Saturday, December 15, 2012

Composite Beings and Zombie Bikers


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"


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 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, 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 them 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 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. 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) 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."