written by Nigel Kneale and directed by Peter Sasdy, THE STONE TAPE is a landmark slice of supernatural television. A central theme in Kneale's stories are conflicts that stem from some primal yearning, effecting the past, present, or future. In fact, THE STONE TAPE can be considered the final part in a trilogy of Kneale tales - together with QUATERMASS AND THE PIT and his lost masterpiece THE ROAD - that refine and counteract the notion of haunting by applying scientific evaluation. It was also one of the first stories to promulgate the hypothesis of residual haunting, that ghosts may be explained as recordings of past events made by the physical environment. Amazingly, this science babble has come to be known as the Stone Tape Theory by parapsychological researchers, and in the 2004 BBC7 Radio Serial Ghost Zone, a character refers explicitly to the theory as an explanation for the way an invading alien intelligence is "replaying" scenes from the past. For what is ostensibly a ghost story, THE STONE TAPE explores the living; how humans interact in such a situation - particularly in relation to business and money - and, if indeed, a human presence is required to amplify the process. This is effectively bought to the screen by an excellent ensemble cast, whose intense performances often border on the melodramatic.

Monday, October 1, 2012

"Who is this who is coming?"

OMNIBUS - WHISTLE AND I'LL COME TO YOU (1968)
A PLEASANT TERROR: THE LIFE AND GHOSTS OF M.R.JAMES (1995)
A GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS - WHISTLE AND I'LL COME TO YOU (2010)


Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936) - provost of King's College, Cambridge, and later Eton - was a medieval scholar, antiquary, expert on Bible apocrypha, and the Father of the Modern Ghost Story. His tales often depict malevolent forces enveloping Edwardian male camaraderie.

SET against backgrounds that are scholastic or ecclesiastic, often apparitions in the fiction of M.R. James are connected with, or evoked by, material objects, such as the bronze whistle from the ruins of a Templars' preceptory in 'Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad' - James' famous short story which was first collected in his Ghost Stories of an Antiquary of 1904 - and the Anglo Saxon crowns that prevent invasion in 'A Warning to the Curious'. In several of his stories there are also hints of bygone Satanism; like the warlock Karswell in 'Casting the Runes', James conjured unfathomable, ancient manifestations into a more rational age. As Tony Earnshaw states in the September 2012 issue of Sight & Sound, "James sets his horrors on the periphery of his protagonists sight and understanding, [thus James] forever changed the face of modern horror with his penchant for fateful inevitability."

Even though James' ghost stories are set within credible historic tableau, they are also classics of psychological terror: his phantasms are presented so vividly and effectively as to evoke physical shock. For the son of a parson - and a lifelong member of the Church of England - his ghosts are surprisingly outlandish, and are described by a precise framing of language that sits to evoke imagination. Kim Newman notes in Fortean Times #292 (September 2012), "his ghosts are hairy, wet-lipped, capriciously violent, smelly, all too tangibly there even when they're unseen." For example, in 'The Tractate Middoth' we meet a spectre with thick cobwebs over its eyes; an unnameable thing in 'The Uncommon Prayer Book' resembles "a great roll of old, shabby, white flannel"; and in 'Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance' there is a form "with a burnt human face" that emerges "with the odious writhings of a wasp creeping out of a rotten apple."

In the 1968 version of WHISTLE AND I'LL COME TO YOU, the mind of Professor Parkin (Michael Hordern) erodes like the subsiding graveyard where his troubles began.

Jonathan Miller's adaptation of 'Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad' for the BBC's OMNIBUS is a seductively slow drama of a man being haunted by his own repressions. Professor Parkin (Michael Horden) - a fussy, absent-minded bachelor from Cambridge - goes on holiday to a small seaside hotel. While walking he finds a graveyard and picks up a whistle lying in the undergrowth. That evening he discerns a Latin inscription on the side of the instrument - "Who is this who is coming?" - and blows the whistle. Next morning over breakfast, he has a pivotal conversation with The Colonel (Ambrose Coghill), where the Professor scoffs at the notion of ghosts. The Colonel replies with a Hamlet quote, "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy," to which the Professor counters, "there are more things in philosophy than there are in heaven and earth." That night Parkin suffers a nightmare in which he is pursued by a shape across the beach, and in the morning the maid queries why both beds in his room appear to have been slept in.

The best visual treatments of James' works are almost silent films, showcasing an elemental struggle that seeps into landscape, character and setting. Miller's work emphasises Parkin as an outsider by showing people conversing by mumbles and snatches of words, as if the viewer is listening to others the way Parkin does because of his years of scholastic solitude. The climax - where the Professor is horrified to see bedclothes rise and attempt to form a shape - leaves a spectral chill while mimicking one's expectations of ghosts under white sheets. It also illustrates the importance of the breakfast conversation, as it is The Colonel who tries to calm Parkins' hysteria and mask the "dangers of intellectual pride" as spoken by Miller's opening narration.

The 2010 version of WHISTLE AND I'LL COME TO YOU - where Parkin (John Hurt) struggles with his materialism - was a refreshingly austere inclusion to the Christmas TV schedule.

Directed by Andy de Emmony and written by Neil Cross, the 2010 version relocates the story from Suffolk to the West Country coast. Inexplicably replacing the whistle with an encrypted ring, this time Parkin (John Hurt) is a married man but tormented by his wife Alice (Gemma Jones)'s dementia ("a body that has outlasted the existence of the personality: more horrifying than any spook or ghoul.") After placing her into a nursing home, Parkin - a "scientist" - is riddled with guilt, and embarks on a walking holiday. Before long he is seeing a shrouded figure on the beach, and being kept awake at night by increasingly disturbing sounds. Similar to Miller's version, de Emmony is not concerned with dialogue; menacing rattles fill a sparse sound scape, as isolation of loss is explored, rather than the isolation of an unattached academic. It is a relentlessly desolate adaptation, offering no hope and no afterlife: "There is nothing inside us" Parkin states, "there are no ghosts in these machines. Man is matter, and matter rots."

In December 1995, Anglia TV broadcast the fifty-minute A PLEASANT TERROR: THE LIFE AND GHOSTS OF M.R.JAMES. This astonishingly insightful documentary is part talking heads and part dramatisation, and attempts to address two key questions: if James viewed his prose largely as entertainments - which started as readings to pupils and friends - why do they resonate so deeply; and was there an occurrence in the author's personal life that influenced such an educated man to look beyond this world. Interviewees include Christopher Lee - who clearly speaks from the heart of his affection for the tales - and Jonathan Miller - who surmises that James' tactile descriptions provide a universal air of dread. Although the programme uncomfortably detours into James' sexuality at the half-way mark, we soon reach the real meat: the events described in 'A Vignette', which was first published in a November 1936 edition of The London Mercury. This short "confessional" piece was written shortly before his death, and hints at an unnerving experience in James' childhood.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Hammer Rides Out

THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (1968)
TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER (1976)

"The Goat of Mendes! The Devil Himself!" Eddie Powell dons the monster suit for Hammer's  THE DEVIL RIDES OUT.

TERENCE Fisher's THE DEVIL RIDES OUT is based on Dennis Wheatley's pot-boiling 1934 novel, and benefits from a Richard Matheson script which surgically cuts the fat from the author's most famous - but sprawling - work. It is also the most sumptuous-looking Hammer film produced by the studio after their move from Bray to Elstree. Set in 1920s London, Nicholas, the Duc de Richleau (Christopher Lee) and Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene, dubbed by Patrick Allen) decide to pay a visit to Simon (Patrick Mower), the son of a late comrade. The duo find him hosting a gathering of The Left Hand Path, and under the influence of satanic priest Mocata (Charles Gray), Simon escapes. Consequently, our heroes must seek out the mysterious Tanith (Nike Arrighi) - the daughter of a French countess - who is destined to join their friend at a satanic ritual. When de Richleau and Van Ryn rescue the seemingly doomed pair, Mocata sends his supernatural forces to obtain those promised to him.

Aleister Crowley served as technical adviser to Wheatley's book, and THE DEVIL RIDES OUT illustrates a series of genuine arcana. Ceremonial details, allegiances to nineteenth century magician Eliphas Levi and dialogue (the Susamma ritual is not Matheson but the actual incantation) are all clearly Crowleyesque in tone. A penny-dreadful villain in the novel, Gray's Mocata is the living incarnation of what Fisher often described as "the charm of evil." His central battle of wills with Lee as de Richleau are perfectly played, and the casting of Arrighi is also noteworthy, as her quirky beauty is suited to a role for a woman seeking spiritual awakening. But even with these strengths, the film was not the box office success Hammer had hoped, and packs less dread today when viewed outside of the cycle of satanic movies that would sweep through cinema until the mid-1970s. Particularly detrimental are the crude special effects, and the orgy that presages The Goat of Mendes is too tame to seem even remotely diabolical.

Christopher Lee and Nastassja Kinski in TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER. A tour de force for Lee, even Astaroth's effigy - a crucified bat in the source novel but a spread-legged hermaphrodite mounted on an inverted black cross in the film - befits Dracula.

Crowley's mandate to bring the Devil's offspring to Earth was channelled into his 1929 work Moonchild. This inspired a 1953 Wheatley novel that acts as the springboard for TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER, the last Classic Era Hammer Horror. The film tells of excommunicated Father Michael Rainer (Lee), who is head of a cult which rears innocent minors in a closed Catholic convent to serve Astaroth. One of his charges - Catherine Beddows (Nastassja Kinski) - has been chosen to reign as the Devil's representative on Earth when she comes of age ("she's some sort of nun!"). Catherine's haunted father Henry (Denholm Elliott) enlists occult author John Verney (Richard Widmark) - an obvious Wheatley alter ego - as the girl's temporary guardian, and with the aid of his agent Anna (Honor Blackman) and her gallery-owner boyfriend David (Anthony Valentine), aim to halt Rainer's plans.

Directed by Peter Sykes, TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER was afforded the largest budget for any Classic Era Hammer film, but it was a troubled production. Widmark allegedly punched an electrician on set and considered the subject matter distasteful and beneath him; Christopher Wicking's typically anarchic script was constantly being rewritten by THE DUELLISTS scribe Gerald Vaughn-Hughes; and stuntman Eddie Powell suffered burns when set on fire for David's church-bound demise. There was also controversy surrounding Kinski, the scandalous teenage lover of Roman Polanski at the time; her naked cavorting in the final scenes - as the actress was born in 1961 - made them highly illegal. Even the money shot - when Catherine presses the bloodied demon child into her womb - exists only to adhere to EXORCIST-style shock tactics. Equally disappointing is the notoriously flat ending: in the original rough cut, an alternate conclusion saw Catherine return to the Bavarian convent to perpetuate the evil of Father Michael, but all we get is Verney halting the wave of evil by throwing a rock at Rainer's head.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Science Shock

THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE (1961)
THE PROJECTED MAN (1966)
SATURN 3 (1980)

Janet Munro sizzles in THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE. Daughter of Scottish stage and variety hall comedian Alex Munro, the actress outgrew her Walt Disney beginnings by moving onto spicier roles. An acute alcoholic, Janet died in 1972 - aged 38 - under mysterious circumstances. Reports circulated that she choked to death at a London hotel while drinking tea.

PRODUCED, directed and co-written by Val Guest, THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE is successful both as a thought-provoking science fiction film and a prescient piece of entertainment. Daily Express reporter Peter Stenning (Edward Judd) is assigned by science editor Bill Maguire (Leo McKern) to investigate inexplicable weather conditions occurring around the globe. Stenning learns that the United States and Russia have simultaneously detonated atomic bombs at opposite poles, altering the tilt of the Earth's axis. However, authorities have withheld the fact that the explosions have caused the Earth to be knocked out of its orbit and on a collision coarse with the Sun. As world nations descend into hysteria, only one desperate course of action can save mankind: further nuclear explosions to restore the planet's equilibrium.

THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE is a compelling example of the morbid brand of science fiction typified by British studios. Our insular, island mentality, together with loss of empire and decreasing national identity, ultimately creates strands that are inherently sceptical of progress. Released less than a year before the Cuban Missile Crisis, the film still resonates not only because the dystopian scenes of a fog-bound then sweltering London are so haunting (with water rationing and public showers), it also plays out within an authentic environment: dialogue is polished and snappy, the love between Stenning and Jeannie Craig (Janet Munro) is sincere, and most of the scenes are set within the actual Daily Express offices in Fleet Street. Adding to this authenticity is that the newspaper's general editor Arthur Christiansen plays the same role on screen as well as being technical advisor.

"No human being could survive a time transition of that kind. Not without fearful consequences!" Science predictably goes astray in THE PROJECTED MAN.

Ian Curteis' THE PROJECTED MAN is a lesser slice of British sci-fi because it follows American-style sensationalism and chauvinism. Professor Steiner (Bryant Haliday) and his research team of Chris Mitchell (Ronald Allen) and Dr Patricia Hill (Mary Peach) are working to invent a teleporting “Projecting Machine.” Against a backdrop of corporate obstinacy and sabotage, Steiner experiments on himself to save his research, but is repaid for his actions by disfigurement and a touch that can kill with 500,000 volts. THE PROJECTED MAN originated from a Hollywood script by Frank Quattrocchi in the late 1950s, before finally surfacing as this joint Protelco/Compton production. Consequently it has the heart of an old-fashioned mad scientist movie, but Haliday makes Steiner an appealing driven character. The supporting cast fare less well, especially nominal hero Allen, who sleepwalks through his role in preparation for his similarity comatose seventeen year stint as David Hunter in CROSSROADS.

Made by ITC and Transcontinental, Stanley Donen's SATURN 3 is an uneasy fusion of Frankenstein and DEMON SEED, and again questions the validity of a world that can become increasingly manipulated by science. A triumph of production design over content, the film begins with psychotic Captain Benson (Harvey Keitel, dubbed by Roy Dotrice) travelling to an experimental food research station during a twenty-two day eclipse and communications black-out called 'Shadow Lock'. Benson provides "assistance" to two scientists working to alleviate a famine on our overpopulated and polluted Earth; Major Adam (Kirk Douglas) and his younger romantic partner Alex (Farrah Fawcett) are wary of their visitor, especially when he reveals the form of help he has bought to speed up their research: a colossal, Demi-God class humanoid robot named Hector, who can pattern his personality on the direct input he receives from human beings. Repeatedly denied sexual contact by Alex, the Captain becomes more demanding and agitated, with these tendencies cascading into Hector.
 
Farrah Fawcett's black leather ensemble appeared in a fantasy sequence deleted from most versions of the much-maligned sci-fi thriller SATURN 3; yet the costume is central to this original Thai poster design.

SATURN 3 can never elevate itself above its randy robot plot - "Trapped between unnatural love and inhuman desire" - even though it re-purposes the story of Adam and Eve. The Captain is the serpent in this technological upgrade, as he attempts to infiltrate Adam and Alex's blissful relationship ("You have a great body, may I use it?"), and continues by telling the pair that when Hector is finished, one of them will be "obsolete". Douglas delivers a gutsy portrayal of a man past his prime, particularly evident when his naked arse is on display in a tussle with the Captain; Keitel looks surprised that he has somehow found himself in a B-grade science fiction opus; and message boards have queried if Fawcett's vacant facade means that she is actually a robot sex slave. Referred to as "space girl," Alex's "plaything" scenes with Adam make for an uncomfortable watch, and even though her character has an admittedly sketchy background, such BLADE RUNNEResque gravitas is unlikely because Fawcett's acting style has always been emotionally detached.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Contemporary Time Lord

DOCTOR WHO - THE GREEN DEATH (1973)
DOCTOR WHO - DEATH TO THE DALEKS (1974)

THE GREEN DEATH is primarily recalled as 'the one with the maggots.' In certain scenes, these phallic creatures were actually condoms.

CLASSIC-era DOCTOR WHO was successful combining tales of adventure with a subtle critique of contemporary issues. In THE DALEK INVASION OF EARTH, Terry Nation capitalised on wartime memories by depicting the Time Lord's most famous foes as space Nazis. The Doctor's other chief nemesis, the Cybermen, arrived in THE TENTH PLANET reflecting anxieties about organ replacement, cosmetic surgery and medical technology. And in THE CURSE OF PELADON, a backward planet's attempt to join a Galactic Federation would have been easy to decode for the pros and cons of Britain's membership of the EEC. It is, however, THE GREEN DEATH which lodges most in the memory with its ecological awareness, as The Doctor (John Pertwee) and assistant Jo Grant (Katy Manning) battle mutated insects and giant, man-eating maggots created by toxic waste in the Welsh mining village of Llanfairfach. The villains are Global Chemicals - whose director has been taken over by BOSS, a computer with a will of its own - and the heroes are environmentalists.

As well as the memorable monsters and political undertones, THE GREEN DEATH is also remembered as Jo's farewell show, after she falls in love with Professor Jones (Stewart Bevan) and decides to leave UNIT to accompany him up the Amazon. Welsh viewers may not be too impressed by their portrayal (who say “Boyo” and “Blodwyn” and indulge in clichéd banter about rugby) but the parting between the Doctor and Jo is genuinely sad, and like watching a break-up unfold on national television (“So the fledgling flies the coop”). Pertwee and Manning are at their best here - speaking in hushed, barely audible voices – and you can tell that both actors were emotionally moved when shooting this scene. The final few images of The Doctor downing his drink and leaving the party before driving off in Bessie packs more raw sentiment than anything in the blitzkrieg tradition of the modern-era show.

The Doctor and Bellal (Arnold Yarrow) explore the corridors of the Exxilon city in DEATH TO THE DALEKS. The duo have to pass a series of deadly tests, including using 'Venusian hopscotch' on one particular obstacle.

1970s Britain was a decade of strikes - postal workers, miners, dustmen - and mirroring this backdrop of institutional collapse was the first episode of Nation's DEATH TO THE DALEKS. Broadcast five days before the General Election defeat of Edward Health, amid the power cuts of the three-day week, there is something particularly resonant about a tale of the Time Lord being set on a planet drained of all power. The TARDIS arrives on Exxilon, where all electrical energy has been interrupted by an unknown force. The Doctor (Pertwee) meets an Earth Marine expedition, who tell him that the planet is rich in Parrinium, the antidote for a plague that is sweeping the galaxy. The Doctor's assistant Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) has seen a white beacon, and is captured by a group of savage Exxilons, who take her to their cave to be sacrificed for defiling their city. A group of Daleks land on the planet, also eager for the Parrinium, but their weapons are rendered useless by the drain. The Doctor and the expedition enter an uneasy alliance with the Daleks against the Exxilons, but the Daleks develop mechanical firepower and plan to take all of the Parrinium for themselves.

This four part serial is one of the quirkiest of all Dalek tales - in one scene the Dalek's use a model TARDIS as target practice - and a vast improvement on Nation's tendency to regurgitate the same old plot devices. The central concept of a city as a living, maintaining organism is fascinating; with the once-advanced Exxilon race giving the sentient structure a brain, it had no need of those who had created it. Subsequently, the Exxilons have reverted to the level of a Stone Age tribe, worshipping the city as their governing deity. Unfortunately, the model work when this piece of alien architecture disintegrates is excruciating, as is the incidental music which accompanies sequences of Dalek movement. Additionally, two of DEATH TO THE DALEKS' three cliffhanger endings are not cliffhangers at all: at the finale of the first episode, the proposed punchline of the Dalek's inoperative weapons is evident before the credits roll, and the third episode ends inexplicably on a red and white patterned floor.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

"God is Dead"

THE BUNKER (2001)
DEATHWATCH (2002)

THE BUNKER is rich in flashbacks but low on chills.

ONE of the most popular sub-genres of horror is the supernatural war scenario, particularly if German zombies are involved. A precursor to Nazisploitation, THE FROZEN DEAD resurrected members of the Third Reich by attaching their severed heads to new bodies; spirits of an SS torture ship haunted DEATH SHIP; goggle-wearing undead rose from the depths in SHOCK WAVES; German soldiers killed by the French Resistance were dumped in a ZOMBIE LAKE; and in the recent DEAD SNOW, a group of Norwegian students battle Nazi zombies in search for hidden gold. One of the strongest entries in this category is the previously reviewed OUTPOST, where mercenaries explore a bunker once used by Nazis to conduct experiments on reality manipulation and reanimation. The two horror-war hybrids under consideration here are less sensationalist that these previous films, made by first-time directors and both hampered by flat scripts.

Rob Green's THE BUNKER is set on the German-Belgian border during the death throes of WWII, where German soldiers on the run from swiftly advancing Americans seek refuge in a munitions complex. The Nazi troops - who include intensely devoted Schenke (Andrew Tiernan) and reluctant Captain Baumann (Jason Flemyng) - discover that the bunker is attached to an incomplete series of tunnels. The original tenants warn against venturing into the maze, which is supposedly haunted by Jewish workers killed for refusing to finish their work. Living up to its opening Nietzsche quote "If you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you," THE BUNKER is a tediously dull affair. The endless, edgy anguish of the infantrymen - who share a guilty secret that in itself is driving them mad - builds to a payoff which never arrives. Fans of war or horror cinema will feel let down by the distinct lack of violence or gore, though the opening sprint for safety is accompanied by a chilling sound design of bullets travelling through air and flesh. Ultimately it is difficult to view any film where seven German soldiers are all played by actors with a range of British accents.

The trench of DEATHWATCH act as a metaphor of reanimated evil, regurgitating its warring factions.

The British/German co-production DEATHWATCH - shot almost entirely on location in a field in Prague - is by far the stronger of the two films. After the chaos of a battle on the Western Front, 1917, the British soldiers of Y Company find themselves enveloped by a mysterious mist; lost and without communication, they emerge to discover a deserted German trench. Convinced they have broken through enemy lines, they decide to secure the rat-infested network and begin to explore it – only to find mutilated bodies amongst the warren of muddy tunnels. After the rest of the men lose their minds under the influence of supernatural forces and bleeding mud, the underage volunteer of the group enters a hole which suggests that the preceding events are hallucinations of a dying brain.

Director Michael J. Bassett conjures unsettling images such as undead mud-men and corpses covered in barbed wire, and with its constant, rain-soaked pestilence - one character has his gangrenous legs eaten by rats - DEATHWATCH is a sobering reminder of real-life horrors that action-heavy combat movies blind us to. Although the performances are suitably stoic, the narrative is negated by too many character cliches: the underage conscript Private Charlie Shakespeare (Jamie Bell, the BILLY ELLIOT star who was almost blown up during production), the class war evoked by Captain Jennings (Laurence Fox), the thoughtful but sympathetic Sargeant Tate (Hugo Speer), religious fanatic Bradford (Hugh O'Conor) and psychotic Quinn (Andy Serkis in typically scene-devouring mode). As grim as the First World War undoubtedly was, the most horrific moment comes when Starinski (Kris Marshal - light years from his role in MY FAMILY and the BT ads) - masturbates in an isolated part of the trench over some picture cards.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Kiss of Dracula

THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE (1963)
KISS OF EVIL (1966)
COUNTESS DRACULA (1971)

Isobel Black as Tania in THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE. Her first feature, the actress shifts effortlessly between beguiling and malevolence and, as Tim Lucas notes in his Video Watchdog review, "is never shown biting anyone out of hunger, but rather to indulge a childlike, yet severe, streak of sadism."

DON Sharp's THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE is a Hammer vampire film without Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee, but well worth investing your time. Shot with a colourful Gothic angle by Alan Hume, the film is set in an isolated area of Bavaria, 1910. Honeymoon couple the Harcourts - Gerald (Edward de Souza) and Marianne (Jennifer Daniel) - experience car trouble and are forced to stay in the unfortunately named Grand Hotel, whose only other guest is reclusive alcoholic Professor Zimmer (Clifford Evans). Doctor Ravna (Noel Willman) - owner of the chateau that sits imposingly above the locale - invites them to dinner and their association with his seemingly charming family grow. When the pair attend a masked ball, however, they discover that Ravna is the head of a vampire cult. Zimmer performs a ceremony known as the Corpus Diabolo Levitum which forces "evil to destroy itself"; with the ritual taking the form of a swarm of vampire bats (apparently props purchased from Slough and Maidenhead branches of Woolworths), they smother Ravna and his gowned disciples.

THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE develops themes from Terence Fisher's magisterial BRIDES OF DRACULA. Teenage cult member Tania (Isobel Black) imitates Greta from the earlier film by trying to coax a newly buried initiate from the grave; Zimmer extrudes a bite similar to Cushing's branding iron scene; and Anthony Hinds' script also explores vampirism as a social disease/order. Additionally, there are direct transfers from dropped BRIDE sequences: Zimmer interrupting his own daughter's funeral to throw a spade through the coffin lid, and the climactic bat attack (a scene vetoed by Cushing on the grounds that Van Helsing would never evoke evil himself). But Sharp's film has attractions of its own, notably Black's performance: in one scene, Tania tears open the shirt of our hero, scoring her fingernails down his chest, upon which our quick-thinking leading man smears the blood in the form of a crucifix. Another memorable element has a hypnotised Marianne actually spitting in her husband's face.

Ingrid Pitt and Sandor Eles star in Hammer's dramatisation of the Elizabeth Bathory legend, COUNTESS DRACULA.

Released with the tag line "Shocking! - Horrifying! - Macabre!" THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE was less so when NBC acquired the film from Universal in 1966. Considered too brazen for television viewing as the film stood, most of the quirky erotica - and Zimmer's pre-credits shovel scene - was cut and replaced by specially shot footage in Los Angeles by Irving J. Moore, a director who would become synonymous with episodes of DALLAS and DYNASTY. Now titled KISS OF EVIL, these new, bland insertions - totalling around fifteen minutes to fill a two hour slot - tell of a local couple whose teenage daughter rebels when they attempt to prevent her attending the masked ball. The most interesting thing about the TV version is the casting: the mother is played by Virginia Gregg, who gained fame by voicing Mrs Bates in PSYCHO, while the daughter is portrayed by Sheilah Wells, once flatmate of Sharon Tate.

COUNTESS DRACULA is Hammer's pedestrian take on the legend of Elizabeth Báthory, a countess of Hungarian nobility who allegedly killed and bathed in the blood of young virgins to retain her beauty. Made by two Hungarian émigrés working in England: producer Alexander Paal and director Peter Sasdy, the film tells of Countess Elisabeth Nádasdy (a robust but dubbed Ingrid Pitt), who discovers that her youth and libido can be temporarily restored if she bathes in the blood of young, virgin women. Her steward and lover Captain Dobi (Nigel Green) kidnaps and murders local girls, whilst she pursues Imre Toth (Sandor Eles), a young solder. As a cover for her crimes while in her rejuvenated state she takes the identity of her own daughter, a plan that is complicated when her actual daughter Ilona (Lesley-Anne Down) returns home. Despite Báthory's blood-drenched legacy, the production is more historical drama/fairy tale, as Jeremy Paul's script focuses on the aging, widowed Countess. The handsome sets and costumes - inherited from ANNE OF A THOUSAND DAYS - give the film a splendid tableaux, but Sasdy's theme of the disintegrating family unit was much more successful in TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Mindscape of the Comic Gods

THE MINDSCAPE OF ALAN MOORE (2003)
GRANT MORRISON: TALKING WITH GODS (2010)

On his fortieth birthday, writer Alan Moore turned to magic.

DEZ Vylenz's THE MINDSCAPE OF ALAN MOORE consists of a seventy-eight minute monologue in which comic writer and magus Alan Moore talks about his life, career and beliefs from his sitting room. Vylenz illustrates Moore's profound words with comic images, recreations, animation and shots of Northampton, and with no testimonials from others, the documentary is an intimate yet dense affair. The subject evaluates changes in communication and fame - lamenting the one-hit wonders who burn out and feed the press - and also the importance of acknowledging self, at one point questioning if drugs, alcohol, TV et al are in fact desperate attempts to shy away from such responsibilities. Ultimately, Moore wallows towards a rudderless world driven by multiplying strands of information: "in the beginning was the word."

Moore has introduced human grime - yet high emotion - into the graphic medium. Grant Morrison - "the rock star of comics" - has created the opposite, celebrating superheroes and imposing a forceful sentientality. GRANT MORRISON: TALKING WITH GODS - directed by Patrick Meany, the author of Our Sentence is Up, which examined Morrison's The Invisibles - takes an in depth look at the mind of the man behind such pivotal titles as We3, Final Crisis and All Star Superman. Here, we have a more rounded piece than Vylenz's, as we are introduced to an array of writers, artists, and other eccentric characters from Morrison's world. An infinitely imaginative creator and explorer of consciousness, Morrison possesses a humbleness that keeps him from treading into pretentiousness. In an alarming sequence, Morrison reveals previously little known details about the origins of his ongoing feud with Moore: allegedly, Glasgow's infant terrible approached Northampton's most famous resident with permission to take over the Marvelman strip in Warrior, only to receive a Mafia-like missive.

Since assuming control over Batman in 2007, Grant Morrison has orchestrated the Caped Crusader's demise in Batman R.I.P., charted the exploits of replacements Dick Grayson and Damian Wayne in Batman & Robin, mapped the Return of Bruce Wayne, and developed the Dark Knight ethos globally in Batman Incorporated.

From his early years as an isolated youth to his anarchic adulthood, GRANT MORRISON: TALKING WITH GODS flows beautifully, as the subject recalls how circumstance have affected himself and his works. He tells of spying on missile silos as a boy with his father, and being brought out into the night by his mother, shown a distant star and told, with no explanation, that that is where his family came from. What is most amazing about Morrison is how he has harnessed all the chaos in his life and moulded it into productive, creative energy. Turning to magic at a young age in order to gain some sense of influence, Morrison was always open to unconventional ways of living. It was when Arkham Asylum became a breakthrough hit on the back of Tim Burton's BATMAN that he finally had the monetary means of exploring sex and drugs at every worldly stop (“to see how close I could get to the complete and systematic derangement of the senses.")

Warren Ellis - who contributes some hilarious anecdotes to the documentary - describes Morrison perfectly, as a pragmatist: he simply identifies the things that work for him, and continues using them. Critical and commercial triumphs have allowed him a flamboyant lifestyle of travel, substance experimentation, cross-dressing and fetishism (Morrison lovingly recalls the Silver Age Flash to sport "the best boots ever.") In his book Supergods: Our World in the Age of the Superhero, Morrison states that the 1966 Flash story 'The Flash Stakes His Life on - You!' is seminal in his mindset of blurring borders between fiction and non-fiction. While he has been branded a space case in some circles, his well-documented eccentricities have added to a personal mystique that complements his impressive - if sometimes near-impenetrable - body of non-linear storytelling.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Loudun Calling (Part II of II)

THE DEVILS (1971) DVD release
AMELIA AND THE ANGEL (1958)

The BFI's DVD of Ken Russell's THE DEVILS is a strong contender for home video release of the year. The fact that the film remains controversial today is a remarkable tribute to the conviction of Russell and his creative acolytes.

AS the British Board of Film Classification celebrates its 100th year, it is fitting that the subject of one of its most volatile battles - Ken Russell's fearsome masterpiece THE DEVILS - was released as a 2-disc BFI DVD on the 19th of March. In this set, the BFI give us the original British X cut, and not the restored and extended 2004 version that has been seen at a handful of film festivals. The second disc of extras include Paul Joyce's 2002 documentary HELL ON EARTH, DIRECTOR OF THE DEVILS - featuring candid Russell interviews and unique footage of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies recording his score - and an audio commentary with Russell, critic Mark Kermode, editor Mike Bradsell and Joyce. For those wondering how this DVD includes HELL ON EARTH - which contained the missing "Rape of Christ" footage from the film, yet not include it in the feature itself – the part of the documentary containing the notorious sequence has also been excised by the powers that be at Warner Brothers.

The "Rape of Christ" - running just over two minutes - was long presumed lost until Kermode discovered the fabled footage in a single canister of film in England. This Holy Grail of censored material also contained other cuts, including Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave) performing lewd acts with a charred bone from Father Grandier (Oliver Reed)'s remains. The "Rape of Christ" segment itself sees Sister Catherine (Catherine Willmer) tearing and burning pages from the Bible while Sister Agnes (Judith Paris) frantically strokes a giant candle between her thighs. Naked nuns then abuse Christ as Father Mignon (Murray Melvin) scales a ladder and pleasures himself overlooking the orgy (here cinematographer David Watkin essentially creates a jerk-off zoom, as the camera darts in and out of the carnal activity to the rhythm of Mignon's strokes). This is all shown with repeated cuts of Grandier giving a solitary Communion, unaware of the pandemonium taking place within the walls of Loudun.

Mercedes Quadros - nine-year-old daughter of the Uruguayan ambassador to London - plays Amelia in Russell's AMELIA AND THE ANGEL.

The story of THE DEVILS is one that tells of battles not just with the censor, but also with the studio. Any film with a toxic mix of religion and politics would be a target for unrest, especially when originating from an increasingly conservative American financier (for the United States, it is rumoured that Warners ordered Bradsell to remove every nipple and pubic hair). After Russell showed his cut to the BBFC, the board couldn't release the film intact on grounds that "It would have been subject to the Obscene Publications Act," even though they aired no reservations when they were presented with the shooting script. As stated in Joyce's absorbing - though re-edited - companion piece, not including the "Rape of Christ" rips the spine from THE DEVILS, as this scene is integral to the narrative both dramatically and philosophically: the debauchery shows the exploitative level of which the authorities aimed to achieve, reducing the easily manipulative nuns - women with no vocation or personal development - to play their game.

The DVD also includes Russell's redemptive 1958 short AMELIA AND THE ANGEL. This 16mm piece sees Amelia (Mercedes Quadros) scouring the streets of London looking for a replacement pair of angel wings for her school play, after she steals the initial set which are subsequently damaged beyond repair. Quadros, with her long dark hair and probing eyes, gives a performance which carries the simple narrative, and its many artistic flourishes skillfully shadow its minuscule budget and library music. On the outside, hand-held camera mimics a child's eye view of the crowded locality; here, Russell is clearly influenced by Albert Lamorisse's celebrated 1956 short THE RED BALLOON, about a little boy who triumphs over adversity in Paris's mean streets. Internally, the opening choreography of the angel ballet beautifully draws on Russell's own training as a dancer, the butterfly wallpaper in Amelia's room openly mocks her loss, and the ascent of a robed, bearded artist into the heavens on a ladder has a much more wholesome conclusion than Mignon's "Rape of Christ" activity. 

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Loudun Calling (Part I of II)

THE DEVILS (1971)

Vanessa Redgrave cackles and leers as hunchbacked Sister Jeanne of the Angels. Her demonic voice, implements of masturbation and even a spider-walk were all seen two years before THE EXORCIST.

SYNONYMOUS with the word maverick, Ken Russell has been referred to as "The Wild Man of the BBC," "the infant terrible of British cinema," and a "fish and chips Fellini." Drawing from a wealth of historic and literary references, Russell made some of the most bombastic yet beautifully photographed films in motion picture history. His informed sensationalism not only horrifies but inspires, producing a body of work that is as much smothered in an impish yet intellectual sense of humour as it is in the director's passions and neuroses. After early work as a stills photographer, Russell made a number of ground-breaking programmes for the BBC's MONITOR and OMNIBUS strands, broadcasts which set the scene for television to be considered a serious art form; and in the 1970s and 80s, he practically invented the pop video and provided a template for MTV. Critics have consistently labelled Russell's work as pretentious and frequently vulgar, yet there is always a creative energy which jolts the viewer into his peculiar, phallic-worshiping world of gods and demons.

Originally written for United Artists until "somebody actually read the script," THE DEVILS was picked up by Warners, and Russell's screenplay is based on both a play by John Whiting - staged in London by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1961 - and Aldous Huxley's 1952 book The Devils of Loudun. THE DEVILS has increasingly been regarded as a milestone, and is described by Joseph Lanza in Phallic Frenzy: Ken Russell and His Films as "postwar British cinema's greatest marvel and nightmare." The film tells the shocking true story of political and religious persecution in 17th century plague-infested France. King Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) and Cardinal Richlieu (Christopher Logue) conspire to create a new France where Church and State act as one, and troops are sent to destroy the fortification of Loudun, which is vital to Richlieu's plan to demonise the Protestant faith and ensure that Catholicism is embraced throughout the territories. Father Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed), the charismatic Jesuit priest of St Peter's Church, successfully rallies the citizens and halts the destruction.

Oliver Reed shines as Father Urbain Grandier. An otherwise unrelated Reed UK film - 1973's trippy class war oddity BLUE BLOOD - was bizarrely released in Italy as THE DEVILS, PART II.

What sounds like a dour historical drama unfolds into a frenzied pageant of gender-bending libertines, debauched exorcists, enthusiastically administered enemas and sado-masochist nuns. Grandier settles down with the virginal Madeleine de Brou (Gemma Jones), whom he marries in an unorthodox ceremony conducted by himself. Unknown to the priest, Sister Jeanne of the Angels (Vanessa Redgrave) - the hunchbacked Mother Superior of Loudun's Ursuline convent - is sexually obsessed with him and prays to Jesus to "take away my hump." After Grandier rejects an invitation to counsel her order and news reaches Jeanne of his marriage, the sister concocts jealous lies about Grandier visiting her in the form of an incubus. With the aid of sadistic medics Ibert (Max Adrian) and Adam (Brian Murphy), the chief exorcist of the Catholic Church Father Barre (Michael Gothard) tortures Jeanne into confessing herself possessed, and Grandier is arrested for diabolism and burned at the stake. Blistering and boiling, Grandier perishes, as Loudun is felled by explosives.

Though performances are uniformly excellent, this is Reed's finest hour, a stoic portrayal that provides the film with a linear path between the outrages and extremities. An anti-intellectual and dyslexic, Reed relied on Russell's simplistic method of direction, instructing the actor to give a take "Moody 1, Moody 2 or Moody 3." Reed always acknowledged limitations in his inimitable style - telling the director to "piss off" when asked to recite sixteenth-century Latin - and even though he despised the stage, Reed delivers speeches of great gravitas here, but such power is even diluted in one scene by cutting away to the theatrics of the King taking shots at Protestants dressed as blackbirds. Its a contrast you can either hate or love; hate because it deflects from the rhythm of Grandier, love because it shows a contrast of convictions at the centre of the film. Whatever your conclusions, it means you are undoubtedly watching a Ken Russell film.

Sister Jeanne licks the wounds of Grandier envisioned as Christ in one of the her feverish fantasies.

THE DEVILS acts as a perfect storm of Russell at the height of his creativity, the beautifully lit cinematography of David Watkin, sublime set design by Derek Jarman, and a discordantly effective score by Peter Maxwell Davies. Similar to the outrage that encompassed MONTY PYTHON'S LIFE OF BRIAN, THE DEVILS was roundly condemned as being anti-Church, but both works show the genuine mistrust in organisations which have the power to corrupt and distort. As with much of Russell, controversy has clouded the true value of his work: the male wrestling sequence between Alan Bates and Reed in WOMEN IN LOVE generated a tabloid campaign of outrage while its literary origins helped it past the censors, yet THE DEVILS was a target for lasting interference from its inception. During the shoot at Pinewood, stories circulated about the film's extras, overstimulated by naked nuns and a general environment of permissiveness, who manhandled the actresses and committed at least one confirmed sexual assault. When THE DEVILS was released as an X certificate - deleting the infamous "Rape of Christ" sequence - it was still banned outright by seventeen local councils, and BBFC chief examiner John Trevelyan resigned from his post the following month.

Unsurprisingly, THE DEVILS caused religious uproar. The Festival of Light picketed cinemas, in Rome polizia confiscated prints, and the Catholic Film Office branded the film "C for Condemned," "for turning serious historical fact into a drug-induced cinematic experience" and its "objectionable use of religious symbols reduced to flippant pop iconography." THE DEVILS also produced a scolding critical barrage: Newsweek's Paul D. Zimmerman concluded that the work demonstrated how Russell "has gone beyond extravagance to insanity"; The Iconoclast said it had "all the taste and restraint of a three-day gang bang"; and The Evening Standard's Alexander Walker provided a more personal attack by claiming its vistas "look like the masturbatory fantasies of a Catholic boyhood." Russell later hit Walker over the head with a rolled-up copy of the offending review on a late-night BBC news programme, before storming out of the studio.

Genius, madman, or both? Exploring Catholicism, sexual excess and kitsch, Ken Russell described himself as the saviour of the British film industry.

Over the centuries, scholars have been divided in their attempts to explain exactly why a convent came to believe that they had been overwhelmed by sorcery. One theory has the nuns driven to their fervour by accidentally ingesting ergot - a fungus which contains an LSD-like chemical on rye bread which has been allowed to dampen and warm. Ergot has also been liberally mentioned as a driving force for the Salem witch trials, and inspiration behind the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. But the most widely accepted notion is that the nuns were manipulated by politicians and priests within a hysteria which endures under long-term stress in captive environments, where pent-up anxieties can disrupt the function of nerves which send messages to muscles and brain. Over forty years later, THE DEVILS, in itself, exists with an aura of social epidemic; it is the film maker's one and only political statement, and a timeless one. "This is not the age of manners" Russell told Time Magazine in 1971, "this is the age of kicking people in the crotch and telling them something and getting a reaction. I want to shock people into awareness. I don't believe there's any virtue in understatement."

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Birth of Amicus

THE CITY OF THE DEAD (1960)

In an astonishing final sequence, Tom Naylor uproots a graveyard cross and stumbles toward an intended sacrifice; as the shadow of the cross falls upon cowled satanic acolytes, they combust.

IN 1692, the small village of Whitewood, Massachusetts sees the burning of Elizabeth Selwyn (Patricia Jessel) and consort Jethro Keene (Valentine Dyall) for witchcraft. Jumping to the modern day, Professor Driscoll (Christopher Lee) recommends his hometown of Whitewood as an ideal place for student Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) to research her paper on the black arts. Staying at the Ravens Inn Hotel - which is managed by Mrs Newless (also played by Jessel) at the exact spot where the burnings took place - Nan discovers that all the other guests only appear as darkness falls, hears chanting beneath the floorboards of her room, and is abducted into the catacombs. Nan’s brother Richard (Dennis Lotis) and her boyfriend Bill (Tom Naylor) investigate her disappearance; while Bill suffers a car accident and remains on the sidelines, Richard meets Patricia (Betta St. John), the daughter of the aging local Reverend (Norman Macowan), and discovers that Selwyn still presides over a coven in the locale.

Working alongside the British company Vulcan, Americans Milton Subotsky (who co-produces and provides the original treatment) and partner Max J. Rosenberg would later found Amicus, and many horror historians look upon THE CITY OF THE DEAD as the first unofficial Amicus release. If only that studio continued with such quality; amusingly Driscoll states early on "The basis of fairy tales is reality, basis of reality is fairy tales," which acts as a much more apt mandate for Subotsky and Rosenberg's later films of the fantastic. At a time when Hammer had established the colour period horror film, THE CITY OF THE DEAD, in contrast, is a present era monochrome gem, drawing from the stage bound atmospherics of Val Lewton. Consequently, the film exists in a TWILIGHT ZONE-like alternative universe, directed with finesse by John Moxey, who is greatly assisted by the atmospheric photography of Desmond Dickinson. On the down side, the picture suffers from laden performances by Stevenson, Lotis and Naylor, and Ken Jones' jarringly inappropriate partial jazz score.

Released in America as HORROR HOTEL with the tag line "Just ring for Doom Service!," this seemingly acknowledged the film's narrative similarities to PSYCHO. A hit in Britain, the black and white film suffered in the US, with the distributor cutting the picture and inserting 3-D footage from Julian Roffman's THE MASK.

The major bone of contention with THE CITY OF THE DEAD is the connection to PSYCHO. Like Alfred Hitchcock's chiller, a young women travels to a hotel, only be be killed in the middle of the feature. Another similarity is friends embarking to find her as heroine 2 narrowly escapes with her life; even the final shot of Mrs Newless' flame-ravaged corpse echoes the mummified Mrs Bates in her rocking chair. In his book English Gothic, Jonathan Rigby surprisingly fights Subotsky's corner by listing production start dates - THE CITY OF THE DEAD began on 12th October 1959 compared to PSYCHO's on 30th November - but, as Philip Nutman explains in Little Shoppe of Horrors #20, Robert Bloch's source novel was actually first published in 1959, with Hitchcock's film following the structure of the book. Amicus would later have a fruitful relationship with Bloch - and this certainly indicates that Subotsky would have been aware of the narrative - but the situation is clouded further by screenwriter George Baxt claiming it was his idea to prematurely kill Nan.

THE CITY OF THE DEAD was described by Lee as "an American Gothic with a Lovecraftian flavour," with Whitewood replacing that writers fabled Dunwich as a cursed township. Indeed, the writings of H. P. Lovecraft have seldom been successfully transferred to the screen, struggling to find the right mix between the hinted horrors and the money shot for the expectant audience. It is ironic that the most memorable slices of Lovecraftian cinema haven't been direct adaptations of his stories at all, rather films that have attempted to portray the author's trademark otherworldly ambiance. Perhaps the most Lovecraftian of all is Nigel Kneale's THE STONE TAPE, a television play layered in ageless terror. Yet while Whitewood may lack the true depth of the Cthulhu mythos, figures loom in and out of dense fog like chess pieces in a game of much greater scale.