Monday, February 15, 2016

Primal Disorder


Sir John Mills is the fragile face of dystopian Britain in ITV's QUATERMASS serial, here making the cover of Time Out. Mills' performance has largely been underappreciated over the years, but as Tim Lucas points out in his Video Watchdog review (#106, April 2004), the actor is "steeped in the irony of a visionary whose ideas have been perverted and abused by the less visionary corporations he served."

NIGEL Kneale's long awaited fourth Quatermass television serial - directed by Piers Haggard - finally arrived on ITV in 1979, four years after the BBC's option had expired. Suffering from a long gestation period, and a fanfare that was quashed by a technicians strike which delayed the broadcast, QUATERMASS is doom-laden and lethargic. In a decaying near future, an elderly Professor Quatermass (a stoic John Mills, persuaded into the role by his wife) longs to be reunited with his runaway granddaughter. During a joint United States/Soviet space venture, the hardware is struck by an unearthly beam of light; it soon transpires that this ray is also striking ancestral gathering points around the globe - including stone circles and Wembley Stadium - and harvesting the Planet People, disillusioned youth of Earth who long for their misguided paradise in the stars. With the help of a radio telescope centre barely run by Joe Kapp (Simon MacCorkindale), and latterly a group of Pensioners, the rocket scientist succeeds in repelling the alien intrusion, but only at the cost of his and his granddaughter's life (thanks to a big nuclear "red button.")

Originally written in 1973, Kneale's exploration of youth alienation and the space race were relevant, but by 1979 are too distant topics to act as a successful hook. Kneale's often prophetic reading of society is limited to the Planet People being forerunners to New Age travellers, yet the writer had intended them to be proto-punks. In fact, QUATERMASS is more a wearying of life story, where youth and the elderly are warring species (and complete with internal frictions; even the usually sedate Planet People have their Kickalong (Ralph Arliss), apparently modelled on Charles Manson). The writer was usually lukewarm at best about the performers of his work, here labelling Mills as not having the authority of Quatermass, and questioned the casting of MacCorkindale as a rational and intelligent man; he also dismisses Barbara Kellerman, who play's Kapp's wife Clare, for her bouts of smiling. But Kneale himself must shoulder a great portion of the blame for a story that never permeates past its core idea.

Ashen-faced Simon MacCorkindale, Barbara Kellerman and John Mills in the TV Times listing of the second episode 'Lovely Lightning' (31st October 1979).

Haggard, who had provided a blueprint for folk horror with BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW, firmly places the Planet People within their spiritual, sexual landscape, but this is no longer a world for myth and legend, only one that reflects a Nazi concentration camp iconography: once harvested, ashes hang thick in the air and powdered flesh and bone seep into the earth (and to further a quasi-Third Reich agenda, in a dirty, makeshift London marketplace, books are on offer only because they can "burn well.") Unfortunately the director provides everything too flat for its own good, undermining what should have been the showpiece sequence of the Wembley stadium incarcerations, which is only memorable for Quatermass' dialogue on the sky ("the colour of vomit.") 

This relentless sombre atmosphere inevitably created a muted Press reaction, describing QUATERMASS as "pedestrian," "capable humdrum" and even "mumbo-jumbo." This was particularly galling for the amount of money and extensive location filming invested in it; made on 35mm Panavision stock by the Euston Films umbrella of Thames, a lucrative £1.25m budget was made available for the four-part programme and a re-edited, 106-minute theatrical version for overseas (entitled THE QUATERMASS CONCLUSION). This truncated cut basically sliced in half the first, second and fourth episodes, with only brief sequences used from episode three, where Quatermass is saved and befriended by the underground OAPs. However, in the post-STAR WARS world there was little room for downbeat cinema science fiction, and the film version made only sporadic appearances across North American, and the intended UK dates never transpired.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Sadist and Surgeon

KONGA (1961)

Together with PEEPING TOM, HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM and CIRCUS OF HORRORS complete Anglo Amalgamated's Sadian Trilogy. Here are the celebrated dispatches of Dorinda Stevens from the former, and Vanda Hudson from the latter.

WITH a background at Gainsborough, Arthur Crabtree turned to titillating gore with HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM, where cigar-smoking true crime writer Edmond Bancroft (Michael Gough) has a private shrine of torture devices. Bancroft provides gravitas to his work by instigating a number of ghastly murders, most of which are carried out by his young protégé Rick (Graham Curnow) after the injection of a drug that turns Rick green. Bancroft moulds the youngster in his own image, telling him that females are "...all a vicious, unreliable breed" in the hope of putting him off Angela (Shirley Anne Field), giving fatherly advice ("Someday you will go deep into the black soul of man, deeper than anyone else has gone, and you will remember it was I who sent you on that journey") and subsequently securing the Black Museum as their dirty little secret. Under the garish hues of 1950's Eastmancolor, the set pieces are too flat to be effective: Bancroft's doctor Ballan (Gerald Anderson) is disposed of in a flesh-removing vat, Gail (Dorinda Stevens) has her eyes punctured by concealed binocular skewers, and the writer's mistress Joan (June Cunningham) succumbs to a DIY guillotine.

In Sidney Hayers' CIRCUS OF HORRORS, disgraced plastic surgeon Dr Rossiter (cold as ice Anton Diffring) flees England and turns a makeshift French circus - run by drunk Vanet (Donald Pleasence) - into an international success. The performers are all criminals whose faces Rossiter has re-built, and if they get out of line "accidental" deaths are arranged. After a decade the surgeon risks bringing his famed troupe back to Blighty, but as the walls come down on his shenanigans, Rossiter survives a gorilla attack before being run over. Similar to the sadistic murders of BLACK MUSEUM, CIRCUS OF HORRORS illustrates a style of gaudy schlock that would come to the fore in British horrors of the 1970's (the most celebrated being Magda (Vanda Hudson)'s ECesque demise during a sabotaged knife-throwing act). Lambasted by the Catholic Legion of Decency for its "excessive brutality [and] suggestive costumes," Hayers' makes the most of a bevy of large-breasted beauties such as Yvonnes Monlaur and Romain; as the Catholic Legion suggests, its narrative is purely an excuse to murder females who wear revealing circus attire, and all the better for it.

Claire Gordon in the clutches of KONGA. Shot in the fictitious but grand sounding SpectraMation, the giant gorilla is a B-movie charmer.

Allegedly filmed as I WAS A TEENAGE GORILLA, John Lemont's KONGA is a preposterous man-in-a-monkey-suit horror, and a riot of abysmal miniatures and opticals. Gough basically reprises his overwrought performance as Bancroft from BLACK MUSEUM, complete with a hypnotised partner-in-crime; here he is crazed botanist Charles Decker ("in science, a human being is only a cypher"), who wills an enlarged ape to acts of violence. Presumed dead after crashing in the African jungle, Decker returns to London a year later with a rare form of plant life, plus a pet chimp named Konga. When extracts from the vegetation causes rapid growth the chimp grows to Gorilla size and the doctor uses him to murderous effect: the school Dean, a competitor and the boyfriend of the bustiest of his teenage students, Sandra (Claire Gordon), are all dispatched. Although Decker's assistant Margaret (Margo Johns) has kept his activities quiet in lieu of marriage, when she too discovers of her intended demise, she gives Konga an excessive dose of the super-serum. This results in Decker finding himself in the clutches of a now-gargantuan simian by Big Ben.

Hollywood low-rent mogel Herman Cohen co-produced and co-wrote both BLACK MUSEUM and KONGA. Famed for his queasy shock tactics and playing up to his target teen audience, there are seldom truly likable characters in any Cohen production; instead, inhabitants are usually borderline unhinged and sex-obsessed. Consequently Gough is the archetypal Cohen actor, more than at home with arrogant, lecherous over-achievers while barking out his sudden outlandish demands. With KONGA Gough is in tantrum heaven, at one point gunning down his cat after it drinks some of the formula ("We're not ready to have a cat the size of a leopard running through the streets!").