Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Their Satanic Majesties Request

THE HELLFIRE CLUB (1961)
TERROR (1978)

French A style poster for New World's THE HELLFIRE CLUB, more pulp adventure than demonic horror.

THE notorious real-life Hellfire Club was famed for its debauchery and devil worship, the name given to several exclusive establishments in Britain and Ireland as meeting places of "persons of quality" who wished to take part in immoral acts. Founded in 1719 London, The Club motto Fais ce que tu voudras (Do what thou wilt) was a philosophy associated with François Rabelais' fictional abbey at Thélème, and later adopted by infamous magus Aleister Crowley. Set in 18th century England, THE HELLFIRE CLUB tells the story of circus acrobat Jason (Keith Michell) in his attempt to reclaim the estate of his estranged father Lord Netherton (Andrew Faulds), leader of the Hellfire Club. Years earlier, Jason as a boy (Martin Stephens) is whipped by his father after walking in on an orgy held by The Club, and together with his mother (Jean Lodge), flees with Timothy (David Lodge). Jason discovers that his villainous cousin Thomas (Peter Arne) has stolen his rightful inheritance, and together with lawyer Merryweather (Peter Cushing) plans to bring an end to the deceit, and brake the grip of The Club on King George II’s rule. 

Although billed as a guest star, Cushing's fussy but erudite character is pivotal to the fate of English society. In fact, the actor later adapted Merryweather's demeanor for his takes on Doctor Who and Abner Perry. Because of Cushing's presence and its lush staging, the film is often mistaken for a Hammer production. But there is no bite to THE HELLFIRE CLUB, with no satanic overtones, and the picture limits itself to a handful of lame orgies where most of the participants remain fully clothed. Directed by Robert S.Baker and Monty Berman from a script by Leon Griffiths and Jimmy Sangster, the production is more swashbuckling melodrama, using The Club as a pinning to hang its elaborate fight scenes and love interests (redheads Adrienne Corri and Kai Fischer)Like most cinematic heroes brandishing a sword, Jason is not only morally perfect but also irresistible to all women, and Michell gives a likable performance as he gathers his circus comrades to do battle with the evil hierarchy.

With a running time of only 80 minutes, TERROR is a whirlwind of gore, semi-nudity and in-jokes. Amazingly, the film topped the UK box office charts for a week in early 1979.

TERROR takes a much more direct approach to its satanic theme. Reuniting director Norman J.Warren with scriptwriter David McGillivray - after their exploits on SATAN'S SLAVE - TERROR is not so much an unashamed rip-off of Dario Argento's operatic gore noir SUSPIRIA but a star-struck reaction to it. The picture starts with a witch hunt and a beheading, subsequently revealed to be a "film within a film" being watched in the same house where hundreds of years before the events being portrayed on screen took place. The witch exacts her revenge on the ancestors of her persecutors, one of whom is the production's director, James Garrick (John Nolan). After a makeshift hypnosis goes awry, the curse takes on a more direct approach, including death by lighting equipment, murderous film cans (in reality nine faulty prints of SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER specially supplied by Rank Laboratories) which leads to a very Argentoesque window-pane decapitation, and aspiring actress Carol (Glynis Barber) is impaled to a tree trunk with knives.

The performances are generally competent, but James and Ann Garrick (Carolyn Courage) both have too little screen time to develop the family curse scenario, even if Warren was more interested to do so. Instead, the focus is on Les Young's coloured filters to provide TERROR with a suitably garish tableau for its elaborately bloody murders, and enhance the hallucinatory disregard for logic. The opening "film within a film" narrative acts both as a Hammer Gothic pastiche and a expostulation of it, but this is not the only nod to a cinematic heritage; the viewer is also treated to snatches of a ficticious soft-core film called BATHTIME WITH BRENDA, scenes heavily indebted to experiences not necessarily enjoyed by Warren and McGillivray in their careers. Other points of interest are a nightclub act you won't forget in a hurry, and a red herring sequence culminating in a Peter Mayhew cameo.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

There's Something About Mary

COME PLAY WITH ME (1977)

David Sullivan’s (The New Blue) Exciting Cinema was ostensibly created as another platform in which to promote Mary Millington's appearance in COME PLAY WITH ME. This latter issue - from February 1978 - shows Mary posing next to her Mercedes-Benz.

MADE by Rolvale and distributed by Tigon, COME PLAY WITH ME features - rather than stars - Britain's favourite 1970's sexpot, Mary Millington. Born into unmarried parents, and suffering low-esteem during her formative years, bisexual Millington committed suicide in 1979 at the age of 33. Described by the Sunday Mirror's Colin Wills as the "Tooting Marilyn Monroe," Mary became an uninhibited performer for a host of magazine shoots - including her lover David Sullivan's Playbirds and Whitehouse - and the modelling funded her beloved Mother's cancer treatment. On the printed page and on screen, the 4'11" stilted non-actress clearly enjoyed sex, rejoiced in the naked form and loved being the centre of attention. Mary was also a high-class call girl, and her list of 'conquests' allegedly included Harold Wilson. Enjoying her celebrity status and lavish home, Millington's shrewd public image shrouded her private "little girl lost" demeanor, a savage contrast that determined a fall as swift as her rise.

Latterly Mary suffered from depression, kleptomania and cocaine abuse, becoming increasingly isolated and frazzled following the death of her mother in 1976. After this event, Millington's bizarre level of morbidity included taking a Mortician course, and she even considered opening a funeral home. Mary was also a long-standing campaigner against censorship, having a disregard for authority that was fueled by repeated raids of her sex shop by the Obscene Publications Squad, and pressure from the Inland Revenue. Even an amateur psychologist can see the cracks: rejected by her father at birth, and with such a gulf between the public and real Mary, the need for value to offset her emptiness was recognised by money (she once proclaimed that cashing up at her sex shops was more gratifying than any carnal activity). As Julian Upton states in Fallen Stars: Tragic Lives and Lost Careers, Millington's films "...will never stand up, but her life story is a cautionary tale with a timeless significance."

The cover to Odeon's 2010 DVD. The disc also includes a 1975 8mm short made by George Harrison Marks and featuring Mary Millington - SEX IS MY BUSINESS - and publicist John M. East's dubious 1980 documentary MARY MILLINGTON'S TRUE BLUE CONFESSIONS.

An atrocious, star-studded sex comedy set in a health farm, COME PLAY WITH ME amazingly broke box office records throughout the UK and went on to become one of the most profitable movies of the decade, strongly sold by the image of Millington - who only appears briefly in a nurses' uniform. The film tells of Cornelius Clapworthy (George Harrison Marks, also director/writer) and Maurice Kelly (Alfie Bass), two elderly forgers flooding the UK with fake £20 banknotes. On the run from gangster boss Slasher (Ronald Fraser) and government official Podsnap (Ken Parry), the pair pretend to be musicians, hiding out at a struggling Scottish B&B run by Lady Bovington (Irene Handl). When Bovington’s choreographer nephew Rodney (Jerry Lorden) arrives with his troupe of dancing girls business picks up, as the females - vaguely under the leadership of Rena (Suzy Mandel) - decide to help out by dressing up as nurses and re-opening the Manor as a brothel, complete with topless massages and the full treatment.

COME PLAY WITH ME gestated from an old Marks script bullishly pushed into production by Sullivan, who at this point was keen to produce movies. By 1976 "glamour" photographer/publisher Marks had endured two obscenity trials and seen his business empire go into receivership, but initially this team-up between the British porn kings seemed amicable, especially when Sullivan gave Marks a £120,000 budget without reading the full script. When footage was shown to the producer - a tired mix of music hall and veteran performers fluffing their lines or blankly gazing into camera - Sullivan was horrified, and extra filming took place at the Mayfair Burlesque Club and his own sauna in Croydon (plus extensive scenes on and around Brighton Pier). Sullivan also ordered shooting of additional hardcore sequences for the continental version, but the strong cut was never sold and was only screened once by mistake in North London. But the damage had been done; furious at the inclusion of blue material, Handl, Bass and Fraser all made complaints to Equity. This was all priceless publicity for a film which stands as one of the most bafflingly popular motion pictures in history, a triumph of marketing over content.