Monday, May 15, 2017

Brains and Brawn

FIEND WITHOUT A FACE (1958)
THE FROZEN DEAD (1966)
IT! (1967)

"We're facing a new form of life that nobody understands;" Austrian Herta Padawer - billed as Kim Parker - grapples with a FIEND WITHOUT A FACE.

EVEN though Arthur Crabtree's FIEND WITHOUT A FACE was shot in England by Amalgamated Productions, its Canadian setting, use of US Air Force stock footage, and casting of expatriate American and Canadian actors - even the British players are dubbed - make it seem like your typical Stateside fifties monster movie. At an American experimental station in Winthrop, Manitoba, Operation Dewdrop is being developed to increase awareness of nuclear attacks from Siberia. Major Jeff Cummings (Marshall Thompson) is brought in to investigate a number of unexplained civilian deaths, where victims have punctures at the base of the head and that the brain and spinal cord have been "sucked out like an egg through those two holes." Professor Walgate (Kynaston Reeves) has been draining the base's reactor to create living mental beings, but when the power is boosted, they change from their invisible form to disembodied brains with spinal cord tails and "feelers."

To add to the non-British flavour, the celebrated stop-motion monsters were created (and filmed) by K. L. Ruppel and Florenz von Nordhoff in Munich. The "battle with the brains" climax has since been replicated in everything from ISLAND OF TERROR to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD; the celebrated finale is also an early example of movie gore where - in black-and-white photography - Ruppel's liberal spreading of raspberry jam from a saucepan made an excellent substitute for blood. This siege is repulsively reinforced by Peter Davies and Terence Poulton's sound effects, as the bullet-ridden organs splutter puddles of the red stuff ("at least they're mortal"). Because of this sequence, FIEND WITHOUT A FACE was heavily censored in England, banned completely in the Republic of Ireland, but only slightly cut by the MPAA when MGM released the picture in America.

"To revive a body ... I've done that. But to revive a brain ..." Bathed in eerie blue, the head of Kathleen Breck is the star of THE FROZEN DEAD.

Based on Amelia Reynolds Long's The Thought Monster - a short story published in Weird Tales brokered to the producers by her agent, Forrest J. Ackerman - FIEND WITHOUT A FACE is typical in its Cold War paranoia of science going haywire in an isolated region, but was one of the first science fiction films to address the issue of nuclear energy rather than nuclear weapons. Dubbed "tepidly macabre" by Monthly Film Bulletin and "primitive" by Daily Variety, it is indeed conventionally structured, but despite its naïve final solution, modest budget and obligatory tight-fitting female sweater, when the creatures eventually materialise they seem to enjoy invading in numbers, providing more zest than the human cast.

THE FROZEN DEAD and IT! are two horrors from Gold Star, high on insanity but low on flair. Shot back-to-back at Merton Park Studios, both pictures were written, produced and directed by Herbert J. Leder, a film professor at Jersey City State College whose major claim to fame was providing the screenplay for FIEND WITHOUT A FACE. THE FROZEN DEAD sees renegade Nazi scientist Dr Norberg (Dana Andrews) struggle to resurrect cryogenically suspended SS officers, much to the chagrin of his superiors. When his niece Jean (Anna Palk) and friend Elsa (Kathleen Breck) arrive and Elsa is decapitated, her sentient severed head pleads to be put out of its misery ("bury me, bury me"). Taking its cue from cult classic THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE, Elsa develops telepathy to warn of the sinister plans - as well as control a row of severed arms - and the ramshackle zombies are led by Norberg's brother (a role which provides an early credit for Edward Fox). Playing more like a sixties slab of American exploitation, its one-note sombre atmosphere is only occasionally lightened by outrageous German accents.

Roddy McDowall contemplates the "Mid-European primitive" Golem of IT!, played by Alan Seller. In his 2009 book Trashfiend, Scott Stine describes the monster as "a sculpture of Zippy the Pinhead moulded from half melted candle wax."

Much more playful but also suffering from an unnecessary bloated running time, IT! is the only British horror film to portray the legend of the Golem of Prague. Arthur Pimm (Roddy McDowall), a deranged young museum assistant revives the stone monster and looks after the mummified corpse of his mother by bringing her prized jewels. Annoyed at being passed upon becoming the museum curator, and his one-sided infatuation with Ellen Grove (Jill Haworth) - daughter of the first deceased custodian - Pimm orders the statue to wreak vengeance on his enemies, and makes the Golem "destroy" Hammersmith Bridge in an attempt to impress his love. This destruction, and the nuclear warhead finale, strips IT! back to its meagre budget; McDowall also hams up his supposed tortured role as the monster ultimately shirks into the ocean. 

Monday, May 1, 2017

Hiding Behind the Sofa

DOCTOR WHO: THE FRIGHTEN FACTOR (2009)

The 1975 DOCTOR WHO adventure TERROR OF THE ZYGONS not only featured a most effective titular scary monster, but also illustrated themes of body snatching and manipulation of authority figures.

SINCE its return in 2005, DOCTOR WHO has continued to unsettle children with tales of gas-mask zombies and Weeping Angels. These injections of the uncanny into familiar, home-grown surroundings mirror the classic era of Autons on Ealing High Street and Daleks emerging from the Thames. But by possessing an "edited highlights" style and a computer-heavy sheen that distances and detracts, the reboot has lost the gravitas of horrors steeped in the Gothic tradition, which made the Philip Hinchcliffe/Robert Holmes era so memorable. Consequently, the new show struggles for emotional depth, as characters and companions drown under the weight of one thing after another, thus diminishing the "frighten factor" considerably.

Fear is the most effective way to grab our attention. Some of the most successful Public Information Films draw on arresting images to hammer home their points (1973's "I Am the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water," for example, aims to scare children away from ponds and rivers by masking a set of scenarios with a bank-hugging Grim Reaper). The limbic Amygdala - within the temporal lobe of the brain - hard-wires this fear-conditioning for self-preservation; the Amygdala has a close association to memory, so scare tactics from youth are subsequently used to mould behavioural trends in years to come. Cultivation Theory states that television could influence the mind to march in step with everyday perception, enlarging the assimilation of disturbing images by pure repetition.

A parasitic seaweed is sucked up by an offshore drilling rig in the 1968 DOCTOR WHO tale FURY FROM THE DEEP. Possessed by the entity, Mr Quill (Bill Burridge) launches his gas attack in the show's first genuinely unnerving sequence.

As a special feature on the BBC's DOCTOR WHO - THE DEADLY ASSASSIN DVD release of 2009, the sixteen-minute documentary THE FRIGHTEN FACTOR aimed to answer what exactly the show's fear element is, by interviewing a diverse panel of "experts" from educational psychologist to church minister. The bombastic theme tune can be a frighten factor itself, so apparently can The Doctor, as well as being a parent/uncle surrogate for the viewer. Although the programme's visual use of everyday objects (dolls, dummies et al) and detrimental authority figures play with a child's conforming worldview, the child attempts to play out these images within the comfort of their own homes, so it becomes an enjoyable experience. As the resident educational psychologist explains, it is this consumption of live action visuals that makes it resonate so effectively, as opposed to cartoons which are too abstract to have the same effect.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Downe and Out

SON OF DRACULA (1974)
CRAZE (1974)

"I can't live, if living is without you"; chums Harry Nilsson and Ringo Starr in SON OF DRACULA, cinema's greatest musical travesty. Attempting to cash in on the success of Mel Brooks' YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, the film is also known as YOUNG DRACULA.

WRITTEN by TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS scribe Jennifer Jayne in the failed hope of casting David Bowie, Freddie Francis' rarely seen SON OF DRACULA - made by Apple Films and produced by Ringo Starr - begins in 1800's Transylvania, where Baron Frankenstein's dwarf assistant (Skip Martin) stakes The Prince of Darkness (Dan Meaden). Merlin the Magician (Starr) discovers that one of The Count's brides is pregnant and will give birth to a son in a hundred years. The offspring Count Downe (Harry Nilsson) is due to be crowned King of the Underworld in 70's London, but in the seventy-two hours beforehand he is vulnerable in deciding his future. Eventually he wants to become human in the name of love - especially that of Amber (Suzanna Leigh) - thanks to the help of the wheelchair-bound Van Helsing (Dennis Price), and despite the plotting of the immortal Baron (a barnstorming Freddie Jones).

Actually completed in 1972, Starr's excruciatingly dull vanity project failed to pick up any distribution. Realising that this comedy actually had no jokes - and hid behind Nilsson's musical numbers and message of love - the ex-Beatle turned to Graham Chapman to re-write and re-dub. However this version allegedly made even less sense, and has never been made public (SON OF DRACULA eventually was shown on a limited run in the States). The film is a pedestrian pantomime at best, with generous amounts of padding (Count Downe foils a completely random attack by a werewolf, for instance). Francis further laces the production with classic interpretations of monsters (Meaden's Dracula actually takes Nosferatu as a blueprint, and there are also appearances by Frankenstein's creature, the Mummy and even a Medusa and a Fu Manchu). In fact the only point of interest are the musicians on show, which includes John Bonham and Keith Moon exchanging drumming duties in Downe's band.

Jack Palance offers Julie Ege to Chuku in the delirious CRAZE.

Coming off this catastrophe, Francis' increasing distain of horror films and its fans made the director/cinematographer admit that his reliance on the zoom lens for CRAZE was due to a "lack of interest." But this Herman Cohen production is far from uninteresting, an exploitation fever-dream ripe with idol-driven mayhem and possibly the greatest array of starlets and seasoned character actors ever to grace a single British horror. Neal Mottram (a potent Jack Palance) is a psychotic antiques dealer who owns Chuku, a googly-eyed African fetish object he keeps in his basement. Mottram believes that by sacrifice to Chuku, the "love God" will reward him with wealth, and his victims include Helena (Julie Ege) who ends up in a furnace, and sex toy-loving Sally (Suzy Kendall in a horrendous curly black wig). As part of his unhinged quest Mottram even hatches an alibi plot, using ex-girlfriend Dolly (Diana Dors) to enable him to murder rich Aunt Nash (Dame Edith Evans); but with the police honing in (and a nod to PEEPING TOM), Neal is impaled on Chuku's trident.

CRAZE has a pathological hatred of women, a stance it shares with source novel Infernal Idol, a brisk 1967 Helmut Henry Hartmann pulp written as Henry Seymour ("she was that slightly seedy suburban housewife type who carried too much weight around the hips and spent too much of the housekeeping money on unsuccessful attempts to look glamorous.") But Francis' movie really goes for the throat, illustrated by Detective Sergeant Wall (Michael Jayston)'s comment on ditzy Dolly ("one would have to be pretty desperate to sail into that port.") Despite Mottram's literal lady-killing, there is a distinct homosexual yearning between the dealer and his younger live-in colleague Ronnie (Martin Potter). Mottram has apparently saved him from "sleeping in Hyde Park hustling old queens," but their domestic arrangement seems characteristically bitchy.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

"They're Only Worthless Whores!"

JACK THE RIPPER (1973)
JACK THE RIPPER (1988)

The Ripper File, published in 1975, was a companion to the 1973 BBC JACK THE RIPPER docu-series.

DR Thomas Stowell's article in the November 1970 Criminologist instigated a resurgence of interest in the Whitechapel Murders. Implicating the grandson of Queen Victoria, it set in motion a snowballing of misconceptions welcomed by Stephen Knight's 1976 bestseller Jack The Ripper: The Final Solution. Stowell drew comparisons between the evisceration of the women and the disembowelment of deer shot by the aristocracy on their estates, and surmises that - although not named directly - Prince Albert Victor went mad after contracting syphilis in the West Indies. Three years later, JACK THE RIPPER was a six-part BBC "documentary investigation" into the killings, which mixed period re-enactments with contemporary sleuthing from fictional Detective Chief Superintendents Barlow (Stratford Johns) and Watt (Frank Windsor), characters popular on Z-CARS and its sequels SOFTLY, SOFTLEY and BARLOW AT LARGE.

This cross-pollination discusses suspects, forensic examinations and conspiracies in stuffy ad infinitum, and after five hours concludes there is insufficient evidence to determine who Jack was. Written by Elwyn Jones and John Lloyd, the programme builds a foundation for masonic influence - after all, Watt has read prominent mason Commissioner Warren's autobiography - with analysis of the wall message "The Juwes are The men That Will not be Blamed for nothing." With no substantiation to the Ripper crimes, let alone Freemasonry, this fixation with the scrawl on Goulston Street is one of many blind alleys the broadcast creates for itself. And just when you think no more information could be squeezed in, the show's surprise witness is held back to the final moments: Joseph 'Hobo' Sickert, illegitimate son of suspect/painter Walter Sickert. Self-scripted and shot on Super-8, Joseph recalls his strange genealogy and conveys Royal Physician Sir William Gull (as did Stowell) and driver John Netley, and also surmises threat of revolution.

"You told me to bring you Jack the Ripper. You sign that piece of paper and I will ... tonight!" Michael Caine - as Inspector Frederick Abberline - is the casting coup of ITV's out-of-control JACK THE RIPPER.

After this bombshell, the East London Advertiser sent Knight to interview Joseph. Fleshed out into his "Final Solution," Knight details an elaborate conspiracy theory involving the British royal family, freemasonry and Walter Sickert. He concluded that the victims were murdered to cover up a secret marriage between the second-in-line to the throne, Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale, and working class Catholic Annie Elizabeth Crook. Crook and the couple's daughter are consequently spirited away, and a quintet of Whitechapel tarts - privy to the circumstances through the employment of one of their number (Mary Kelly) as the child's Nanny - were disposed of by a team of high profile assassins. However, when Knight's frenzy of misinformation builds to implicating his father more than to Joseph's liking, 'Hobo' withdrew his co-operation and put on record that he had made everything up.

Made to coincide with the Ripper centennial, ITV's bombastic drama JACK THE RIPPER was a ratings winner, casting Michael Caine as Inspector Abberline and Lewis Collins as Sergeant George Godley. Director and co-writer David Wickes - who had helmed two episodes of the BBC series - stated that he had been allowed unprecedented access to Scotland Yard files, and that his production would be revealing the true identity of Jack for the first time. However, after pressure from numerous Ripperologists Wickes withdraw this claim, but the series still begins with a disclaimer on behalf of the production staff: "our story is based on extensive research, including a review of the official files by special permission of the Home Office and interviews with leading criminologists and Scotland Yard officials." Wickes' announcement that he had filmed several alternative endings lends no credence to the unfolding structure, and was more likely another publicity stunt.

Abberline adopts his usual measured methods with coachman John Netley (George Sweeney) in ITV's JACK THE RIPPER.

Comprising of two ninety-minute episodes broadcast on consecutive evenings in October 1988, the series' revelation that Sir William Gull (Ray McAnally) was the killer is laughably old hat, after threads lead the viewer to the likes of American stage actor Richard Mansfield (Armand Assante), socialist George Lusk (Michael Gothard) and Queen Victoria's clairvoyant Robert Lees (Ken Bones). The melodramatic story also takes great liberties in characterisation: Abberline's alcoholism is present solely for dramatic licence, and George Lusk's depiction as an anarchic troublemaker hides the fact that Lusk was actually a nondescript businessman and church warden. Although the crime scenes are the most authentic part - particularly Mary Kelly's Miller's Court slaying - the rest exists in its own self-important, distorted world, which advances nothing on Knight's book or the BBC serial. When Gull eventually breaks ("they're only worthless whores!,") the surgeon's jolting transformation from kind family man to barking mad is as abrupt as Abberline's bawling.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Back in Black

VAMPIRA (1974)

The cover to the MGM Limited Edition R1 DVD of VAMPIRA from 2011. Upon its theatrical release in the States, the production was re-christened OLD DRACULA by AIP, to cash in on Mel Brooks' YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN.

THIS Jeremy Lloyd-scripted travesty from World Film Services is not so much unfunny but downright insulting. Starting at Castle Dracula - now open to public tours - an aging Count (David Niven, fighting to keep his dignity) and his manservant Maltravers (Peter Bayliss) welcome a spooky photoshoot ("Most Biteable Playmate") from Playboy's London entourage, headed by Pottinger (Bernard Bresslaw). The Bunnies unwittingly give blood so the vampire can restore life to his beloved consort Vampira, who has been in a coma for fifty years after losing her immortality to an anaemic peasant. Finding the triple-O blood group to resurrect the Countess, the transfusion backfires as one of the models is black, a façade which Vampira adopts (as Teresa Graves). Hoping to reverse this mishap, The Count and Maltravers track down the girls in London, using Playboy feature writer Marc Williams (Nicky Henson) as their hypnotised pawn.

VAMPIRA mixes the British sex comedy with Hammer horror and Blaxploitation, but there is no flesh or blood on display. Now awakened, the titular character develops a bi-sexual lust, enjoying her environment and skin colour; not only does this new-found vigour mean her using phrases like "out of sight" and "jive turkey," she also goes to watch BLACK GUNN, dances lasciviously, and is now too energetic for the Count to handle. Unfortunately, this is undermined by a number of dismal dialogue choices, particularly when Maltravers tries to explain Vampira's change of appearance ("you don't think, Sir, the deep freeze wasn't working properly and she's - well - gorn orf?")

In the prolonged party sequence, Count Dracula and Maltravers attempt to swing well past the height of the Swinging London era.

More positively, the cast includes female luminaries Veronica Carlson and Penny Irving as Playboy Bunnies, Luan Peters as Pottinger's secretary, and MONTY PYTHON regular Carol Cleveland as a damsel in distress who is inexplicably helped by The Count. The standout however is Linda Hayden as Castle Dracula's disgruntled German student Helga. Although her Teutonic accent is as questionable as her Gallic attempts in CONFESSIONS FROM A HOLIDAY CAMP, Hayden excels in an almost cameo role, bitten and transformed into a white gowned, frizzy-haired succubus. Initially aiding the dinner guests, Helga is then ceremonially dispatched in an upright coffin in a macabre parody of THE GOLDEN SHOT. 

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Mad Science

THE MUTATIONS (1974)

"He'll soon be neither human being nor plant, but with the characteristics and advantages of both: a plant that can move and think, a man who can set down roots." Donald Pleasence and Tom Baker plot and fester.

DIRECTED by Oscar-winning cinematographer Jack Cardiff, THE MUTATIONS uses the template of Tod Browning's FREAKS and poverty row mad scientist pictures to mix with unsubtle 70's British sleaze and an avant-garde score. University Professor Nolter (Donald Pleasence, in a role originally intended for Vincent Price) is experimenting to merge human and plant life. Any unsuccessful subjects are offloaded to Nolter's kidnapping accomplice Lynch (Tom Baker) for a nearby circus "Royal Family of Strange People," which Lynch runs with dwarf Burns (Michael Dunn). The human protagonists - all students from Nolter's class (Tony (Scott Anthony), Lauren (Jill Haworth) and Hedi (Julie Ege)) - and the circus freaks are exploited by the tyrannical Lynch, who hopes that Nolter will cure his own Elephant Man-type deformity. The plan starts to unravel when Tony, after being turned into a human Venus Fly Trap, escapes and ingests a homeless man. With Hedi strapped naked to the operating table, she is saved from Nolter's burning mansion by Dr Brian Redford (Brad Harris), and the freaks take their revenge on Lynch.

Like Browning, real deformed humans are cast for the roles (including Alligator Girl Esther Blackmon and the show-stopping Willie "Popeye" Ingram). Another Browning cue sees THE MUTATIONS lift its party scene directly from FREAKS, and Cardiff must also have been influenced by Universal's 1973 SSSSSSS, which sees herpetologist Dr Carl Stoner (Strother Martin) change young men into King Cobras, whereby botched attempts are exhibited at a circus. Both Nolter and Stoner theorise that humans now need to be in some transformative state, for Nolter to create a "world without hunger," and for Stoner to survive ecological disaster. A deadpan Pleasence mostly recites dialogue from his textbooks and provides an amusing lecture aside referencing genetically recreated dinosaurs, while at home he feeds rabbits to his creations. But Baker is the star: shortly before his Time Lord appointment - and sporting a coat hat and scarf ensemble - Lynch is the Igor to Pleasance's Frankenstein/Dr Moreau. Lynch himself is a freak, but his overpowering self loathing cannot make himself accept his plight; in the film's only touching scene, he visits a prostitute and begs her to say "I love you" for an extra pound.

Scott Anthony - mutated into a Venus Fly Trap - devours his  
monster maker Pleasence in the fiery climax.

The exhibition of real biological oddities can be traced back to the 1630's, when Lazarus Colloredo and his conjoined twin Joannes Baptista toured Europe. "Freaks of nature" as a source of entertainment on film adds another voyeuristic quality, freezing their façade awkwardly in time to watch over and over. FREAKS' original cut of January 1932 was met with disgust - one woman at a test screening threatened to sue stating it caused her miscarriage - and remains the only MGM release to have been pulled from circulation before completing its engagements. The picture was also banned in Britain for thirty years, and effectively brought Browning's career to a premature end. However, FREAKS has enjoyed a positive re-evaluation over the years, unlike Michael Winner's 1977 Universal opus THE SENTINEL, which controversially featured deformed humans as denizens from hell. Amid THE MUTATIONS relentless dour atmosphere, when Lynch is killed by flying switchblades then devoured by Nolter's hounds, the "Strange People" at least have a form of closure.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Love of Darkness

CAT GIRL (1957)
RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK (1966)

"The love of darkness, the craving for warm flesh and blood … it is my legacy to you ... passed on from generation to generation of our family …  for 700 years!" Ernest Milton and Barbara Shelley provide the only sparks to this pedestrian programmer.

PRODUCED by Val Lewton and directed by Jacques Tourneur, RKO's 1942 CAT PEOPLE divided critics at the time, but is now considered a sophisticated classic. Telling the story of young Serbian Irena (Simone Simon), who believes herself to be a descendant of a race of people who turn into cats when sexually aroused, the style of the film concentrates on the theory that unseen terrors are more effective than visual ones (what Lewton referred to as "patches of prepared darkness"). This use of suggestive shadow, and the genre-defining shock Lewton Bus moment, was in contrast to the Universal trend of the time, who would make FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN a year later.

CAT GIRL - a British CAT PEOPLE from Insignia directed by Alfred Shaughnessy - barely registers as horror, its stagy and stilted execution making it hard to believe it was released in the wake of Hammer's game-changer, CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Leonora (Barbara Shelley) is summoned to her ancestral estate by uncle Edmund Brandt (Shakespearean actor Ernest Milton, doing his best Ernest Thesiger impression). Recently married to Richard (Jack May), Leonora also brings friends Cathy and Allan (Patricia Webster and John Lee) to the house. Brandt's niece discovers that she is to be united with the soul of Edmund's pet leopard, continuing a family curse which enables mental control of the big cat to "kill ... kill." Under Leonora's control, the leopard savages her husband for having an affair with Cathy, then turns its attentions to Dorothy (Kay Callard), the wife of Leonora's true love Dr Marlowe (Robert Ayres).

Barbara Shelley - the "first leading lady of British horror" - is haunted Leonora. Shelley's looks and stature command the screen, with Barbara playing it commandingly straight.

Aside from Shelley and Milton, the performances are self-conscious (even leopard Chiefy, a performing cat from Southport Zoo, surprisingly lacks menace), and Ayres makes for a particularly characterless 'hero'. Shaughnessy - directing his only fantastic film before creating UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS and planting the seed that would become Pete Walker's HOUSE OF WHIPCORD - couldn't remain positive about the release's own main legacy, lamenting in his autobiography "by using [Barbara Shelley] I fear we condemned a very beautiful and talented actress to a long career in horror films."

Similar to Shelley's Helen in DRACULA PRINCE OF DARNESS, when a hex kicks in, Leonora's sexual repression is unshackled. Now infused with feline aggression, things get weird when she briefly imagines herself turning into a leopard, and eats a budgie (off screen); Leonora's eyebrows also suggest a sudden predatory look (critic David Pirie argues that it is with CAT GIRL that British film heroines started to distort from their emotional norm, even if they are portrayed as mental patients and die violently). In her first starring role Shelley atypically shows off areas of flesh; yet any real charge is smothered by the picture's mundaneness, as a lingering shot of Leonora's naked back sees the camera pan away, leaving the maid to comment on her beauty.

"Everything else is darkness"; the hypnotic stare of Christopher Lee as RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK.

Directed by Don Sharp and scripted by Anthony Hinds, Hammer's RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK casts Shelley again under the spell of Christopher Lee in redressed sets from DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS. After healing an innkeeper's wife and cutting off the hand of the keeper's daughter's suitor, Grigori Rasputin (Lee) is hauled before an Orthodox bishop on grounds of sexual immorality and violence. Preferring to give God "sins worth forgiving", Rasputin is unperturbed by the bishop's claims of Satanism. Heading for St Petersburg, the exiled Monk befriends struck-off Dr Zargo (Richard Pasco) and begins his campaign to infiltrate highest Russian society. This includes gaining influence over the Tsarina's ladies-in-waiting Sonia (Shelley) and Vanessa (Suzan Farmer), but his relentless sexual appetite and pursuit of wealth eventually leads to his death at the hands of Zargo and Ivan (Francis Matthews).

Initially announced in 1961 as THE SINS OF RASPUTIN, Hammer's brisk pseudo-exploration of "History's Man of Mystery" is dominated by Lee's extraordinary performance. Unlike his appearances as Dracula - often off-screen and reduced to set pieces - Rasputin is overpowering from his appearance at the Inn door. Passionately researching the role, the actor even sought advice on how to play a medically accurate death by cyanide poisoning. But the film was hampered by overspends on DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS, foreshortening the script and scope; the production was also under the threat of legal action from Prince Felix and Princess Irina Yousoupoff, Felix being one of Rasputin's real-life assassins. Having successfully sued MGM over their 1932 release RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS, pressure from the Yousoupoff's is the reason that Hammer's surrogate assassin Ivan is Vanessa's brother rather than husband, and why Vanessa and Rasputin do not meet in the film's climax.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

No Sex Please, We're British

WHITE CARGO (1973)
LET'S GET LAID! (1977)

Even Countess of Cleavage Imogen Hassall and David Jason as an everyman hero can't save the Walter Mitty-inspired WHITE CARGO.

BESET by funding problems and dwindling audiences, the British film industry of the 1970's also had to combat small screen competition from television and domestic video. Furthermore, Margaret Thatcher's first Conservative government cut state funding on productions. Existing in their own parallel universe, British sex comedies of the 1970's are renowned to be unsexy and unfunny affairs, but here are two chronically inadequate examples. Fanatically popular throughout the decade, this sub-genre existed in Britain's most troublesome cinematic period thanks to two major plot devices that required little budget: the cheapest special effect of all - i.e. female breasts - and slapstick.

Ray Selfe's WHITE CARGO - re-written by David McGillivray after The Goodies rejected the initial treatment scripted especially for them - casts David Jason in his first major screen role. Underachiever Albert Toddey (Jason) visits a Soho strip joint owned by Dudley Fox (Raymond Cross) and meets showgirl Stella (Imogen Hassall). Stella is actually an undercover policewomen, and the club is selling girls into white slavery to an unnamed Arabian oil state. A number of scenes are played out twice - firstly with Albert's tendency to fantasise himself as a heroic, slick government agent (initially to be shot in 3D), and secondly the rather less glamorous real outcome. Making use of several recycled sets from the Peter O'Toole classic THE RULING CLASS, WHITE CARGO at least has an interesting cast; in a part originally intended for Ian Lavender, Jason's enthusiasm about his star turn allegedly diminished rapidly during the shoot, and the underused Hassall is the glue attempting to hold the film together. David Prowse also appears as club heavy Harry, who thinks nothing of trading his girlfriend in to the slave market for cash-in-hand.

The only sexual charge in LET'S GET LAID! is created by Anna Chen - as 'Oriental Girl' - astride Robin Askwith in a car atop Hampstead Heath.

James Kenelm Clarke's LET'S GET LAID! also has an unnecessarily convoluted plot and fantasy sequences. Bringing together the vanguard of British sex talent - Robin Askwith, Fiona Richmond and a bit-part from Linda Hayden - demobbed wallflower Gordon Laid (Askwith) is given the key to a Mayfair apartment owned by a rich cousin. Laid aids actress Maxine Lupercal (Richmond) in a flat across the hall in disposing of the body of a secret agent, and inadvertently pockets the dead man's cigarette lighter which is actually the potentially explosive PJ46 device. Amidst a police hunt, the attentions of international crook Moncrieff Dovecraft (Anthony Steel) and the complication that Laid has a double in thespian Jimsy Deveroo, the fantasy inserts make no attempt to follow the dull narrative, which includes Richmond cavorting as a Nazi Miss Whiplash.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Drama Nation

DRAMA PLAYHOUSE - THE INCREDIBLE ROBERT BALDICK (1972)
DOCTOR WHO - THE ANDROID INVASION (1975)

"He cannot resist the inexplicable; almost any happening qualifies for his interest so long as it is out of the ordinary." Terry Nation's stab at DRAMA PLAYHOUSE created Robert Baldick.

FORMING part of the third season of DRAMA PLAYHOUSE - the BBC's launching pad for potential series - THE INCREDIBLE ROBERT BALDICK: NEVER COME NIGHT was Terry Nation's first completed work for the Corporation's drama department since his six episodes of DOCTOR WHO - THE DALEKS' MASTER PLAN in 1965. Directed by Cyril Coke, this never-commissioned pilot is a Victorian Gothic with the titular Baldick (Robert Hardy) an eccentric detective/scientist who owns his own steam locomotive and has a pet owl. A fusion of Sherlock Holmes and Fox Mulder, Hardy plays Baldick with suffocating gusto, but there are too many themes in too short a running time to create a satisfying whole. Elements of Victorian literature (loyal assistants, windswept nights) and Gothic fiction (secrets in the woods, ruined abbey, failed exorcism, unruly villagers) are further complicated by the alien artefact sting, a payoff that is not just a narrative anomaly but an unnecessary Quatermass-like "resolution".

Squire Aldington (Reginald Marsh) and Reverend Elmstead (James Cossins) discover the corpse of a young woman in the reputedly haunted ruins of Duvel Woods Abbey. Elmstead visits friend Robert Baldick, in the hope that the unconventional sleuth will assist in this latest of murders to effect Boardington village ("local legend has it that the deaths go back into prehistory.") Aided by his valet Thomas Wingham (Julian Holloway) and burly gamekeeper Caleb Selling (John Rhys-Davies), Baldick delves into local parish records, and discovers that the Abbey has long been associated with human sacrifice. Excavating deeper within the crypt, fear and anxiety grips the group; Thomas is pulled into a chamber below, which is full of human bones and pervaded by a sense of absolute evil. Baldick is convinced that the Abbey contains a distillation of the terrors and phobias of all the people who have visited the enclose, and later studies a strange object he retrieved from the floor: a small metal box containing intricate electrics and runic symbols.

DOCTOR WHO - THE ANDROID INVASION was the second of two non-Dalek scripts Terry Nation turned in for the series (the first was THE KEYS OF MARINUS from 1964).

Although beautifully shot and well received, the programme suffered from scheduling problems which was triggered by a behind-the-scenes tussle over the name of the character. BALDICK was originally to be shown on 6th September, but in the immediate aftermath of the Munich Olympic massacre, it was removed at the last moment and eventually aired at a later than usual time slot on 2nd October. However, the original airdate of 23rd August was quashed by legal ambiguities between the BBC and Robert Baldick Junior, a PhD student whose father Dr Robert Baldick - an Oxford French literature academic - had granted Nation permission to use his name. Unfortunately Baldick Senior died before the broadcast date, and head of drama serials Andrew Osborn eventually conceded that - although it was too late to change the pilot - the name would change if the venture would develop.

For DOCTOR WHO - THE ANDROID INVASION, Nation invented the rhinoceros-like Kraals, who go to finite trouble to create an exact replica of an English village and populate it with synthetic organisms to rehearse an invasion of Earth. Chief Kraal scientist Styggron (Martin Friend) also intends to release a deadly virus to aid resistance, but this is ultimately as unnecessarily convoluted as BALDICK. Themes of duplication and mind-draining are lost in a number of silly plot elements, most of all duping astronaut Crayford (Milton Johns) in thinking he has lost an eye by simply giving him an eye-patch. On the surface this is a minor entry in the Time Lord's greater Gothic scheme of the mid-70's, but it does cover interrogation - The Doctor (Tom Baker)’s subjection to the Analysis Machine - and 1950’s Sci-Fi paranoia; Crayton may be a critical laughing stock, but is a man in identifiable flux.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Bridal Torment

WESSEX TALES - THE WITHERED ARM (1973)
WESSEX TALES - BARBARA OF THE HOUSE OF GREBE (1973)

Thomas Hardy reflected a concern for the poor in society, and particularly the lack of opportunities offered to women. For The Withered Arm and Barbara of the House of Grebe, there is nothing but torment for young brides.

IN his 1888 collection Wessex Tales, Thomas Hardy writes of the true nature of nineteenth century marriage and its inherent restrictions, the stance of women, and a society which could not cope with even minor diseases. Hardy did not explore the sensibility of Jane Austen or the vivid caricatures of Charles Dickens; rather, his poems and novels are filled with characters that are as functional and rustic as their clothes; his dramatis personae follow the hardened edge of nature, the intractable working of fate, and the inevitability of a relentless decline. There is also a sense of enigma, that something beyond our physical appearance is guiding our hand. For many people of a certain age, one such story - The Withered Arm - is remembered as an oddity of their school experience. Often included on English Literature syllabuses, it sits awkwardly between ambiguous morality tale and surreal horror.

Wessex Tales was made into a BBC anthology; the first broadcast was THE WITHERED ARM, and is a masterpiece of the form. In a Southern England rural community, wealthy farmer John Lodge (Edward Hardwicke) returns home with his new young bride Gertrude (Yvonne Antrobus). Gertrude awakes one morning to find four painful welts on her arm, and consults Conjuror Trendle (Esmond Knight) with the reluctant help from weathered milkmaid Rhoda Brook (Billie Whitelaw). Trendle prescribes a ghoulish cure: “you must touch with a limb the neck of a man who’d just been hanged.” It transpires that Rhoda’s son Jamie (William Relton) is the illegitimate spawn of Lodge, and it is he who is the man hanged for a frivolous reason.


In an illustration of Hardy's "magnificent gloominess", Yvonne Antrobus appears as a horrific vision in THE WITHERED ARM.

Rhoda’s dream sequence of a grotesquely grinning Gertrude taunting her with her wedding ring - only to have Rhoda angrily grabbing the bride’s arm before awakening - is eerily effective, and in the programme’s standout image Whitelaw holds the distinction of the only actress to ever make milking a cow look ethereally sinister. A mix of jealousy and body horror, Gertrude is the Gothic Outsider not just existing in an unfamiliar world, but an ultimately unwanted one: she cannot bear children.

Directed by Desmond Davis - who would go on to direct the Ray Harryhausen opus CLASH OF THE TITANS - THE WITHERED ARM was dramatised by Rhys Adrian greatly indebted to THE BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW. Wandering wearily through the bracken and ploughed earth, Gertrude’s physical affliction makes for close relation to SATAN'S CLAW's yearning for devil skin. The programme is also enveloped by the hanging ethic, unsurprising as Hardy himself was an enthusiastic spectator of such public punishment. This is illustrated by scenes of locals jostling for position to see the noose being made, and an old man selling wooden hanging figures. There is also a cinematic shot of a silhouette of the gallows against the day-for-night sky.

Ben Kingsley and Joanna McCallum play the heights of Hardy's married anguish in BARBARA OF THE HOUSE OF GREBE.  

The sixth and final WESSEX TALE was BARBARA OF THE HOUSE OF GREBE. Lord Uplandtowers (Ben Kingsley) wants to marry Barbara (Joanna McCallum); however, this daughter of Sir John Grebe (Leslie Sands) elopes with handsome Edmond Willowes (Nick Brimble). Marrying "beneath her," Barbara can only gain her parents consent by having Edmond "educated" in Italy for a year, while their lodge house is readied. During his stay in Europe, Edmond is facially disfigured in an opera house fire while saving others; on his return to England, Barbara is repelled, forcing him to leave a farewell letter. After leaning of his death several years later whilst in a loveless marriage with Uplandtowers, Barbara receives delivery of a commissioned statue of a pre-accident Edmond from Pisa. Worshipping this as a shrine, Uplandtowers learns of the original disfigurements and has the statue amended accordingly, at last receiving Barbara's affections.

Dramatised by David Mercer, this unnatural tale of social status was described by T. S. Eliot as "to have been written to provide a satisfaction for some morbid emotion." Barbara experiences love and loss at every extreme level, from its initial blooming to isolation and despair. Edmond's burned reveal is starling: what seems to be a simple mask turns into a full unveiling of face and wig, as if the forced exile is peeling an orange. While captured in their matrimonial hell, Kingsley and McCallum excel, Barbara caressing her model as Uplandtowers simmers to his ultimate victory.