Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Love of Darkness

CAT GIRL (1957)

"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

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.