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Posts Tagged ‘1960s’

If you’re going to do a classic horror movie revival, then the chances are it’s going to happen on Halloween, and this year in particular it feels especially appropriate to disinter a movie by the late George A Romero, who passed away a few months ago. So it was that the main screening last night at the Ultimate Picture Palace (I’m virtually certain the name is intended ironically – if not, someone needs to have a quiet word) was of Jim Sharman’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Oh well, you can’t have everything.

Nevertheless, clawing itself a place on the schedule in the teatime slot was, indeed, a showing of Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, although technically this was not Halloween-related: the owner of the UPP has been running a series of her favourite films, just ‘cos, and apparently Night of the Living Dead is one of them. So there you go.

There’s a bit in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood where the hapless director declares that if you want to establish yourself as a commercially-successful film director, the place to start is with a horror movie, as – historically speaking – no other genre has the same kind of budget-to-profit ratio. The long tradition of micro-budget horror movies turning out to be massive money-spinners found one of its greatest expressions with Night of the Living Dead (the fact it in parts resembles one of Ed Wood’s own Z-movies does not seem entirely coincidental, somehow).

Romero was making TV commercials in his native Pittsburgh but wanted to branch out, and this was the result: largely filmed at weekends, funded by members of the production company, and featuring a largely non-professional cast, it is almost the definition of guerrilla film-making – the premise is hardly very original, either, owing various bits of narrative DNA to sources as diverse as I Am Legend (the author of which thought Romero’s movie was ‘kind of cornball’) and Hammer’s The Plague of the Zombies (Romero thought that employing zombies in your workforce was bad business practice and would inevitably lead to problems).

The movie opens on a Sunday evening in Spring, as siblings Johnny and Barbra (Russell Streiner and Judith O’Dea) visit a rural cemetery to pay their respects at their father’s grave. Barbra finds the place creepy, which Johnny mocks her for, but the joke is soon on him as he is savagely attacked by a total stranger who wanders into the area. Barbra flees, taking refuge in a remote farmhouse not far away.

There she is joined by Ben (Duane Jones), a young man who has also been a target for mysterious, random violence. Soon people, or creatures, like the one from the cemetery are clustering outside the house and looking for a way in. Having attempted to fortify the place single-handed, Ben is somewhat disgruntled to learn that another five people have been hiding in the cellar all the time, and a tense atmosphere develops between the different survivors.

TV reports indicate that radiation brought to Earth from space is causing the recently deceased to reanimate and devour the living, and that the safest course of action is to get to a rescue centre where medical support and armed protection is available. But can the group work together long enough to escape from the house, with the numbers of the living dead growing outside?

So, here we are, at an epochal moment in modern culture: the very first zombie apocalypse (even if they’re never actually referred to as zombies, and at the end of the film the authorities seem to have matters well under control). It would be great to be able to report that this is a film which lives up to its place in history, transcending its low-budget Z-movie origins with skill and subtlety.

Alas, that isn’t quite the case: during the screening I was at, the silence was more frequently broken by laughter than cries of alarm or distress, and I could kind of understand why. To a modern audience coming in fresh off the street, Night of the Living Dead doesn’t resemble a great horror movie so much as a parody of bad horror movies, with dubious special effects, sub-professional performances from most of the cast, and somewhat overwrought music and direction.

Apparently, at one point Romero’s intention was to hedge his bets by making a genuine horror-comedy, and to begin with it looks like he is deliberately playing with audience expectations and the tropes of the genre – a young couple drive out into a remote part of the countryside, which is how a thousand cautionary tales begin, but they turn out to be brother and sister, and illicit hanky-panky is the last thing on their minds. The first of the monsters to appear does so quite understatedly, wandering around in the back of shot for some time. Elsewhere Romero seems to be deliberately playing to cliche, with Barbra a stereotypical damsel in distress, unable to cope with the situation – almost to the point where she disappears out of the plot, present but barely participating.

(Seriously, Barbra is absolutely the last person you want to be stuck with in the middle of a zombipocalypse, as she is almost literally useless and rather annoying to boot. Ben certainly seems to find her rather hard work: the biggest laugh at the UPP showing came at the moment where all the sobbing and complaining and general hysteria gets too much and he punches her out.)

You really have to bear in mind that this film was made at a time when American horror movies consisted to a large extent of Vincent Price brooding over his late wife’s portrait, with additional dialogue provided by Edgar Allen Poe. There’s a low-fi rawness about Night of the Living Dead that is wholly new to the genre at this point, and you can almost sense Romero finding his voice as the film goes on: the real drama is not really focused on the ghouls outside, but the fraught relationships between the human characters. The hackneyed stock music cues fade away during the movie’s more exuberant moments of gratuitous nastiness, replaced by pulsing radiophonic growls and shrieks.

However, if Romero was trying to make some kind of satirical statement with Night of the Living Dead, it’s not entirely clear what it is – it’s certainly much less self-evident than the subtext about consumerism in Dawn of the Dead, for instance. Is it on some level about American society at the height of the Vietnam war? Is it about the Civil Rights struggle? It’s genuinely hard to tell – although it is striking that, for most of the film, the fact that the tough, bright and capable male lead is African-American is not commented on at all. Only the nihilistic twist at the very end of the film seems to acquire any additional significance from Duane Jones’ ethnicity.

In the end, Night of the Living Dead is one of those movies which is massively important without actually being especially accomplished – personally, I can appreciate its role in the development of the horror movie, but I think Dawn of the Dead is a technically much superior film in every respect. But context is everything. This clumsy, primitive thing crawled out of the wilds of Pennsylvania nearly fifty years ago, and the virus it was incubating has gone on to become a major part of the cultural landscape. For all its obvious flaws, this remains the index case, and it still retains its power to disturb.

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Sometimes I could almost believe the people at Lovefilm are reading this blog and sitting in judgement upon it. One of the unusual (and, to my mind, rather enjoyable) aspects of my soon-to-be-defunct DVD rental service is the random nature of it – you basically get very little control over what films from your list they decide to send you. Is there some sort of lucky dip system in effect at Lovefilm HQ? Somehow I doubt it, for there have been several occasions when I have received a string of suspiciously similar films in a row. On these occasions I can almost hear a spectral voice saying ‘We enjoyed your review of that last Woody Allen film. Have another one.’ And my thoughts on Tales from the Crypt seem likewise to have earned the approbation of the DVD gods, for landing on my figurative mat this week was another Amicus portmanteau horror movie – the daddy of them all, in the form of Freddie Francis’ 1965 film Dr Terror’s House of Horrors. All I can say is: DVD gods, please send Tiptoes before your service closes down.

Anyway – yes, this is the one with Fluff Freeman and the killer vine. This was the original Amicus portmanteau, and as a result it does feel a little less formulaic than later films in the subgenre. Scripted by Amicus head honcho Milton Subotsky, apparently the film originated in the late 1940s, with the script hanging around for fifteen years or so before it finally went into production – scholars of American horror movies of the mid-40s have suggested that all the segments of House of Horrors are to some extent derivative of other movies and stories from that period, but this is not especially obvious to a modern audience.

The movie opens with a group of men gathering in a train compartment, and you do get a sense almost at once that this isn’t a film completely trapped in the horror ghetto – true, you do have Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee giving their legendary imprimatur to proceedings (although both are somewhat cast against type), but there’s also a very young Donald Sutherland, not to mention all-round entertainer Roy Castle and the disc jockey (and not very good actor) Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman. Something for everyone there, I’m tempted to say.

Anyway, Cushing is playing the enigmatic Dr Schreck (German for ‘terror’, naturally), which allows the actor to have some fun with a peculiar accent, and really go to town with the make-up box: his fake eyebrows suggest a couple of hairy caterpillars are engaged in a courtship ritual on his forehead. When he reveals he’s carrying a set of tarot cards in his luggage, and they have mystical powers to foretell the future and shape destiny, the others are initially doubtful – especially Lee’s snotty art critic. But one by one they consent to have their fortune told…

First up is Werewolf (the segment subtitles leave a little to be desired, if you ask me), a slightly overplotted tale of an architect (Neil McCallum) who returns to his recently-sold family home to do some surveying work for the new owner (Ursula Howells). Soon enough he discovers the coffin of a legendary sorcerer and werewolf, the magnificently named Cosmo Valdemar, walled up in the cellar, and recalls old tales of Valdemar’s undying hatred of his family. Better start melting down the silver crucifix to make bullets, then… but is there something else going on that our man is not aware of?

The least you can say about any of the stories in House of Horrors is that they are atmospherically filmed, and this one is no exception. However, each of them also stands or falls on the strength of its punchline, so to speak, and the question of exactly what’s going on here always seems to me to be a little confused. Or, to put it another way, you don’t really expect to have to work out the plot of an Amicus portmanteau story for yourself. Hey ho.

No such worries in the next one, The Creeping Vine – yes, the time has finally come. One of the distinguishing things about this film is that it’s not about dodgy types receiving their well-earned comeuppance, which is basically the rationale of later films like Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horrors and From Beyond the Grave – it’d be a stretch to describe any of the protagonists here as actually wicked, they’re petty or foolish at worst. And yet their fates are uniformly pretty grim. In this case, Fluff Freeman plays a very ordinary bloke who comes back off holiday to find a peculiar vine has sprung up in his garden. The vine violently resists any attempts at pruning, which is enough to prompt Fluff to head off to consult some boffins.

‘I’m pretty good at handling garden tools, I don’t think those shears slipped!’ says Fluff to the experts (I can’t understand why that line has not become one of the most celebrated movie quotes in history). The boffins (Jeremy Kemp and Bernard Lee), who obviously have far too much free time, speculate that rather than being a gardening mishap, this may be evidence of a sentient mutant plant having appeared, and one of them actually moves in with Fluff to investigate.

Well, who’d have guessed it, but the boffins are right, and soon the malevolent vine is strangling family pets and covering the whole house. Bernard Lee brings remarkable gravitas to an uproariously silly story, all the more so given he was apparently so much the worse for drink during most of his scenes that he had to deliver his dialogue sitting down. Fluff, meanwhile, just stands around looking slightly bemused by the whole thing. Very entertaining, but hardly the high-point of the British botanical horror tradition, and once again the ending is just a bit too ambiguous.

Next up is Voodoo, the tale of Roy Castle’s hapless jazz trumpeter (it’s Roy Castle, of course he’s going to have a trumpet), who is sent off for a residency in Haiti along with his band. We’re heading into slightly problematic territory here, with Haiti depicted as a hotbed of black magic and voodoo (Castle’s attempt at a West Indian accent at one point is also rather embarrassing), but the casting of Kenny Lynch allows the film to undercut the stereotypes a little.

Castle is much taken with the music of the local voodoo ceremonies and plans to arrange it for his jazz group, despite the objections of the local houngan, who insists it is ancient and sacred to his god Dhambala. ‘Oh, well, if it’s that old, it’s out of copyright…’ says Castle. Needless to say the playing of the music leads to unfortunate events back in London. A slightly lighter tone to this one, mainly because of Castle’s deft comic performance (hard to imagine first-choice actor Acker Bilk being quite so capable), if (a pattern develops) the climax is a little underpowered.

Christopher Lee’s stuffy art critic consents to have his future told next, and suffice to say it is entitled Disembodied Hand. Lee’s pompous and snobbish character gets involved in a feud with an artist (Michael Gough), which spins out of control. Gough is maimed and commits suicide as a result, but his severed hand is still on the loose and seeking revenge on Lee…

A really good performance from Lee here, who is miles away from his traditional kind of role – here he plays a vain, foolish man who gradually succumbs to terror as the hand’s relentless attempts at vengeance go on, and on, and on. The crawling hand prop is actually rather impressive, given this is not exactly a big-budget film – the hand would go on to have a fairly distinguished career in other Amicus productions, playing one of Richard Greene’s severed hands in Tales from the Crypt, for instance. A strong ending, too, finally.

And so to (spoiler alert) Vampire, in which doctor Donald Sutherland sets up in small town USA with his faintly exotic foreign bride. No sooner have they settled into their new home than mysterious cases of anaemia start cropping up amongst the townsfolk, often accompanied by strange marks on the neck…

I think this is a fairly witty little story, provided you don’t know the twist going into it. Not a great showcase for Sutherland, though, partly because while his character may be a qualified doctor, he’s also depicted as rather a dim bulb, but mainly because Sutherland gets bulldozed off the screen by Max Adrian, here playing the town’s other doctor, one of those actors with a tremendous capacity for stealing scenes.

Then it’s time for the final twist of the framing story. Now, as I’ve observed before, the thing about the Amicus portmanteaus is that the final twist is nearly always the same in all of them, but bearing in mind it would have been new and original on this occasion, I think it’s a reasonably good way of ending the movie.

All in all, Dr Terror’s House of Horrors feels rather less schlocky and threadbare than some of its successors, possibly because it’s not principally based on American horror comic books (as a couple of the other films were). Derivative it may be, but its choice of subject matter is sound – a vampire, a werewolf, a crawling hand, voodoo magic, and a killer plant… again, something for everyone here – and the film has an interesting mixture of styles. The werewolf story is properly gothic, the vine is more of an SF B-movie, the voodoo story is somewhat played for laughs, and so on. This, along with the extraordinarily eclectic and interesting casting, gives the film a real sense of variety and colour. You can see why Amicus and many others have endlessly reused this formula in the years since Dr Terror’s House of Horrors was made, but this film has a touch of class almost all the others lack.

 

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From Russia, With Love is, of course, the James Bond story which concludes with the death of Agent 007, undone by his own hubris, not to mention a spiked toecap covered in nerve poison. Bond crashes to the floor, struggling for breath, and everything fades to black, thus allowing his creator to get rid of a character he’d grown rather bored by.

I refer, of course, to From Russia, With Love the novel, not From Russia With Love the movie, at the conclusion of which James Bond is as unstoppably lively and priapic as ever. (As it turned out, Ian Fleming’s intention to kill Bond off was not followed through in the books, either, and the character went on to feature in several more novels, courtesy of prompt first aid from the French secret service.) There was surely never any intention to retain the ambiguous ending of the book for Terence Young’s 1963 movie version, mainly because one gets a strong sense of the producers realising just how good a thing they might be onto here – there’s an almost cautious quality about Dr No, the film-makers’ message being ‘This is a bit different, we think it’s quite good’, but by the following year they seem much more self-assured: this time round the subtext is ‘This is great, you’re going to love it.’

One thing which I think is too-little commented upon is the way that several of the early Bond movies arguably improve on the plots of the novels on which they are based. I’m not talking about those instances of the two shooting off in wildly different directions – the novel of You Only Live Twice is a dark, introspective tale of the death of the self, while the film concerns Blofeld’s spaceship-gobbling volcano – but those where the movie script adds just another level of complexity and adventure to the story.

I’m thinking of the nuclear bomb angle in Goldfinger (absent from the novel), and the main thrust of the plot in From Russia With Love. Bond himself (Connery, obvs) is absent for nearly the first twenty minutes of the film (well, a lookalike in a Connery mask gets killed right at the start), which concerns the nefarious machinations of SPECTRE, back when the organisation wasn’t run by Bond’s long-lost estranged secret adoptive brother (because the series is so much more gritty and realistic these days). SPECTRE are planning on stealing a top-secret Russian cipher machine and then selling it back to the Kremlin, employing an engagingly labyrinthine scheme dreamt up by a Czech chess grandmaster (Vladek Sheybal). The plan involves traitorous former Russian officer Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya), a paranoid homicidal maniac (Robert Shaw), a home-made blue movie, a winsome Russian file clerk (Daniela Bianchi), and – of course – British Intelligence’s most libidinous operative.

The late Kevin McClory’s claim to part-ownership of the entire Bond movie franchise, not just Thunderball, was based on the fact that he co-created SPECTRE, which was inserted into movies based on books in which the organisation did not feature. McClory argued that it is the fantasy of SPECTRE which turns the Bond stories from being slightly dour thrillers into something more accessible and fun. SPECTRE doesn’t feature in the novel, which revolves around an attempt by the Russian secret service to take their British opposite numbers down a few pegs, but Blofeld and his team are inserted into the script with great deftness, arguably improving the story a lot. Bond and M assume that this is a Russian plan from the start, while the Russians themselves have no idea what’s going on either. It’s unusual for the audience to be quite so many steps ahead of Bond as they are for much of this movie, and it works rather well in establishing tension, as well as making Bond less of an annoyingly smug superhero.

We’re still not quite in the realm of Bond movies as the theatre of the absurd, either – From Russia With Love is a little bit out there with its depictions of Blofeld and ‘SPECTRE Island’ (just down the coast from Anglesey, no doubt), but most of it is no more ridiculous than the average Jason Bourne movie. The movie is trying to be credible, not incredible, which is why chief heavy Grant (Shaw) isn’t a cartoon character like the movie versions of Oddjob or Tee Hee, and more interesting and plausible as a threat.

That said, you can see the elements of the Bond formula coming into focus with this movie, many of which weren’t there in Dr No: the pre-title sequence, the catchy theme song, the scene in which Bond is kitted out with handy gadgets by Q (not named as such on this debut appearance, and not showing much personality, either), and so on. The rest of it is the usual mixture of glamorous exotic locations, masculine power fantasy, and action set pieces – though it’s telling that the last few action beats of the film are distinctly low-key to the modern eye: a few motorboats catch fire and Bond has a fight with a middle-aged woman. The film certainly feels like it climaxes with the (really well-staged) fight to the death between Bond and Grant.

Connery swaggers through it all with his customary insouciance – in the past I have occasionally observed that I don’t think he’s an actor with a particularly impressive range, but he is always very good at projecting this particular type of character. The rest of the support is pretty good as well. Notable Bond girl trivia includes the fact that Eunice Gayson reappears as Bond’s girl-at-home (I met her once, 40 years after this film was made, and, do you know – she looked completely different), and Martine Beswick (ahhh, Martine Beswick) racks up (if that’s the right term) another Bond appearance as one of the fighting gypsy girls (she is credited as ‘Martin Beswick’ in the titles, which gives a wholly misleading impression).

It’s 2017, and From Russia With Love is closer in time to the end of the First World War than it is to the present day. The Bond films that are made nowadays are different beasts in terms of size, scale, expectations, and tone, but they still owe a huge debt to this film and a few other early 60s Bonds. The film is so much a product of its time that this in itself is a surprise; the fact that it still stands up as one of the very best films in the series is another. But there you go. The Bond series has long since become a legend, and every great legend hides a few mysteries.

 

 

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I know, I know: you go seven years without a single review of an AIP Vincent Price movie, and then three come along in as many months. Blame the lucky dip nature of my DVD rental service (still waiting for Tiptoes, alas) – still, these are AIP Vincent Price movies, so there’s only so disappointed you can legitimately be. This week they sent me The Raven, a 1963 movie directed by (but of course!) Roger Corman, from AIP’s series of Poe movies.

This time around, the movie is based on a poem rather than a work of fiction, but otherwise the formula is wholly intact. Here is a screenplay from the great Richard Matheson. Here is Vincent Price, brooding over his dead wife’s picture. Here is a supporting cast featuring some unexpectedly big names, given the kind of movie that this is. Here are some pretty decent production values. It’s basically rather like an American Hammer movie, except slightly more genteel and with fewer hard edges.

The Raven is set in a rather fantasticalised version of the 16th century (historical accuracy is extremely low on the movie’s list of priorities), with Price playing Erasmus Craven, gentleman, scholar, and magician. Erasmus has withdrawn from the society of his peers and has become a bit of a recluse, partly because he objects to the plotting and scheming of his fellow adepts, and also because it gives him more time to brood over the portrait of his dead wife Lenore (Hazel Court, which may tip you off to the fact that Lenore is not as dead as originally advertised), somewhat to the concern of his lovely daughter Estelle (Olive Sturgess).

Then, one dreary midnight, as Erasmus sits, weak and weary, pondering over a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore (oh yes, I know a thing or two about Poe, and also how to Google the text of a poem), a raven turns up, knocking at his window. Erasmus lets the bird in, and, as he is played by Vincent Price in a Roger Corman movie, beseeches the bird thusly – ‘Shall I ever hold again the radiant maiden whom the angels call Lenore?’ The raven departs from Poe by responding ‘How the hell should I know?’, which pretty much sets the tone for what follows. (Apparently this was a departure from the script, as well as Poe, as Peter Lorre (who voices the bird) was much given to ad libbing on the set.)

It turns out that the raven is actually Erasmus’ fellow magician Adolphus Bedlo (Lorre), who has been magically transformed into a bird following a magical duel with the Grand Master of the Brotherhood of Magicians, Scarabus (Boris Karloff), the arch-rival of Erasmus’ dead father. Erasmus is happy to help Bedlo return to human form, but doesn’t want to get mixed up in the squabble between Bedlo and Scarabus – until he mentions that he has seen a woman resembling the supposedly dead Lenore in Scarabus’s castle. Erasmus pooh-poohs this idea, and offers to show Bedlo Lenore’s body, which he keeps in a box in his hallway (‘Where else?’ deadpans Lorre), but he is shocked to see she has been replaced by that of someone else. Desperate to learn the truth, Erasmus agrees to go to Scarabus’s castle with Bedlo, accompanied by his daughter and Bedlo’s son Rexford (John J Nicholson, who could have had a pretty good career if he’d just stuck with low-budget horror movies). Perhaps another clash of magics is on the cards…

The immediately previous movie in the Poe cycle, Tales of Terror, had as its centrepiece The Black Cat, a darkly comic, more than slightly outrageous tale co-starring Price and Lorre, and Corman and Matheson apparently enjoyed making it so much that they decided to have a go at making a full-length movie in a similar vein. Most of The Raven was invented whole-cloth by Richard Matheson, there not being quite enough material in a 108-line poem to sustain a movie even of only 86 minutes. I think it’s really stretching to describe The Raven as an actual horror film, even by the standards of the early 1960s – it’s more of a very tongue-in-cheek fantasy adventure, impossible to take seriously.

It does make full use of Price’s ability as a comic actor, of course, and also – I’m tempted to say – his generosity as a performer, as he tends to be outrageously upstaged by Peter Lorre in every scene the two of them share, with Price very much the straight man of the duo (‘I think you need something for the cold,’ Erasmus declares to Bedlo, as the two of them prepare to depart, which prompts his guest to head straight for the drinks cabinet). Boris Karloff’s performance is less showy, but then the sheer understatedness of it is much of the fun. He’s up against it when competing with the other senior members of the cast.

If the overall quality of The Raven‘s cast isn’t quite clear yet, let me put it this way: one of the actors in this movie has received more Oscar nominations for his work than any other man in history. Yes, really. It’s not Price, Lorre, or Karloff, though – playing Lorre’s son, in case you haven’t worked it out, is Jack Nicholson (yes, that Jack Nicholson), who turns up in a lot of AIP movies from this period, partly because his father James H Nicholson is the executive producer on them. It’s fair to say that there is not much sign here of the movie legend Nicholson would eventually become – although there’s a sequence where he is briefly possessed by evil magic, and does the same face made famous by The Shining – but he does give a very game performance, dashing about the set in tights, cape, and feathery hat. I doubt this movie was ever very prominent on his showreel, though.

The silliness of much of The Raven doesn’t prevent it from having a more intricate plot than you might expect, nor indeed an unexpectedly sound narrative structure, with a proper character arc for Vincent Price to work his way through. It may be a disposable comedy, but Matheson has clearly taken the writing of it very seriously, which is probably why it still stands up so well today. Corman directs with his usual efficiency, and comes up with at least one outstanding sequence, the final magician’s duel between Erasmus and Scarabus, which in addition to being witty and inventive, even has some pretty decent animated special effects.

I still think The Masque of the Red Death is the zenith of the Corman-Poe series of movies, but it’s a very different kind of film to The Raven, and very definitely a genuine horror-fantasy. The Raven is much more knockabout entertainment, but the strength of the script and particularly the comic performances means there is still a huge amount to enjoy about this movie even today.

 

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If you think of British film companies of the 60s, particularly makers of genre movies, then of course you think of Hammer, then probably Amicus, and perhaps Tigon in third place. It might be quite a long time before you remembered Planet, a much smaller outfit these days best remembered for a couple of Terence Fisher films – Island of Terror, from 1966, and Night of the Big Heat, from 1967. Island of Terror was a moderately successful monster movie, rather let down by ropey monster props and a slightly stuffy tone. Night of the Big Heat (also known by the rather more promising title Island of the Burning Damned) almost looks like an attempt at a remake with these things fixed.

Everything takes place on the island of Fara, which we are told is somewhere off the coast of the UK. The film actually has a very unpromising opening, with no dialogue for ages and no real sense of what’s going on: someone’s radar set explodes in his face, a young woman (Jane Merrow) drives around in her convertible, and a stern-looking man (Christopher Lee) is engaged upon some mysterious experiments involving cameras and mirrors and bits of wood. (One of these scenes turns out not to have happened yet, and is just a teaser for much later on.)

Eventually we get some sense of the set-up here. Key locations on Fara include the weather station and the gravel pits (a useful location for staging mysterious deaths and the climax), but most of the action takes place in the pub, which is run by slab-faced alpha-male novelist Jeff Callum (Patrick Allen) and his wife Frankie (Sarah Lawson). Lodging in the pub is mysterious outsider Dr Hanson (Lee), while constantly propping up the bar is genial GP Dr Stone (‘guest star’ Peter Cushing). New on the scene is Jeff’s latest secretary, Angela (Merrow), who is a bit of a naughty minx: she and Jeff have history together, if you know what I mean, and she’s come to Fara intent on resuming their liaison. A torrid time is in prospect.

Especially torrid given the island is sweltering in the grip of a tremendous, unseasonal heatwave, which is making TV sets and bottles of beer spontaneously explode. (All the men have had ridiculous sweat-patches applied to their shirts by the costume department.) What’s going on? Does it have anything to do with Dr Hanson’s experiments?

Well, sort of. It seems that space probes from Earth have attracted the attention of alien creatures composed of ‘high frequency heat’ and they are using Fara as a beachhead for their invasion of Earth. Anyone who crosses their path – sheep, supporting characters, those old tramps who are such a regular feature of this kind of movie – is rapidly incinerated. Is everyone doomed?

The least you can say for Night of the Big Heat – you know, I do think Island of the Burning Damned is a better title – is that it more or less avoids the key problems that Island of Terror had: the alien monsters are kept off-screen for most of the movie (and the monster props are marginally better when they do appear), and the general tone of the thing is pepped up by some mildly saucy business between Allen and Merrow (not to mention Merrow providing some cheap PG-rated cheesecake thrills). And yet this is still a worse movie than the previous Planet production.

How can this be? Well, firstly, all the stuff about Jeff being unable to keep his hands off Angela, and her scheme to have her way with him, scarcely informs the main plot of the film – it’s filler, basically, and very melodramatic filler too. The characterisation of Angela is, shall we say, problematic: she is a one-dimensional Bad Girl, who functions primarily as a sex object, and she’s the first one to lose it completely as the situation grows increasingly dire. (On the other hand, at least she can type.)

However, at least this makes a vague sort of sense, which is more than you can really say for the alien monster invasion storyline, which starts off as slightly dubious and rapidly becomes very silly indeed; this is the kind of film you can imagine inspiring the Monty Python ‘Sci Fi movie’ sketch. As ever, you are left filled with admiration for Christopher Lee’s ability to treat this kind of material with a gravity and intensity it doesn’t remotely deserve. By the end of the film Lee is participating in expository scenes explaining how the alien invasion has happened which are basically utter gibberish, before running outside to implement his character’s ridiculous plan to see off the invaders (this involves many shots of Lee setting fire to haystacks with a flare pistol), and he genuinely seems to be taking it completely seriously. What a legend. Peter Cushing is, of course, equally good, though not in the film enough – though we do get a marvellous example of Cushing’s wonderful ‘death-spasm’ acting (let’s see Disney’s CGI Cushing do that).

Most of the film is fairly competently made, but the script is so thick-headed that it’s more or less impossible to take seriously as a piece of drama, and it’s not even particularly enjoyable as camp entertainment. Night of the Big Heat came out in 1967, coincidentally the same year as In the Heat of the Night. One of these films is a timeless classic that deservedly won critical acclaim and several Oscars. The other one is a dim-witted B-movie with Jane Merrow in a bikini and aliens defeated by their poor grasp of meteorology. You can kind of see why Planet Film Productions never achieved a higher profile.

 

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It is with some relief that I turn away from the rise of Nazism, the horrors of the trenches, and anti-semitic pogroms in the last days of Tsarist Russia, and instead apply my attention to musical which is – everyone agrees – almost completely charming and lovely, provided you overlook a few minor elements of the story, such as widescale exploitation of children, violent crime, and an abusive relationship ending in someone being battered to death. At least the anti-semitism this time around is fairly low-key, probably because the gentleman who wrote all the music and lyrics was himself Jewish.

I speak of course of Carol Reed’s 1968 film Oliver!, the last musical for nearly 35 years to win the Oscar for Best Picture, and the last British film to do so until Chariots of Fire in 1981. Despite this, and the fact it has a British cast and director, it still feels like an oddly Americanised version of Charles Dickens, on whose novel Oliver Twist it is obviously based.

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The film admits to being a ‘free adaptation’ of Dickens, but most of the bits you probably know from the book are still here (yes, both of them). Oliver Twist (Mark Lester, consistently moist throughout and frequently downright wet) has grown up in a workhouse in Dunstable, but is thrown out when he dares to ask for second helpings after dinner one day. After a brief interval working for an undertaker, he hitch-hikes down to London.

Here he falls into arguably very bad company, primarily that of Fagin (Ron Moody) and his gang of child pickpockets, including the Artful Dodger (Jack Wild). Amongst Fagin’s connections is the rather more brutal criminal Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed), whose devoted girlfriend Nancy (Shani Wallis) nevertheless takes a shine to the small damp waif. When Oliver falls back into the hands of the authorities, Sikes and Fagin are deeply concerned he may be about to snitch on the lot of them, and their scheme to get him back results in tragedy, as well as a few top-rate song and dance numbers…

Mmm, yes, about those song and dance numbers – there is surely the argument to be made that when it comes to musical films, the overall quality of the actual piece is fundamentally linked to how good the songs are – the tunes are, essentially, the sine qua non of a musical, right? If this is the case, then Oliver! is surely one of the greatest musicals of all time, for the killer-to-filler ratio is so good as to lend credence to the suggestion that Lionel Bart (writer of same) was some kind of musical genius. The problem, such as it is, is really that the film-makers know how good the songs are and possibly milk them just a bit too much. The film’s huge set-piece numbers, primarily ‘Consider Yourself’ and ‘Who Will Buy?’, seem to go on forever, with more and more dancers turning up as the choruses repeat. And I find it just a bit draining, not to mention the fact that it’s a Disney-picture-book-ish portrait of Victorian London (I can’t quite shake the suspicion everyone involved was sneakily looking at Mary Poppins and working out how to go one bigger and better).

It’s all a bit at odds with the main thrust of the tale, which (as noted) is an essentially dark one (the climactic chase puts me rather in mind of how some Hammer movies conclude, although this may be down to Reed’s long-standing connection to the House of Horror). The most engaging characters in the film, Fagin and the Dodger, are at best amoral rogues, and the scenes in the criminal netherworld are a good deal more interesting than the ones in ‘respectable’ London. But the songs aren’t really about this world, apart from perhaps ‘You Got To Pick A Pocket or Two’, and even this is another cheery little number. Cut from the film, quite possibly because Oliver Reed couldn’t sing, was Bill Sikes’ song ‘My Name’, and as a result Reed has to rely on sheer charisma to make an impression (needless to say, he manages it effortlessly).

The odd tension at the heart of Oliver! is that the theme of what’s quite a dark story is one of belonging and camaraderie – most of the songs are either about the pleasure and comfort of being part of a gang, or part of a world (most obviously ‘Consider Yourself’), or the other side of the coin, feeling lonely and abandoned (‘Where is Love’, ‘As Long As He Needs Me’). Even the utterly brilliant comic character song, ‘Reviewing the Situation’ (which, as performed by Moody, is just about as perfect a marriage of actor and material as anything in the history of musical cinema) has a brief moment of pathos as Fagin contemplates his own mortality and lonely old age.

In the end, though, this is ultimately cinema as grand entertainment, mounted on a lavish scale (complete with overture, entr’acte, and exit music on its original release), and the songs from the original much more intimate stage version of the show thrive here surprisingly well, helped by a very strong cast and great performances (even if, these days, you can’t really watch Jack Wild here without being reminded of everything else that came later in his life). For me there just a bit too much emphasis on jolly spectacle at the expense of the story for Oliver! to qualify as a movie absolutely of the first rank, but it’s still a great piece of entertainment.

 

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There comes a time in every film reviewer’s life when he realises that, having set out to write a series on notable musicals from years gone by, the films actually at his disposal are not exactly a representative bunch: tending towards darkness in their tone, arguably Euro-centric, and mostly hailing from a brief period in the late 60s and early 70s. What can I say? The Sound of Music isn’t on Netflix, and anyway, that one’s about the Anschluss and has nearly as many Nazis in it as Cabaret.

Let’s briefly step away from musicals about the rise of authoritarianism and the insidious creep of prejudice and move on to the lighter subject of… oh. The First World War. Some days, you just can’t get rid of a bomb. Oh! What a Lovely War was made in 1969, directed by Richard Attenborough (his first time in the big chair) and, nearly as interestingly, produced and written by the noted novelist and chef Len Deighton. The project began as a stage production by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, and the theatrical origins of the film are fairly apparent to the discerning viewer.

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The film’s main conceit is to present the First World War (or, as it’s slightly jarringly described here, World War One) as a sea-side attraction on a pier in Brighton. Field Marshal Haig (John Mills) is manning the turnstyle, handing out tickets to the families eagerly crowding in, most prominently the Smiths, who are the main points of audience identification. Within the pavilion on the pier, more distinguished figures gather – initially heads of state and foreign ministers, later the senior staff of the army.

Initially the tone is cheery and playful, no doubt intended to reflect the enormous public enthusiasm for the war during its early stages, but as the initial battles occur the film grows darker and more sombre, as it continues to do throughout the film. We are surely all aware of the grim progress of the war: a labyrinth of trenches stretching from the Alps to the coast, and slaughter on an almost industrial scale as the commanders settled on a policy of victory through attrition.

So, you may possibly be wondering, where are all the songs? Well, they are present, but one of the things that makes Oh! What a Lovely War a bit of an outlier as musicals go is the fact that it is mainly built around period songs – the popular music of the war itself, with numbers like ‘Who put the Kibosh on the Kaiser?’, ‘The Bells of Hell go Ding-a-ling’ and ‘Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire’. These are not the stuff of conventional musical theatre – they’re not strictly speaking ‘I am’ or ‘I want’ songs as they are conventionally understood, and their role in the film is equally ambiguous. They’re not exactly there solely to create atmosphere, but neither do they really advance the plot much.

Not that there really is much of a plot, of course, just a series of vignettes, some strikingly naturalistic, others surreal, detailing the course of the war. One consequence of this is that the Smith family, whom we are supposed to identify with, never quite come to life as people despite being portrayed by some very fine actors (Maurice Roeves, Angela Thorne and Corin Redgrave amongst them).

Rather more striking are the film’s cutaway scenes, generally surreal, featuring other characters – and here Richard Attenborough was clearly able to call upon all his resources as a fixer and a movie star in his own right, for the cast list of this movie is virtually a who’s who of great British actors of the period. The only major performer who seems to have eluded his net is Alec Guinness – the opening scene alone features Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Kenneth More, Ian Holm, and Jack Hawkins. Appearing elsewhere are Laurence Olivier, Dirk Bogarde, Susannah York, most of the rest of the Redgrave family, and Maggie Smith (vamping it up a bit as a music hall singer). Apparently, Attenborough managed to secure his stellar cast after Olivier agreed to work ‘to scale’ (i.e., for the minimum actor’s union wage), effectively obliging all of his peers to do the same.

These days the prevailing narrative of the First World War is well-established – four years of mud, blood, and futility, the death-spasm of the great empires of the 18th and 19th centuries, with clueless soldiers massacred by unfeeling, remote generals. I was about to say that Oh! What a Lovely War adheres quite closely to this view, but then I wonder if it didn’t to some extent embed it in the public consciousness? It is an extremely vivid and powerful piece of film-making, especially in its fantasy sequences. It is eviscerating as far as the generals and upper classes are concerned, but never less than profoundly sympathetic to the lower classes. Jeremy Paxman and others have argued that this line of thinking is a disservice to history and the people involved in the war, but it’s a tough fable to shift, especially when it’s promoted as effectively as happens here.

(And, unfortunately, still resonant in some ways: one sequence has Sylvia Pankhurst addressing a working-class crowd, speaking out in favour of ending the war, doing so in an educated, progressive manner. And, of course, the crowd turns on her, repelled by her arrogance and condescension and perceived lack of patriotism. It occurred to me you could change the words, but the tunes would still serve very well for a film about the British vote to leave Europe, or the rise to power of Trump.)

For a downbeat film with not very much in the way of characters or genuine plot, Oh! What a Lovely War is arguably rather too long at nearly two-and-a-half hours, but it does contain many moments of brilliant cinematic invention, and some extremely powerful images – the final shot, a zoom out by the camera to reveal a seemingly-endless field of crosses, each one marking a grave (I believe 15,000 were used, and this was done as a practical effect) is haunting. Probably not everyone’s idea of a good time, but still a powerful and important movie.

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