Saturday, April 15, 2017

Downe and Out

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!"


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.