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The final three episodes of Sapphire and Steel were the only ones I watched on their original transmission (I only came across the second episode of this final four-parter by chance – we weren’t a TV Times household) and I think it is a testament to the striking originality of this series that elements and images from them have remained with me ever since. I was already aware of the programme, mainly from – I think – a Look-In annual with a heroically inaccurate guide to the series and its main characters – I kept waiting for Steel to use his power to turn his enemies into metal (this completely untrue factoid may have resulted from a misreading by the annual writer of the Sapphire and Steel comic strip, in which Lead demonstrates the bizarre ability to turn people into metal toy soldiers). Watching again now, they are amongst the most atmospheric of the series, and also the most cryptic: so not at all unrepresentative of the series at its best.

The setting appears to be a motorway service station somewhere in England in the early 1980s (the programme makers have learned their lesson and don’t specify an exact year). The reason for the presence of Sapphire and Steel (and Silver, rather unusually) is that the whole place seems to be stuck in a moment it can’t get out of: the same few seconds at 8:54 in the evening repeat themselves endlessly. It certainly looks like the kind of time anomaly they usually concern themselves with, and there is a further mystery – a couple (Edward de Souza and Johanna Kirby), claiming to be from 1948, have arrived by Rolls Royce. They seem strangely unconcerned about having inexplicably slipped forward by three decades, and are uncooperative and hostile towards the operators, refusing to give their names or any other details about themselves.

The mystery intensifies: time starts to jerk forward, ten and twenty minutes at a time. They encounter an older man (John Boswall), who says it is 1925, and a younger one (Chris Fairbank), who believes himself to be in 1957. None of it seems to make any rational sense, even to Sapphire and Steel. Other strange details take on an unexpected significance in the circumstances – why was Silver sent here six hours before them, when specialists like him are normally only assigned after a request from ‘regular’ agents? Why was their ‘briefing’ on this situation so vague and general? The suspicion dawns that nothing here is what it seems, and no-one can be trusted…

None of the participants seem to be able to agree on whether or not this was intended from the start to be the end of the series, or indeed why the series concluded: ITV franchise politics may have been a factor, along with the issue of David McCallum and Joanna Lumley’s availability. There is also a suggestion that P.J. Hammond was tired of doing the programme, but this jibes somewhat with his recollection that he originally wrote a method of escape for the characters into the final episode, only for it to be removed at the request of McCallum (it involved Silver, and McCallum felt the final scene should focus on the two title characters only).

The big twist of this story is that, as the fanon title ‘The Trap’ suggests, the whole situation has been contrived to target Sapphire and Steel (and, possibly, Silver) for death and destruction (Sapphire uses the two words interchangeably, which is curious and perhaps indicative): this is why it is so bizarre and inexplicable. Of course, the problem with this from a writing point of view is that every situation in Sapphire and Steel seems bizarre and inexplicable, so how do you communicate the special nature of this one to the audience? Wisely, Hammond chooses to do so through the main characters’ reactions: Sapphire and Steel start to smell a rat as early as the second episode, and their increasing unease and concern at what’s happening around them communicates very well to the viewer.

If this was intended to be the final story, you would expect it to be the point at which some of the mysteries of the series were explained: but of course they’re not. Quite the opposite, in fact: the creatures working against the operatives are transient beings, supposedly trapped in the past normally, who seem to be more powerful than them (one of the transients overpowers Steel very easily, no mean feat considering some of the stunts he has pulled off elsewhere in the series). The transients are apparently ‘agents of a higher authority’ which Sapphire and Steel have antagonised by refusing to work for it. While they have been marked for destruction, Silver apparently still has a chance of survival.

The questions inevitably pile up. If Sapphire and Steel are the guardians, or possibly regulators of Time, then they are surely connected with the great cosmic principles of the universe – what ‘higher authority’ can there be? (Especially one which seems to be rather malevolent.) The implication is that the operatives have an existence separate from their roles when assigned – that this is, in some way, just a job for them. It also seems rather peculiar, given the vast cosmic forces apparently involved, that the transients are so dependent on the time box they have been equipped with (then again it is, almost literally, a plot device).

It’s a different kind of story, particularly in the final episode, but this doesn’t mean it’s any more conventional than usual. It still works, of course, partly due to the performances (the leads are as good as usual, while Edward de Souza and Johanna Kirby are impressive as the main guest stars), and partly because the director understands pacing and the power of a good image: the moment at the end of the third episode, where the transient beings drop their human guises and reveal themselves to be hostile analogues to the operatives, is one of the most effective in the series (there’s something very British about the agents of higher cosmic authority appearing in the form of men in grey suits).

As we approach the end of the very tense final episode, it almost looks as if Sapphire and Steel have managed to dodge the trap their enemy has prepared for them – but, of course, there is one last twist to come. The end of the series comes abruptly, almost anticlimactically, and the final fate of the operatives is all the more downbeat for coming so abruptly and inexplicably. The ending of Blake’s 7 almost seems cheery by comparison: death is one thing, but eternity trapped in some surreal cosmic oubliette is surely much, much worse. No wonder it stuck with me so clearly. Perhaps not the ending one would have hoped for, but one which feels entirely appropriate for this series – after all, if Sapphire and Steel had been interested in routinely offering explanations, it would not have been the distinctive and memorable series that it remains.

Pedro’s Law

Long-term readers may recall that towards the end of last summer, the release of Pain and Glory and an accompanying season of revivals led to my discovering (at long last, some might say) the work of Pedro Almodovar. If there’s a flaw in Pain and Glory, it’s that it’s so rooted in the Almodovar canon that many of its subtleties aren’t apparent to the newcomer (at least, they weren’t to me at the time I saw it), but there’s very little at all wrong with All About My Mother, Talk to Her, or Bad Education, all of which were shown around the same time. I had a holiday booked in September, which meant I had to miss the screening of Volver, but looking on the bright side our trip did take us to places which still have DVD stores and I was able to pick up two boxed sets of Almodovar movies – not quite the complete collection, but most of the major works.

The challenge after such a purchase is finding the time to actually watch all the movies – I have a couple of box sets of Kurosawa movies I bought in 2012 I still haven’t watched all of – but I suppose one of the few advantages of the world being on pause is that one no longer has any serious excuse for not catching up on culture. For no particular reason, I decided to commence what could become an Almodovarathon with his 1987 movie Law of Desire (title en Espanol: La ley del deseo).

This is the movie which first brought Almodovar to wide international attention, although it is actually his sixth film. Perhaps it is therefore no surprise to discover that many elements of the now-recognisable Almodovar style are already present, if perhaps not quite fully developed: the mixture of provocative melodrama with suspense movie tropes, the blurring of the line between fact and fiction, the tendency towards outrageous plot developments.

Eusebio Poncela plays Pablo, a successful gay film director whose latest film has just been released (Law of Desire kicks off with a scene from the film-within-the-film, which appears to mainly be there to challenge the audience). Pablo is involved with a younger man, Juan (Miguel Molina), who isn’t sure he wants a serious relationship or not. They part, and Juan goes to spend his summer on the coast. Pablo devotes himself to working on his next project, a stage play to star his sister Tina (Carmen Maura), a transsexual.

While doing so he encounters Antonio (Antonio Banderas), a young man who initially seems a bit conflicted, to say the least. However, after spending the night with Pablo, Antonio becomes obsessed with him to the point of violent possessiveness…

It takes quite a while for this to become apparent, however: the film begins by looking very much like a ‘conventional’ drama about the life of a writer and film director and those around him (to the extent that any film directed by Almodovar can be described as conventional, anyway). Only gradually – but, it must be said, fairly comprehensively – does it slide into the realms of the suspense thriller. By the end, however, there has been a murder, a car crash, someone has been in hospital with a rather convenient case of amnesia, there has been some stalking, a hostage crisis, gunfire and a suicide.

Even then, however, deep in the third act Almodovar still finds time for a scene between Pablo and Tina which is obviously very significant: Pablo is in serious trouble by this point, but this does trigger what is clearly the first serious conversation he and his sister have had in many years. It almost goes without saying that the back-story Tina reveals (which is almost wholly incidental to the plot, if not her character) is far-fetched to the point of being completely ludicrous. As ever with Almodovar, you end up accepting it, though this is largely due to the strength of Carmen Maura’s performance – Maura’s character is one of the elements of the film which is most memorable, and even though she is really a secondary character, it almost functions as a character piece about her.

You would really expect it to be more about the character of Pablo, but he does remain an oddly passive presence at the centre of the story. Perhaps Law of Desire does have something to say about the ironies of attraction – Pablo pursues Juan, who isn’t sure if he wants him, and tries to reject Antonio, who is besotted with him – but this is left implicit; the film always seems to have other things on its mind. It’s not that Eusebio Poncela (resembling, to my mind, Graham Chapman in his later years) gives a particularly bad performance, but he is out-horsepowered by both Maura and Antonio Banderas.

Antonio Banderas is such an established face in Hollywood movies now that I suppose it’s quite possible to have followed his career reasonably closely and still not be aware that he rose to fame off the back of a string of fairly provocative movies made with Almodovar: possibly the closest Hollywood ever came to acknowledging this was in Philadelphia, where he was cast as Tom Hanks’ lover. Here, Banderas’ sheer charisma, coupled to the fact that he is a very handsome chap, means that you’re looking at him whenever he’s on the screen: it doesn’t hurt that his character is the main driver of the plot, either.

If you were watching Law of Desire as a ‘new’ movie, with no idea of its historical context, I imagine you would conclude that it’s a curious but mostly successful attempt at combining elements of drama and thriller: possibly also that it’s equally successful in including LGBT elements in a film which is still appealing to a mainstream audience. All of this obviously true – it’s only when you consider the heights to which Almodovar was later to take this kind of film that you become aware of the ways in which this one is not quite as deft or assured or as satisfying. Nevertheless, Almodovar himself says this is the most important film in his career, and given that historical context, you can see what he means.

Behind the Green Door

It is a peculiarly topical thing to say, writing as I am during the Great Pandemic Lockdown of 2020 (younger readers, ask your parents): anything can become normal over time, no matter how strange it may feel at first glance. But true, nevertheless – there is something surpassingly peculiar about Sapphire and Steel‘s Assignment Five, and this is how conventional this particular serial is compared to the rest of the series.

The reason for this is fairly obvious to anyone who’s been paying attention during the title sequence: creator P.J. Hammond was apparently too busy to write this run of episodes (and may have been feeling a bit burned out), which is why it is the work of other writers, namely Anthony Read and Don Houghton. Now, I should say that I’ve nothing against either of these guys at all – in addition to both contributing good stuff to a prominent BBC fantasy series on which I do not comment, Houghton wrote some enjoyable scripts for late-period Hammer movies, and Read was responsible for the TV adaptation of Chocky (apparently the first John Wyndham adaptation which the writer’s family actually enjoyed). But it’s almost instantly apparent that their take on Sapphire and Steel is wildly different from Hammond’s.

We are in the country mansion of wealthy and successful businessman Lord Mulrine (Davy Kaye), in the summer of 1980 (oddball scheduling meant the story was actually transmitted in August 1981). Mulrine is celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of his company and has invited various colleagues, friends, and family members for what’s effectively a murder mystery costume party sans the murder mystery: everyone has been given strict instructions to come in period-correct dress for 1930. Soon they begin to gather (in what may strike regular viewers as surprisingly large numbers), and as they do so come the first signs of something strange occurring – a radio seems to be picking up actual transmissions from the thirties, while the door which currently leads to Mulrine’s office is intermittently replaced by that to the laboratory of his colleague George McDee (Stephen Howard), who died almost fifty years ago to the day (the office occupies the same space that the lab used to).

Just as well that amongst the guests are Sapphire and Steel – who are, in another departure from the norm, working undercover, as a couple named Miles and Virginia Cavendish (Steel says his business is ‘futures’, which is true enough). For some reason they arrive in their regular outfits and go upstairs to pretend to change (Steel apparently has the same kind of shape-shifting powers as Sapphire, using them to grow an instant moustache). The period-perfect party is at grave risk of causing the kind of time break they are usually sent in to deal with, but it seems that something even more serious is in progress: the two time periods (1930 and 1980) seem to be merging, with the supposedly dead McDee turning up for the party, and some of the others not seeming particularly shocked by this…

You do get a sense that Read and Houghton may have seen the odd episode, or perhaps read some kind of a series bible, but haven’t actually sat down with P.J. Hammond so he could explain the premise and style of the series to them in depth. The premise of the story is quite different, for one thing – rather than the time break being the problem the operators are here to fix, it appears that it is being used as a means to an end by some other malevolent force. The power in question is seeking to change history and cause a catastrophe on an incomprehensible scale, and towards the end of the story it is suggested that this power is Time itself. Now, there are passing references in the first story to ‘Time breaking in’, suggesting a sort of hostility, but fairly soon these are replaced by the idea that Sapphire and Steel’s job is basically to protect the structure of Time. You could possibly find a way of resolving these two conflicting views – is Time their enemy or their ward? – but the series doesn’t do so.

The new writers also offer some hints as to who and what the operators are, although the bulk of this scene takes place off-camera. Felix (Jeffry Wickham), who becomes their ally in this story, sums this up by saying they are ‘an inter-planetary police force, sent down here to keep order’ (this seems so at odds with what we see elsewhere that one has to conclude Felix is being lied to) and also that they are aliens ‘in the extra-terrestrial sense’ (this does feel a bit like the kind scene you often find in that other show to which I alluded at around this time).

This story’s other big innovation is that Sapphire and Steel, finding themselves in need of back-up, opt to essentially deputise one of the locals, giving him the codename Brass and bestowing their telepathy on him. Once again, it is an interesting and suggestive notion rather than saying anything definitive about the format; this story is also much more about human interaction than the others, which explains why they need an ‘inside man’.

As noted, this story does feature as many guest characters as all the previous ones combined, and rather than taking place in a lonely cottage, a disused railway station, or somewhere else remote, it’s in a country house full of people. I’ve discussed possible influences on the other stories before, but this story seems (yet again) to be doing something different – it’s mainly a steal from the traditional country house murder mystery genre made famous by Agatha Christie and others, although this ultimately proves to be a subversion of the form.

Whatever else you think about it, it certainly doesn’t drag or feature obvious filler in the way that many of the other stories do. I believe I read somewhere that Read and Houghton didn’t write together, and indeed structured their process as a kind of game, usually writing alternate episodes and building up to a cliffhanger which the other man would have to find a way to resolve. One presumes there was some sort of polishing up process following this, for the finished story is solid and interesting, if not as arrestingly peculiar as the Hammond-written episodes. As a Sapphire and Steel story this is definitely an outlier, but as such it is only odd in the way that it is not nearly as strange as the rest of the series.

You know, it could be that we’re in for a longer haul than anticipated with this whole self-isolating lockdown thing, and so I had a bit of a look around for places telling me where I could find free movies on the internet (I know there’s a pile on Youtube, but the needle in the haystack principle applies when it comes to finding something good). One of the sites I found was Open Culture, which – in addition to various other pieces of ‘cultural and educational media’ – boasted of 1,150 free movies. Mercy me!

Well, it turned out to be a bit of a mixed bag – various films which are out of copyright (for example, the wonderful Grant-Hepburn comedy-thriller Charade, which due to an administrative error was never in copyright in the first place), a nearly-complete set of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films, famous turkeys like Reefer Madness and Plan 9 from Outer Space, and so on. (But they also have Horror Express, Pulgasari, and the original Nosferatu, so there is some really interesting stuff there too.)

Lurking in the kung fu and martial arts section I found a large selection of films with curious titles, perhaps the most curious being Master of the Flying Guillotine. It turns out this film has a stellar reputation in the kung fu genre and so it went straight to the top of my list. A Taiwanese movie, it was released in 1976 and was written, directed by, and stars Jimmy Wang Yu.

This is technically a sequel to Wang Yu’s earlier movie One Armed Boxer, but you don’t need to have seen that one to enjoy the follow-up. It doesn’t mess about, as we straightaway meet the title character, Fung Sheng Wu Chi (Kam Kong), a blind assassin working for the Imperial government in 18th century China (don’t worry too much about the politics – even the subtitles seem to get a bit confused about whether we’re dealing with Mings, Chings or Manchus). Fung is living up a mountain and devoting himself to practising his kung fu to the exclusion of all else – he doesn’t seem to have had a shave or a haircut for about thirty years, for instance.

However, bad news reaches him when a carrier pigeon arrives (he snatches it out of the air in the required kung fu movie manner). Two of his disciples have been killed by the renowned martial arts expert, the One Armed Boxer! This makes Fung very angry indeed. Retrieving his signature weapon (basically a razor-lined beanie hat on the length of a piece of bathroom chain), he leaves his home by an unusual method (a standing jump straight through the roof) and sets off to track down the object of his vengeance. Cue opening credits (accompanied, unexpectedly, by a track from the krautrock band Neu!).

Little knowing that peril is approaching, Tien Lung the One Armed Boxer (Jimmy Yang Yu with his ‘missing’ arm stuffed down the front of his shirt), is peacefully running his martial arts school, showing his students how, with proper breath control and dodgy special effects, they can balance on impossibly fragile objects and run around on the ceiling. Then word comes in that another martial arts school is holding a tournament and that he has been invited to compete!

In the required kung fu movie manner, the One Armed Boxer declines – not because he’s promised his mum not to fight, which is the usual excuse in one of these films, but because they’re trying to keep a low profile and not attract the attention of the Mings (or Chings). In the end he agrees that they can all go along and spectate, but no fighting!

Meanwhile, Fung Sheng Wu Chi is methodically ripping the heads off every one-armed martial arts expert he comes across in his travels (it turns out there are a surprisingly large number of these), but decides to attend the tournament in case his target turns up to it. Do you see where this is going?

Well, it takes a while to get there, as they basically switch off the plot for twenty minutes or so (a big chunk of the film’s running time) to show half-a-dozen fights from the tournament, most of which have nothing to do with the plot beyond introducing a few more characters. However, as the sine qua non of a kung fu movie is kung fu fights, this doesn’t quite feel like filler, especially considering how absurd and inventive (not to mention over-ambitious) many of these are. It turns out one of the contestants is yet another man with one of his arms stuffed down the front of his shirt, which lures Fung out of hiding. The master of the flying guillotine has recruited various foreign fighters to assist him, and it looks like Tien Lung and his students are in terrible danger…

So, you know, this is a low-budget Taiwanese kung fu movie made over forty years ago (Jimmy Wang Yu apparently fell out with the Hong Kong studios and spent much of his career elsewhere), so you have to modify your expectations accordingly. There are special pleasures to be derived from a film like this one which you seldom find anywhere else: misspelt credits, wildly erratic subtitling, variable film-stock and the joys of a post-synched audio track (part of this is the way they put booms and crashes on the soundtrack any time anybody throws a punch or kick). It almost resembles a parody of the western idea of a bad kung fu film.

But, as I’ve suggested before, we are surely dealing with an entirely different set of expectations and conventions here, for this is the product of a very different culture to our own. The closest parallel I can come up with is the traditional Hollywood musical, which is likewise frequently absurd, non-naturalistic, and clearly built entirely around its set-piece sequences. Viewed in this way, Master of the Flying Guillotine, for all it has a low budget, contains a great many show-stopping numbers. The fact that the plot is quite routine honour-and-revenge stuff is almost immaterial, considering it contains so many great fights.

It’s not just that they are smartly choreographed, they are also imaginative and funny (whether intentionally or not) – upon noticing that Fung’s Thai henchman (played by Sham Chin-bo, who looks like Taiwan’s answer to Charles Bronson) fights barefoot, the One Armed Boxer cunningly tricks him into doing battle on what’s effectively a very large hotplate. Even more bizarre is the presence of an Indian yoga expert (played by Wong Wing-sang) whose particular schtick is that he has telescopic arms (it is generally agreed that this inspired one of the characters in the Street Fighter computer game series). The realisation of this is basically like something out of The Adventures of Twizzle, but this just adds to the joy of it all.

Master of the Flying Guillotine is not a film which will surprise you with the depth and complexity of its plot, the passion and technique of its acting performances, the deftness of its direction, or indeed any of the traditional film-making virtues. But the sheer cheerful ridiculousness of it makes it wildly enjoyable and honestly rather awesome. At least one good thing has come out of this lockdown.

Sticking with our theme of watching the next best thing, one of the films I was considering seeing before everything shut down was The Hunt, a satirical horror movie which managed the considerable feat of annoying the famously temperate and unflappable Donald Trump. The movie apparently concerns right-wing Americans being hunted for sport by liberals. This reminds me a bit of The Last Supper, a Cameron Diaz movie from the mid-90s which I remember as being pretty decent, but to be honest on this occasion I am going to look a bit further back, to 1932 and Irving Pichel and Ernest B Schoedsack’s The Most Dangerous Game.

The movie opens on a steamer in what turns out to be the Pacific Ocean: they are approaching a dangerous passage and the captain is a little perturbed that the navigation lights aren’t quite where he remembers them being. Meanwhile, back in the saloon, the passengers (all rich white dudes) are engaging in a little philosophical chat. Amongst them is celebrated big game hunter Bob Rainsford (Joel McCrea), who is quizzed about the morality of his chosen career: why do we consider humans civilised and animals savage, when we’re the ones who hunt and kill for pleasure? Bob is not swayed by this argument, suggesting that some animals actually enjoy the excitement of the hunt. Ah, says Bob’s interlocutor, but would you choose to swap places with one of the animals you hunt? Bob ducks the question. ‘There are two kinds of people in the world,’ he declares, ‘the hunters and the hunted, and I’m always going to be one of the hunters.’ Really, Bob? Are you absolutely sure about that?

Right on cue, the ship hits some rocks and sinks, with Rainsford the only survivor. He washes up on the shore of a nearby island and makes his way to the imposing fortress he discovers there, which seems to be staffed by Russian Cossacks. This is because it is the home of exiled Russian aristocrat Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), who is delighted to make Bob’s acquaintance, being a fan of his books. Zaroff is also a hunter, and sees a kindred spirit in Bob.

Apparently ships sink quite a lot near Zaroff’s private island, and also enjoying the Count’s hospitality are Eve and Martin Trowbridge, two other survivors (they are played by Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong, whom you may well recognise from another movie in particular, but we’ll return to this). They arrived here with a couple of sailors, but they are apparently off hunting somewhere and haven’t been seen for days.

Light dinner conversation ensues. Zaroff recounts how he was gored in the head by a buffalo, ever since when he has begun to find hunting less challenging, and thus less satisfying. Even using a Tartar bow instead of a rifle has failed to bring that old thrill back. But on this island he has found the answer! Here he can hunt and kill the most dangerous animals in the world, to his heart’s content…

Well, you’ve probably guessed it: Zaroff is a nutter who gets his kicks from hunting human beings. He thinks this is quite a fair contest, as if his quarry survives until the dawn following the start of the hunt they are allowed to go free (no-one has lasted this long so far). Bob, however, is appalled to learn of all this, and with a heavy heart Zaroff accepts that Bob and he are not going to be BFFs, and that he’ll have to hunt and kill Bob like all the others. Bob and Eve head into the jungle while Zaroff strings his bow and puts on his hunting trousers…

One prominent source suggests that the original short story on which this is based, Richard Connell’s The Hounds of Zaroff, is the most popular short story ever written in the English language. I’m not sure about that, but this is certainly one of the most-copied plots in both film and TV history. There have apparently been a dozen relatively straight adaptations of the story for cinema alone – apart from The Hunt, this year is due to see the release of Tremors 7, which is apparently another riff on the idea – before we even get to films which owe it an obvious debt, like Predator or The Hunger Games. The same is true of TV (I am particularly fond of the Incredible Hulk episode The Snare, in which an insane millionaire who hunts drifters for fun is surprised to find the Hulk in his sights). Given all this, you would expect this to be another case of the originator being outshone by its own successors.

And yet this isn’t quite the case. The Most Dangerous Game still stands up as a classic, if rather pulpy adventure story, and its easy to see it as part of a tradition of timeless genre movies coming out of Hollywood at this time. The 1932 release means it slots in very neatly between 1931’s Dracula (sinister eastern European aristocrat preys upon nice English-speaking folk after they visit his castle) and 1933’s King Kong (trip to a remote Pacific island does not go well). The comparisons with King Kong are particularly significant as this movie was made by the same team, featuring two of the same actors (Fay Wray is assured of screen immortality for her role in Kong, while Robert Armstrong is in another of the lead roles). I always thought King Kong was made as the follow-up to this, but apparently the two films were produced simultaneously on the same jungle sets.

Just as King Kong essentially inaugurated the Hollywood monster movie and special-effects blockbuster genres, so you could argue that The Most Dangerous Game did the same for the high-concept action-adventure movie. It has a solid script, with some unexpectedly thoughtful moments, and concludes with a well-mounted action sequence that’s still surprisingly effective today. The only area in which it shows its age is the pacing, which is probably a consequence of the film only being about an hour long – the situation and characters are introduced with care and intelligence, but the downside of this is that the actual sequence in which Zaroff hunts Rainsford doesn’t get underway until the final third of the movie. It inevitably feels somehow unbalanced as a result. Apart from this, however, the film stands up very well for its age. The basic premise of the story is such a strong and obviously dramatic one that there’s no reason to expect people will stop revisiting it on a regular basis, no matter what Donald Trump says. As it is, few films from quite so long ago have lasted as well as this one.

Ugly Competition

I don’t know what you think about the fact that all the films which were supposed to be in cinemas are now suddenly appearing on streaming sites. I had really hoped that, when we’re on the other side of this current slightly unreal-feeling situation, the cinemas would pick up where they’d left off. Clearly that’s not going to work for the smaller and mid-size films, though, so it’s understandable that they’re trying to maximise their income and make the best of whatever publicity they generated before everything shut down.

One of the films I’d been planning to see was Misbehaviour, a comedy-drama (from the look of it) about some angry feminists sabotaging a beauty contest. Although this is based on a true story, there was still something oddly familiar about the premise, and when I decided to sit down and watch some films off the internet to make up for the lack of new ones, it suddenly came to me. And so let us consider another film about angry feminists sabotaging a beauty contest, which may well be similar to Misbehaviour in other ways as well: friends, I give you Gerald Thomas’ 1973 film Carry On Girls, the twenty-fifth entry in Britain’s most numerous film series.

We find ourselves in the present day of the 1970s, in the rain-lashed seaside resort of Fircombe (the cast pronounce this in a number of interestingly different ways, possibly depending on whether they’ve noticed the attempted double entendre or not). The town council, led by Mayor Bumble (Kenneth Connor), are considering ways of attracting more people to the resort, with most of the ideas coming from amusement arcade tycoon Sid Fiddler (Sid James). The high rainfall is the problem. ‘I think an average of nine inches is good,’ declares councillor Augusta Prodworthy (June Whitfield in proto-Thatcherite mode). ‘If you think nine inches is average, you’ve been spoilt. Ha-hyah-ha,’ says Sid.

Sid’s idea is to hold a beauty contest in Fircombe, from which he naturally will make a very tidy profit. Mrs Prodworthy is outraged and leaves the meeting in a huff, but this only means Sid can bounce the others into agreeing with the idea in her absence. Soon the hotel run by Sid’s supposed fiancee, Connie Philpotts (Joan Sims), is filling up with a bevy of young lovelies, all of whom are staying rent-free (much to her annoyance). Come to think of it, Connie suspects that Sid may have an ulterior motive for volunteering to chaperone all these beautiful women. Sid does his best to placate her. ‘I don’t like beautiful women, I fancy you,’ he says.

Well, with the aid of his PR agent friend Peter (Bernard Bresslaw), Sid embarks upon a whole range of publicity stunts to drum up interest in the contest, managing at the same time to pursue outstanding contestant Hope Springs (Barbara Windsor). Meanwhile, Mrs Prodworthy and her group of Womens’ Libbers are working flat out to humiliate the mayor and stop the contest from being successful…

Monograms have probably been written on the strange linked trajectories of Hammer Horror and the Carry On comedies: both of them began within a year or so of each other, in the late 1950s, finished thirty years later, employed a virtual rep company of actors, and were a massive popular success for many years (even if not many people will now admit to watching them in the cinema). Nowadays they both have a sort of cult following, with various attempts at reviving the two brands – Hammer still release the odd film now and then, while apparently one consequence of the current crisis is that back-to-back filming on three new Carry Ons has presumably been abandoned. Hmm.

Obviously, I do enjoy a Hammer horror (vide a sizeable portion of this blog) and I must admit to a certain fondness for a good Carry On as well – they are obviously products of a different time, but the best of them are still consistently and irresistibly funny. Unfortunately, Carry On Girls is not one of the best of them – in fact, it may mark the point at which the series went into a terminal decline.

The clue may lie in the cast list. At first glance, it does look like many of the regulars have turned up – James, Sims, Windsor, Bresslaw, etc – but this was the first film in the series not to feature either Kenneth Williams or Charles Hawtrey (Connor is in the Williams role). Hawtrey had effectively been sacked from the series for alcoholism at this point. Even if they’d been there, however, the script is so flat and uninspired one wonders if it would have made any difference – the only person who seems capable of lifting the material is Sid, whom everyone else dutifully feeds lines to, but these films were never meant to be a one-man show.

Also, further down the list of participants is one Robin Askwith, on the brink of a certain kind of movie stardom in the Confessions series of sex comedies, which began the following year. It is a fairly safe rule of thumb that a British sex comedy is not going to be either sexy or amusing, and yet it is clear that this is the direction the Carry Ons were moving in when Carry On Girls was made. It’s still end-of-the-pier stuff, and most of the nudity is implied, but there’s a crass bluntness about it all which the older films just didn’t possess.

It possibly goes without saying that the gender politics on display are fairly horrific too. There are a couple of running gags about men either pursuing or groping women – the closest thing to a protagonist is Sid, who’s in his usual persona of untrustworthy lecher, while Peter Butterworth is stuck with the role of a dirty old man. The women don’t get off any easier – the younger ones are just there to be leered at, while the older ones are harpies, shrews, slatterns, or butch to the point of caricature.

It’s not good. I would argue the Carry On films are almost a British extension of the commedia del’arte, with the characters representing stock types in an exaggerated, non-naturalistic version of whenever and wherever the film is set – this film is clearly not meant to be taken remotely seriously, something which is cued by the absurd names of the characters (there’s also Peter Potter, Dawn Breaks and Ida Downs). But this one just isn’t funny enough; script and direction both seem obsessed by getting as much T&A on the screen as possible – any comedy, either broad or satirical, seems to have been of only secondary interest. This is many people’s idea of what a Carry On film is like, when in truth it’s just an example of the series at its coarsest and least inspired.

At times like this, with all the cinemas closed and all new releases cancelled, the big streaming sites virtually qualify as an emergency service for those of us who normally try to watch two or three movies a week. Oddly enough, though, I find myself drawn not to all the shiny new original films these guys have been making, but those older classics (or not) which have found a place in their libraries. (I did read a piece pointing out the sheer scarcity of films from before about 1980 on Netflix, the implication being that the site eventually wants us all to become consumers solely of its own product, in much the same way that Disney Plus is trying to make people forget any other studios exist – mind you, if you look at box office returns over the last few years, this seems to be happening anyway…)

To take my mind off what’s starting to look, for some angles. a bit like the popular conception of the apocalypse, I decided to revisit a somewhat offbeat take on the post-apocalypse, in the form of Thom Eberhardt’s Night of the Comet. I don’t think I’ve seen this movie in over thirty years – the BBC used to have a regular Sunday night slot called Moviedrome, where they would show a different cult film every week, and as you can probably imagine this had a major impact on my development as a cinema bore. I saw my first Kurosawa movie through the auspices of Moviedrome, not to mention The Terminator, The Man Who Fell to Earth, the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Alphaville,  Assault on Precinct 13, and many others. Classics all – but they also showed things like Night of the Comet, which appeared in the strand (a little research has just revealed) in 1989.

Night of the Comet was originally released in 1984. A knowingly portentous voice-over kicks off proceedings, describing the approach towards our planet of a mysterious comet, which made its last visit 65 million years ago, right about the time the dinosaurs died out. What a coincidence… It’s not one which most people pay much heed to, gathering in the streets and parks in anticipation of a literally stellar display.

Not watching the celestial fireworks, however, is steely eighteen-year-old girl Regina (Catherine Mary Stewart), as she has spent the night in the steel-lined projection room of a Los Angeles theatre with her kind-of boyfriend. Come the morning, he heads off on urgent business, only to be brained by a zombie with a wrench the moment he steps out of the building. Luckily, Reg’s dad is in the army and has taught her to deal with this kind of emergency, and she heads home, slowly realising something unexpected has occurred: piles of clothes filled with reddish dust litter the streets, and the sky is stained a baleful orange colour (‘Bad smog today’ is her first thought). Eventually she puts two and two together and realises that the comet’s radiation has disintegrated the vast majority of the population and turned everyone else into a homicidal zombie!

Well, not quite everybody else: in a credulity-bothering development, Reg’s sassy younger sister Samantha (Kelli Maroney) has also survived after spending the night in a steel garden shed. It takes a bit of persuading to make Sam realise the gravity of the situation, but eventually she wises up. The sound of DJ chatter on the radio gives the girls hope there are other survivors – but on arriving there, they find only automated equipment, broadcasting as usual. ‘Beam me up Scotty,’ says an impressed Sam.

Which is a decent cue for the appearance of truck driver Hector, given he is played by Robert Beltran (Beltran is best known for his stint in Star Trek, and the epically disgruntled interviews he would give about his lack of character development). Beltran gets top billing here, but doesn’t really deserve it. Hector also spent the night in a steel box (the back of his truck) and has had run-ins with the zombies. There is perhaps a little spark between Reg and Hector (rather to Sam’s chagrin), but before anything can develop, Hector announces he has to go and see if his mum has survived.

There is also a phone call to the station from a secret government installation who claim to be bringing survivors together – like you’d ever trust the government in this sort of situation. The head of the installation is played by Geoffrey Lewis, who is the closest thing to a mainstream movie star in this picture, while assisting him is Mary Woronov, who is both practical and stylish in boiler-suit and legwarmers. It turns out the boffins need to develop a cure for zombie-ism rather quickly (their shelter wasn’t completely steel-lined) and require the blood of bright young women to do so… Little realising the peril they are in, Sam and Reg decide to take things easy and do what any self-respecting California girl would do in this situation – load up with automatic weapons and hit the nearest shopping mall!

One of the main reasons for Night of the Comet‘s charm (which is considerable) is the way in which it shamelessly mashes together two notably dour pieces of SF to produce something much more tongue-in-cheek, even silly in places. The opening, with crowds gathering in anticipation of the show from the comet, and early reports of communication black-outs being ignored, is lifted almost beat-for-beat from John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, while the vision of an empty Los Angeles with lurking zombie-like survivors is likewise an obvious steal from The Omega Man (vide Richard Matheson, again). There are also nods to Dawn of the Dead, although to be honest the zombies remain a fairly minor element of the story, perhaps explaining why this film only received a PG-13 rating on its release, one of the first films to do so.

And yet the finished film feels like it really wants to be a comedy or spoof – a line of dialogue retains the original working title for the movie, Teenage Comet Zombies, which does feel like it would have been a better fit than the one they finished up with. I’ve always felt there was a largely-unrecognised movement of low-budget SF movies made in California in the early to mid 80s, and this is part of it – I’m thinking of movies like Trancers and Cherry 2000, as well, with The Terminator undoubtedly the most significant film to come out of this scene. As a rule they are clever, inventive, and witty, and to begin with this film is no exception, playing with its genre conventions with a knowing deftness and treating the viewer with intelligence.

The first act, until the point at which Reg and Sam meet up with Hector, barely puts a foot wrong, with the revelation of the aftereffects of the comet and the presentation of the silenced city being particularly well-done. It kind of loses focus and runs out of steam after this, though: the plot sort of ambles around for a bit, with various set-pieces going on, before pulling itself back together for a half-decent finale. The good lines are further apart and the contrivances of the plot somehow more obvious; Stewart and Maroney are good enough to make you wonder why they ended up becalmed in TV, but there are some very iffy performances further down the cast list.

The problem with the movie is that it’s just not funny enough to work as a full-on comedy or spoof, but the fact that it wants to be one means it is fatally lacking in heft in its dramatic moments – Eberhardt may have based his script on interviews with actual California teenagers, asking what they would do in the event of an apocalyptic crisis (‘go shopping’ was apparently the result – they only became concerned when he pointed out the problems involved in getting a date), but there’s still something very absurd about the sisters’ untroubled response to the catastrophe that has befallen the world. This is a fundamentally superficial film, and intentionally so, but that doesn’t mean there is not a considerable amount of entertainment value to be derived along the way.