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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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It’s always slightly disconcerting when two films in the same genre end up bearing very similar titles – I’ve written in the past of the potential confusion inherent in the existence of The Day the Earth Caught Fire and The Day the Sky Exploded, not to mention The Land That Time Forgot and Creatures the World Forgot – and this is before we come to films in the same genre, with similar titles, and weirdly similar premises as well. Pay attention, this gets complicated: Shirley Jackson wrote The Haunting of Hill House, adapted for the screen as The Haunting, while Richard Matheson wrote Hell House, which he adapted for the screen as The Legend of Hell House. Haunting? Legend? Hill House? Hell House? The what of which?

Full disclosure: it wasn’t until quite recently that I finally saw either of the films in question, and prior to that I was genuinely prone to getting them mixed up – not that it made much difference, given how little I actually knew about either of them beyond the fact they’re about misguided investigations of properties with baleful supernatural properties. Having now seen the Matheson movie, directed by John Hough, I can at least bang on about that with more of a chance of looking like I know what I’m talking about.

The movie opens with physicist Lionel Barrett (played by Clive Revill) receiving a curious challenge from the millionaire Rudolph Deutsch (Roland Culver) – Deutsch will reward Barrett handsomely if he can finally resolve the question of whether the human personality can survive after death. According to Deutsch, there is only one place where this has not been refuted – Belasco House, once the home of an insane, perverted millionaire, which has stood empty for decades. A previous attempt to investigate spiritual disturbances in the mansion led to the death of all but one of the people concerned – it has become, in Barrett’s words, ‘the Mount Everest of haunted houses’.

Assisting Barrett in his mission are a pair of mediums – one of them, Fischer (Roddy McDowell), is the sole survivor of the previous investigation, the other (Pamela Franklin) is younger and more idealistic. Also joining them is Barrett’s wife (Gayle Hunnicutt), who is rather sceptical about the whole project.

Well, Belasco House turns out to be an imposing Gothic pile, complete with bricked-up windows (could this have been to make it easier to film the interior scenes on a sound-stage) and a pre-recorded message of welcome from the last owner, Emeric Belasco. Everyone takes this in their stride remarkably well, to be honest. Barrett wants to press on with holding a seance almost as soon as they arrive, despite Fischer’s misgivings in particular: he is absolutely certain that the house has agency of its own and will actively try to kill them, tainted as it is by the succession of atrocities Belasco carried out. ‘How did it all end?’ asks Mrs Barrett, rather naively. ‘If it had all ended, we would not be here,’ replies Fischer, darkly…

You normally know where you stand when it comes to British horror movies from the early 1970s (this film was released in 1973). Hammer were in decline by this point, making a succession of increasingly lurid and dubious pictures, Amicus were in the midst of their series of portmanteau films, Tigon were just about to depart the stage – as producers, if not distributors – with The Creeping Flesh. The thing about The Legend of Hell House is that it doesn’t feel like or resemble any of those – it may be down to the presence of an American screenwriter (Matheson) and producer (James H Nicholson), but this does feel more like an American movie from the same period – where British horror films always have a tendency towards extravagance and even camp, this is much more sober and naturalistic.

The attempt at a kind of faux-documentary realism is propped up by a series of captions establishing exactly when the various scenes occur, and also by an opening card, supposedl quoting a ‘Psychic Consultant to European Royalty’ (oh, yeah) in whose opinion the events of the film ‘could well be true’. ‘Could well be true’? What the hell is that supposed to mean? Talk about hedging your bets. Nevertheless, the film’s attempts at a kind of eerie restraint work rather well, as things slowly begin to happen, to Pamela Franklin’s character in particular. The atmosphere is effectively oppressive. Much of this is due to an unsettling radiophonic score – not really music, but hardly ambient sound, either – provided by British electronica pioneers Brian Hodgson and Delia Derbyshire. Their work here is every bit as good as you would expect.

In the end, though, the film goes off on a slightly different path, and one which oddly recalls the plot of Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape (originally broadcast six months before the release of this film). Barrett, though a physicist, is open-minded about the existence of the supernatural and eventually unveils his ghost-busting machine, the operation of which performs a sort of technological exorcism of the surrounding area (the patent is filed somewhere between Carnacki’s electric pentacle and the Ghostbusters’ proton packs). Nothing wrong with a plot point like this in principle, but the problem is that it actually seems to work – nothing destroys the atmosphere and menace of a haunting like rendering it vulnerable to this sort of occult hoover. The film has to go through some fairly outrageous contortions to accommodate this and still provide a decent climax – it does so, thanks to a very odd cameo by Michael Gough and Roddy McDowell choosing just the right moment to go for it with his performance. It’s still a bit mad, though, effectively revolving around a pair of prosthetic legs and some armchair psychology, and the creepy atmosphere is perhaps a bit too thoroughly dispelled.

Still, this is still a notably effective horror movie, in many ways anticipating the way the genre would go towards the end of the decade. Performances, direction and soundtrack are all good, and if some of the plotting is a bit suspect, Matheson at least provides some very good dialogue, particularly in the opening part of the film. This is probably not the greatest haunted house movie ever made, but it is a memorable and effective one.

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The gravity of the current situation didn’t completely sink in with me until this weekend just gone, especially when I made one of my regular visits to the cinema. Everything was ostensibly the same as normal, but it had all changed, especially when it came to the trailers for coming attractions: there was something very detached from reality about studios boldly promising their next blockbuster would be coming out in April, May or June; even the ones offering a less-specific ‘Coming Soon’ seemed hopelessly optimistic. As previously mentioned hereabouts, some big movies are being pulled from the schedules and it’s hard to imagine others won’t follow suit, even if the cinemas stay open. Even Marvel Studios may finally have met their match in the coronavirus; whether this results in a fender-bender of their unreleased films piling up on top of each other remains to be seen – at the time of writing, they seem intent on hanging tough and sticking with a May date for Black Widow.

Universal, on the other hand, are being ultra-cautious and Fast and Furious 9 has been pushed back by a whole year (and this follows its release date being delayed to accommodate last year’s spin-off). Never mind the pandemic – what is the world to do without its regular fix of Vin Diesel driving crossly and quickly? Well, this particular sub-crisis could be potentially be ameliorated by the fact that Vin has had another go at a non-F&F movie (what’s that quote about doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results…?) and it is available to view in cinemas now: Bloodshot, directed by Dave Wilson, a co-production between the often badly-named Original Film Company and  Bona Films (which sounds like something out of Round the Horne).

Diesel, resembling as ever a cross between Telly Savalas and a Cape buffalo, plays Ray Garrison, an elite US special forces soldier whom we first encounter shooting some bad guys with great aplomb in Kenya. That all sorted out, he heads off for a holiday in Italy with his lovely wife (Talulah Riley). This occasions various scenes of Vin trying to play the romantic lead, which finds the big man some distance from his comfort zone, and could be considered a gruelling experience for the audience, too.

Luckily enough, the two of them are soon kidnapped by some bad guys out for revenge, led by a character named Martin Axe (Toby Kebbell). Kebbell comes on and does a little dance number to ‘Psycho Killer’ by Talking Heads, just to make it quite clear he is a psycho killer. He proves his psycho killer credentials by killing not just Vin’s missus but Vin himself (this barely qualifies as a spoiler as we haven’t even reached the opening credits yet).

Well, it probably will not come as a shock to you if I reveal that it takes more than being killed to keep a man like Vin Diesel down, especially when his body is donated to private industry by the US government. That mighty carcass falls into the hands of cyber-boffin Dr Emil Harting (Guy Pearce), who brings Vin back from the dead by replacing his blood with robots (look, I just write this stuff down). Now he is super-strong, heals like Hugh Jackman, and his new robo-blood can log onto the internet and do all kinds of improbable things. Harting wants Vin to join his team of cybernetically-reconstructed forces veterans (Eiza Gonzalez plays the obligatory ass-kicking babe), but Vin is having trouble getting his shiny head around all of this, not least because dying has given him amnesia. He wanders off by himself a lot and sits looking aggrieved, occasionally putting his head in his hands (viewers of the film may be doing the same by this point).

But then someone plays some Talking Heads on the radio and it all comes back to our man. Off he trots to exact a violent revenge on Kebbell, making full use of his robo-blood and other special faculties. But isn’t this all just a bit convenient? Could there be more going on than Vin is aware of…?

Yes, I know: the world is gripped by a pandemic, with everyone encouraged to exercise social distancing and avoid unnecessary travel, and this is the movie I spend my Sunday evening watching: not just a non-prestige superhero movie based on a comic book even I have never heard of, but a Vin Diesel vehicle to boot, and one with a very silly name. Well, what can I say: every trip to the cinema is a potential gamble nowadays, and I never was very good at knowing when to fold ’em and when to hold ’em.

Of course, in this case the odds get rather longer, because Vin Diesel’s record outside of the F&F franchise (and, I suppose, his work with Marvel, such as it is) is so variable he has pretty much given up on making other movies. This is his first non-Toretto, non-tree lead role since The Last Witch Hunter five years ago – a film which made a small profit, but was critically reviled. Quite what attracted him to this project I don’t know – but the fact it potentially gives him a chance to be in at the start of another proposed ‘superhero universe’ based on comics from Valiant (no, me neither) must have had something to do with it.

I did turn up to Bloodshot expecting not just junk, but bad junk, but I have to say this movie is not quite as poor as one might reasonably expect (someone in the theatre audibly said ‘Let’s see just how **** this movie is’ as it got underway), nor as it probably sounds from the synopsis. This is mainly due to things that happen in the second and third acts of the movie, which would really count as spoilers, so you’ll just have to trust me on this. There are some interesting ideas in the mix here, mainly connected to Vin’s unreliable memory and the way in which this affects his character. There’s something almost existential about this – if you don’t trust your own memory, how do you make any kind of decision? – and while the film certainly doesn’t dwell on the notion or explore it more than strictly necessary, it was still a touch more thoughtful than I was expecting.

In the same way, while the revenge vendetta element of the plot may sound hackneyed and predictable, there’s almost a suggestion that this is intentional – that this is a narrative intended to function on a number of levels, as a predictable, no-brainer action movie, but also as a knowing deconstruction of this kind of story. Unfortunately, mainly due to a clumsy script and direction that seems more interested in always getting to the next action sequence as fast as possible, this falls a bit flat: the whole movie is hackneyed and predictable, just not on purpose.

There are other problems too: some of the supporting performances are rather over-the-top, and there are places where the tightness of the budget just can’t be hidden – a foot chase with Vin being pursued around central London has clearly been filmed in suburban South Africa, and it’s absurd that anyone thought for a second this substitution would work.

That said, the meat-and-potatoes action stuff is reasonably well-presented. Vin Diesel is kind of an odd outlier as an action star, as he doesn’t seem to have any kind of wrestling or martial arts background (when his peers were off at the dojo, Diesel was busy playing Dungeons & Dragons) – his signature move, if that’s the right way to describe it, seems to be to hurl himself bodily at his opponents and crush them with his sheer bulk (something which perhaps achieved its apotheosis in the ‘dolphin’ headbutt demonstrated in Fast & Furious 6). Nevertheless, he is reasonably effective as the relentless human bulldozer of vengeance the story here requires.

In the end, though, this is not a great movie, for all that it ticks all the boxes and passes the time in a reasonably diverting way. If it feels particularly disappointing, that’s because there are signs here of a film with genuine wit and intelligence that never got made – instead, it’s just very routine genre stuff, aiming low and just about hitting the target, possessed of a belief that lavish CGI is a good substitute for a proper script. Who knows, we may see future appearances by Diesel as this character, or further movies in this setting – but I don’t think we’ll be missing much if they never happen.

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