Sunday, May 26, 2013

Cushing Centenary (Part I of II)

THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS (1960)
THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR (1968)

100 years young today; Peter Cushing's Dr Knox commands the screen in THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS.

"THIS is the story of lost men and lost souls. It is a story of vice and murder. We make no apologies to the dead. It is all true." So begins THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS, John Gilling's take on infamous Irishmen Burke and Hare. The film is not only one of the finest British horror films, but a production that may well have provided Peter Cushing with his best ever performance. Capturing the squalid atmosphere of 1828 Edinburgh, the film sees "brilliant, aggressive, provocative" Dr Knox (Cushing) use "resurrection men" Burke (George Rose) and Hare (Donald Pleasence) to supply fresh cadavers for his prized medical students. When one of these students Chris (John Cairney) becomes involved with feisty prostitute Mary (Billie Whitelaw), the communion begins a chain of events that brings the murders too close to home: Burke is hanged, Hare avoids prosecution only to be blinded by the angry mob, and Knox sees the error of his ways.

Knox is the only person that ultimately changes. Beginning with a relentless flow of intelligence, authority and conviction, this driven rationality for his beloved medical cause ("Men of medicine are the modern miracle workers ... you are entering the most honorable profession in the world") is eventually melted by the fears of a young girl. After instructing Chris that "emotion is a drug that dulls the intellect," Knox quietly tells niece Martha (June Laverick) "as a child, I believed in God and the devil; it took a child to show me what I am now." Cushing's posture and delivery is pitch-perfect across his character arc, and his disagreements with the medical council are laced with a wondrous snideness ("Now, if you would be so good as to incline your heads slightly to the right, you will observe the door; please use it.") Cushing is complimented by sly performances from Rose and Pleasence, who further inject the film with a sardonic black humour. 

The Vampire-Beast Craves Blood. Together with Japan's Mothra, The Blood Beast of THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR is part of a pretty exclusive club of moth-related monsters.

On the other end of the scale, Vernon Sewell's THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR was described by Cushing as perhaps the worst film he ever made, and few would argue. Two murders have left the police perplexed, with the only witness insane and several petal-like scales left at the crime scenes. Inspector Quennell (Cushing) is drawn to the house of celebrated entomologist Doctor Mallinger (Robert Flemyng, replacing Basil Rathbone after his fatal heart attack two weeks before principal photography). When a further slaying implicates Mallinger and his daughter Clare (Wanda Ventham) the couple flee, but Quennell traces them and - together with daughter Meg (a stilted Vanessa Howard) - travels to a remote fishing village. It is discovered that Mallinger has created a Death's Head moth/female human hybrid, a creature that drinks blood and kills when sexually aroused.

An erratically-edited programmer, Tigon's THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR suffers from a formulaic script by Peter Bryan (though there is a bizarre departure with an amateur theatrics sequence), threadbare special effects (that makes the moth mutant on a par with Roger Corman's THE WASP WOMAN) and alleged comic relief (from Roy Hudd as the cliched mugging mortuary attendant who enjoys eating lunch among the corpses). Flemyng's performance as the mad scientist is blatantly suspicious from the opening lecture scene, and Cushing's customarily stoicism allegedly included extensive re-writing by the actor himself. In America, distributor Pacemaker re-christened the film THE VAMPIRE-BEAST CRAVES BLOODfollowed by some even more deranged hyperbole by the publicity department: "A ravishing Psycho-Field with diabolical power to turn into a Giant Death Head Vampire, to feast on the blood of her lovers before clawing them to death."

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Slasher Sleaze

SCHIZO (1976)
THE COMEBACK (1978)

The Daily Mail described SCHIZO as "polished, pernicious cods wallop."

IN the 1970s, Pete Walker made a series of films more sophisticated than the exploitative titles implied. SCHIZO is an under appreciated slasher given added cult status by the fact that the leading lady is Lynne Frederick, who was married to Peter Sellers and died of substance abuse at the age of 39. The film opens with night shift worker William Haskin (Jack Watson) reading in a newspaper that ice-skating star Samantha Gray (Frederick) is to marry wealthy manufacturer Alan Falconer (has-been pop star John Leyton). Haskin starts to stalk Gray, who looks for reassurance to her psychiatrist Leonard Hawthorne (John Fraser), lover of her best friend Beth (Stephanie Beacham). Gray tells Hawthorne that when she was a young girl, she witnessed Haskin stab her mother during a lover's quarrel. After serving sentence he now is after Samantha; or is there a different connotation?

Walker has always heralded the twist ending as something fresh and unique, but the climax is more of a contrived confirmation than a revelation. Screenwriter David McGillivray struggled to add meat to Walker's bones of a story - delivering a first draft allegedly only 42 pages long - and there is evidence here that the Walker-McGillivray partnership was going through the motions. Yet there are several effective shock sequences to hold interest - including death by hammer and knitting needle - and a mixture of roving camera and close-ups are used to generate tension and menace. The casting of Watson is a big plus, an actor able to suggest a lot by doing seemingly very little, whose worn facade and controlled stares makes his character genuinely unsettling. As Steve Chibnall points out in Making Mischief: The Cult Films of Pete Walker, the main difference with SCHIZO when compared to the film maker's more famous canon of work - HOUSE OF WHIPCORD, FRIGHTMARE et al - is that previously Walker explored contrasts between aged killers and youth culture; here we have the victimisation of common man.

Redemption's remastered US import Blue-ray of THE COMEBACK, released in February.

Quitting school at 15, Frederick appeared in a number of supporting roles in the early 70s, including Dora Mueller in VAMPIRE CIRCUS. As Julian Upton acutely states in Fallen Stars: Tragic Lives and Lost Careers, the actress "went from appearing in SCHIZO to marrying one" when she tied the knot with Sellers. Within weeks, Frederick's emotional destruction began, amid violent attacks, the actor's increasing heart problems, and Sellers' plummeting box office appeal. After Sellers' death, his widow binged on drink and drugs; in his hastily revised will, Frederick was left almost everything, while his three children were left an insultingly token sum. Frederick subsequently married David Frost then LA heart specialist Barry Unger, filling the Unger marital home with photographs of Sellers and even devoting a room to his memory. In summary, Sellers biographer Roger Lewis describes Lynne as Seller's "supernatural double or fellow lost soul; except she acquired his insanities without the compensations of his genius."

Walker followed SCHIZO with THE COMEBACK, the last of his 70s terror output, and in an attempt to appeal to an American market in the wake of the crippled British film industry, the most conventional. Gone are the low-key locale of Walker's earlier triumphs; now the viewer sees locations for the rich and famous. Reuniting the director with the scriptwriter of DIE SCREAMING, MARIANNE, Murray Smith, the picture sees crooner Jack Jones cast as Nick Cooper, a faded singer returning to England from America to make a comeback album. His ex-wife has been murdered in their docklands penthouse, a fact unknown to him as he is staying in a country mansion maintained by Mr and Mrs B (Bill Owen and Sheila Keith). Increasingly disturbed by nocturnal sounds, and driven to a breakdown by the discovery of a rotting corpse then a head in a hatbox, Cooper discovers that Mr and Mrs B are exacting revenge for the suicide of their daughter, an obsessive fan who could not accept his marriage. Both a psychological thriller and a violent murder mystery, THE COMEBACK consequently never quite gels, but Walker manages a memorable conclusion when our nominal hero confronts the dastardly duo.