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Posts Tagged ‘1970s’

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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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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James Bridges’ 1979 film The China Syndrome opens and closes with the garish stripes and strident tone of a TV test screen, which is entirely appropriate given that most of what occurs in between is concerned with the media and its complex relationship with power (both literally and figuratively, in this case). This is a film which is very much of its period, but also one which remains entirely convincing and relevant to the world today. The film is mostly populated by characters either from the news media, or from large industrial concerns, and the conflict at the heart of the story is about just how much people deserve to be told about things which will directly affect them. Caught between the two sides is a decent everyman, played by Jack Lemmon. who realises the nature of the game but is perhaps not entirely capable of playing it.

To begin with we stay with the lead characters, Kimberley (Jane Fonda) and Richard (Michael Douglas); she is the on-screen talent for a roving news team, he is a freelance cameraman. As the film opens Kimberley is doing frivolous filler items, such as pieces on a singing telegram business, but would like to cover more serious news. She gets her chance when they are sent to the Ventana nuclear power plant outside Los Angeles, ostensibly to do a jolly where-your-power-comes-from piece. Everyone at the plant seems welcoming and professional, they are shown all the places security concerns permit – even into the gallery overlooking the main control room, which is thoroughly secure behind armoured doors and soundproof glass. Then there is what feels like a small earthquake. The PR man escorting them assures them it is nothing to be concerned about.

At which point the camera cuts to the room behind the soundproofing, where sirens are blaring, control boards are lighting up in red, and the technicians and shift manager Jack Godell (Lemmon) are desperately trying to keep the nuclear reactor from going out of control – faulty indicators have given a bad reading on the level of coolant in the system and their attempts to rectify the non-existent mistake have come perilously close to exposing the core and causing a catastrophe. They manage to salvage the situation and the reactor is shut down, but they are left badly shaken.

What nobody at the plant has noticed is that Richard has secretly filmed the whole thing, in the reasonable belief that a nuclear near-miss is newsworthy. He and Kimberley take it to their editors, only to find the network coming under severe pressure from the nuclear power industry to bury the story, arguing that the film was made illegally and the incident was not a serious one. Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they; particularly so in this case, as the company is applying for a license to build another nuclear power plant in California and the last thing they need is any kind of bad publicity. Even keeping the plant off-line while the incident is investigated is costing them many millions of dollars every day.

Kimberley is bluntly told she is not an investigative reporter and should stick to the frilly human interest stories she was hired to do; Richard is incensed enough to steal the footage of the incident and show it to experts involved in the public hearings connected to the safety (or not) of the new plant. They are told that, based on the film, the plant came very close to a core meltdown and what is referred to as ‘the China syndrome’: the superheated core melting through the foundations of the plant and burning its way through the centre of the Earth to emerge somewhere in Asia. (This expression is only figurative – the culmination of this kind of accident would likely be the core reaching the water table, resulting in either rivers and lakes being poisoned with radioactivity, or an explosion producing enough radioactive vapour to render large regions of the continent uninhabitable for thousands of years to come.) Meanwhile, Godell has been carrying out his own investigation into the accident, and discovered that the plant’s safety records have been falsified in order to save money. If the plant is brought back on-line and brought up to full power, the same thing could happen again with cataclysmic results…

The element of The China Syndrome which has entered the public consciousness is the nuclear power angle, and rightly so: it does seem that every few years we get an ominous reminder of exactly what the forces are that we’re attempting to harness here, and the price of failure (the Chernobyl disaster came back into the public consciousness recently, and we are nearly a decade on from Fukushima). If the average person understands what the ‘China syndrome’ actually is, then it’s because of this film. The film’s producers, who were accused of slandering an entire industry by the operators of American nuclear plants, would doubtless say they were merely being socially responsible by drawing attention to the dangers involved – the film is not intrinsically anti-nuke, just opposed to these facilities being run by corporations putting profit ahead of any other concerns.

The film came out at the end of the 70s (famously, only a matter of days before the Three Mile Island accident, after which industry complaints about the movie presumably became rather more muted), and the latter stages of the decade did give rise to a whole slew of slightly paranoid thrillers in which, post-Watergate, ‘deep state’ forces and the military-industrial complex are shown to have essentially unchecked power within American society – I’m thinking of films like Executive Action (though this predates Watergate itself), Capricorn One, and so on. What is striking about these films is that they do absolutely function as thrillers – and The China Syndrome is amongst the best of them – while still managing to address serious contemporary concerns. In this case, the film seems rooted in a profound distrust of the profit motive, certainly when it clashes with public safety: the big corporations are not above falsifying records and even attempted murder in order to guarantee their revenue stream. (There is also a secondary but still well-handled subplot about Fonda’s character struggling to be taken seriously as a journalist in a male-dominated environment: understated but still effective, a lot of modern films could learn a lot about how to handle this kind of issue without seeming preachy from older movies like The China Syndrome.)

The whole film is rather admirable for the way it takes care to function firstly as a thriller, with its political subtext left implicit – and, within the drama framework, equal attention is paid to basic but important things like characterisation and dialogue. None of it is over-the-top, all the characters are essentially credible and well-performed to boot – there are good performances from Fonda and Douglas, and a predictably excellent one from Jack Lemmon, particularly in the film’s very well-structured climax. No wonder the film was so acclaimed and successful on its release: it still seems credible and timely today.

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Let us conduct a small thought experiment in which I ask you to think of words which might reasonably be expected to occur in the title of a horror movie with an ancient Egyptian theme, and then try to guess what you come up with. ‘Mummy’ is kind of a no-brainer; I expect that ‘Tomb’, ‘Curse’, ‘Blood’ and ‘Ghost’ would also be in with a good chance of making the top ten. Of course, should you actually happen across a movie with a title like Curse of the Mummy’s Ghost, it probably means you’re in for something thoroughly undistinguished. The alternative possibility is that you’ve actually found something much less traditional which has had a very generic title slapped on it by nervous executives.

This is what happened in the case of Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, a 1971 Hammer movie directed (mostly) by Seth Holt, with uncredited work also done by Hammer top banana Michael Carreras. This is one of many adaptations that have been done over the years of the novel The Jewel of Seven Stars, written by Dracula author Bram Stoker (so you can understand Hammer’s interest in the property). However, that title doesn’t really scream lurid horror in the way the company probably wanted, and it’s very easy to imagine various men in suits sitting around the boardroom table shuffling bits of paper about with words like ‘Tomb’ and ‘Blood’ on them until they came up with a title that struck the right note.

(Note how they manage to get Valerie Leon’s bust onto the same poster *twice*.)

The right note it may strike, but it still does nothing to communicate the style or tone of the movie, which is a bit different from that of the traditional mummy movie. Things get underway with a sort of low-budget cosmic zoom, over which a wibbly-wobbly Valerie Leon is superimposed, having some sort of nightmare. (I feel I should make clear that it is the shot of Leon which is wibbly-wobbly, not that I am doing a puerile gag about the actress herself being particularly wibbly-wobbly. Although, having said that, the first thing that catches your eye in a veritable iron grip is Leon’s spectacular decolletage, which is so prominently featured throughout the movie it practically deserves its own billing in the credits.)

The cosmic zoom resolves in what turns out to be ancient Egypt (realised on a soundstage at Elstree), where a bunch of priests are up to no good in the tomb of a beautiful woman (the camera duly pans up Leon’s torso, for – lo! – it is she again). Leon’s hand gets chopped off and thrown to the local wild dogs, something gets poured up her nose – just a typical day in the land of the Pharoahs I guess. However, as the priests leave there is a sudden sandstorm, which concludes with them all sprawled on the ground with their throats ripped out, while the severed hand is crawling back into the tomb. (Hammer’s crawling hand is, all things considered, less of a trouper than the one Amicus regularly employed, and has less screentime in the movie than you might expect.)

What any of this means takes a while to become clear – one of the merits of this movie is that it’s not afraid to take its time when it comes to the exposition. It transpires that Leon has a dual role, as both the woman in the tomb, Tera, and someone in the present day, named Margaret Fuchs (yes, I know. Please, please, let’s really not go there). Margaret is the daughter of distinguished Egyptologist Professor Fuchs (Andrew Keir, not for the first time in his career playing the Peter Cushing role), and approaching a significant birthday, apparently (the film hedges its bets by staying a bit vague about this). He gives her a ring we have previously seen on the crawling hand’s finger, there are various other weird and ominous occurrences.

It turns out that Fuchs was the leader of an expedition which dug up Tera’s tomb, finding the body of the woman to be in eerily perfect condition. It also becomes apparent that Mrs Fuchs died in childbirth at exactly the same moment her husband first saw Tera’s body. This would count as a fairly heavy hint to most people, but not the prof. Rather against the preferences of the rest of the expedition, he has – somehow – managed to bring Tera’s body back to England without anyone noticing, and installed her in a replica of the tomb he has had built in the very spacious cellar of his home. Well, you’ve got to have a hobby, I suppose. The rest of the expedition have gone their separate ways, each hanging on to one of Tera’s sacred relics.

When something regrettable befalls Fuchs in the cellar, leaving him bedridden and unable to speak, his old colleague Corbeck (James Villiers) abandons his hobby of stalking the family and provides the necessary exposition. It seems that Tera’s astral being has been hanging around all this time waiting to resume possession of her body, which they can bring about provided the sacred relics are gathered together and the appropriate incantations intoned (in English) over her corpse.

Of course, it’s round about this point that the film starts to become thoroughly unravelled: why would anyone other than a lunatic want to assist with the resurrection of someone apparently so evil their name has been scorched from the history books? Margaret mainly seems to go along with the scheme because the script requires that she does. It’s not quite the case that people do baffling things for no reason whatsoever, but this element of the plot could certainly use more work. The same could be said for the rest of what’s going on here. Is Margaret supposed to be the reincarnation of Tera? (It’s a common enough trope in mummy movies.) If so, how does that square with them trying to resurrect Tera in her original body? It is all a bit bemusing.

Mind you, there are many unintentionally puzzling things going on in this movie, not least of which is when it’s supposed to be set. The obvious setting for this kind of film is the 1920s, and indeed Margaret’s boyfriend drives a vintage car of some sort; the various scenes of the expedition entering the tomb certainly have a twenties sort of vibe to them – but Leon’s costumes as Margaret are those of someone from the early 1970s. Again, one is slightly bemused. I can’t help but recall the insightful observation that Carry On films are always much more fun when they’re done in period costume; the same is true of Hammer horror movies, of course.

Valerie Leon did six Carry On films, which is a respectable total (or at least as respectable as Carry On films get), not to mention a couple of Bond films; this is her only major role for Hammer. As Hammer glamour girls go, this performance is in the upper bracket – there’s not much actually wrong with it, and Leon does give the part a curiously vulnerable, wistful edge (though this may be the result of the camera constantly panning down onto her chest any time it is in shot). She makes as good an impression as anyone, although it must be said this is not one of those Hammer movies which is lifted by the acting.

Any discussion of why brings us to the curious case of the curse of Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb. As mentioned, the film was originally set to headline Peter Cushing as Professor Fuchs, but a day into shooting he was forced to drop out due to the terminal illness of his wife; Andrew Keir was recruited to fill in at virtually no notice. I think Keir gives one of his usual solid performances, but Leon’s considered opinion is merely that he was ‘perfectly adequate’, which I’m pretty sure qualifies as faint praise. (Making up the rest of the cast are the usual sort of recognisable faces – character performers like James Cossins and Hugh Burden, the odd surprising appearance by someone fallen on hard times (George Coulouris, on this occasion), and someone young who was never seen again, in this case Mark Edwards as Leon’s love interest.)

Quite apart from losing Cushing, the film lost its actual director Seth Holt five weeks into a six week shoot, when he died of a heart attack literally on set. Carreras finished the movie, despite complaining that Holt’s footage was simply incoherent: whether he was right or not, there is at least one bit which simply doesn’t work – a character supposedly dies in a car crash, but it is painfully obvious that the car is standing still throughout the entire sequence.

One wonders whether a version of Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb with the full participation of Peter Cushing and Seth Holt would have been a better movie. There is certainly potential here: the set-piece killings do almost anticipate The Omen in some ways, and the film does benefit, I think, from not including all the weary old cliches of the mummy movies that preceded it: most obviously, there is a near-total absence of the famous image of the bandage-wrapped figure stumbling about. The closest the film comes is in the final moments, and here it may even be intended as a knowing piece of self-parody, or subversion of the form – however, the rest of it is so bereft of this kind of wit that this seems rather unlikely. Mostly it just feels like a film going through the motions: there is a lot of Kensington Gore, a little bit of nudity (Leon employed a body double), some dubious hocus-pocus and an attempt at doing something different with the ending that somehow ends up lacking in impact. Not the most rewarding of movies, but Hammer fans should find it passes the time fairly agreeably.

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I did not get into music as a teenager – not until my late teens, anyway. I’m not sure why this was, possibly because we just weren’t that kind of a family. It was always Radio 4 that was on in the kitchen, not Radio 2. And I suspect liking music was just not my thing. With hindsight, I can see I took a kind of perverse, masochistic satisfaction from being into stuff which was incredibly obscure and peculiar – which is why I became a kind of comedy geek. Not even the present day stuff: I suspect I was the only 13-year-old at my school who knew the names and birth dates of the cast of Beyond the Fringe. Lots of people could quote all the usual Monty Python sketches: I was the only who’d heard of The Frost Report, At Last the 1948 Show and Do Not Adjust Your Set, and could trace the lineage leading up to Python itself. Yes, it is a strange place, inside my brain; I have learned how to hide it much better in the last thirty-odd years.

The strange thing is that I’d committed all this information to memory before even seeing or hearing most of the shows and performers concerned – a lot of it came from Roger Wilmut’s book From Fringe to Flying Circus, an exhaustive history of the generation of Oxbridge comics who rose to prominence in the late 1950s and 1960s. Strange to recount, but when the BBC actually repeated the second and third series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus in the summer of 1987 (inconsiderately scheduled to regularly clash with their thirtieth-anniversary season of Hammer horror movies on the other side), I was not entirely sure who was who amongst the team. I knew John Cleese from Fawlty Towers, of course, and I knew the American one who didn’t get many lines was Terry Gilliam; I was also pretty sure which one was Michael Palin, too. But for quite a long while I was under the impression Eric Idle was Graham Chapman, and vice versa. Which just left Terry Jones, who – and this is the reason we are here, of course – has just left us.

Things were different back in the early 1980s, of course. Things popped up in strange places. I distinctly recall an episode of Python being shown long before the watershed when I was about eight. Similarly, I remember possibly the first time I saw Terry Jones on TV: he was being interviewed on a Saturday morning kids’ TV show, Lord knows why – possibly to publicise one of his childrens’ books, I don’t know – and this was accompanied by a clip from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Monty Python and the Holy Grail! On Saturday morning TV! It was a different world, I tell you. (It may be that someone on the editorial team was an avid Python fan, for they ran an equally inappropriate promo for Brazil in the same slot a year or two later.)

I get the impression that Terry Jones was quite proud of the fact that his films tended to be controversial – his first three solo projects as a director were all banned in Ireland – and this may be why they dragged their feet a bit in reaching the TV screen. These days we’re used to films arriving less than year after their cinema debut, but part of me is quite sure it was eighteen years before Holy Grail was eventually shown in full on British TV: it was at Christmas 1993 that I finally got to see the whole thing. (I should of course make it clear that this particular Python extravaganza was directed by Terry Jones in tandem with Terry Gilliam.)

Here is where I traditionally describe the plot, but this being a Monty Python movie, various gags and conceits keep rocketing off at right-angles to the actual story (which is still reasonably cohesive, all things considered). Ostensibly set in the Dark Ages, the film concerns King Arthur of Camelot (a silly place) and his Knights of the Round Table. (Graham Chapman plays Arthur with his usual, worryingly plausible glassy-eyed authority; the rest of the team play Lancelot and the others.) God, or possibly W.G. Grace, commands them to find the Holy Grail, that their efforts should inspire the rest of the populace.

This is basically just a simple but wonderful framework on which to hang a selection of skits and sketches. It’s almost a cliche to describe the Pythons as comedy’s answer to the Beatles, but there is some truth to that, and their range of styles is fully on display here. Some of the humour is brutal (most obviously the encounter with the Black Knight), some of it is cleverer than it looks, much of it is gleefully silly, and some of it is knowingly puerile. The practiced viewer can often figure out who wrote a particular sketch based on its style – ‘Anything that opened with rolling countryside and music was Mike and Terry, anything with really heavy abuse in it was John and Graham, and anything that got totally obsessed with words and vanished up its own backside was Eric,’ according to Gilliam (if memory serves) – but personally I don’t really feel the need to pick it apart in quite such detail.

Even so, one does note that they are generating some of the gags here by giving mediaeval characters twentieth-century attitudes and outlooks (for instance, the anarcho-syndicalist peasants Arthur encounters near the start of the film), something which would go on to be one of the main drivers of Life of Brian, and also that some of the more anarchic assaults on the structure of the film itself have obviously developed from jokes in the TV show. The opening gag (of the DVD release, if not the theatrical version) where the wrong film – Bob Monkhouse in Dentist on the Job – is shown by mistake is a close cousin to a joke where an episode of Flying Circus is introduced by a continuity announcer from the commercial network, while the subversion of the opening credits by the Swedish tourist board does recall the way in which Njorl’s Saga was infiltrated by a group seeking to promote North Malden.

I know that Life of Brian is the Python movie one is supposed to like best of all, and I do think it has some very good moments. But this one is honestly still my favourite, and that’s partly because it is still very much in the style of the TV series at its best: there is kind of a plot, but this still feels very much like a revue movie, and it does have the kind of formal daring one expects from Python – particularly in the total lack of a conventional climax, or indeed an ending. Plus, on top of this, it does look remarkably good for what was clearly quite a low-budget movie: the surreal grotesqueries of the dark ages are clearly right up Gilliam and Jones’ street (not really surprising, when you consider Gilliam would go on to make several historical fantasy films while Jones would do some substantial historical documentaries). Was it this film or Jabberwocky that earned Gilliam a complimentary phone call from Stanley Kubrick, telling him it looked more authentic than Barry Lyndon? I can’t remember.

Still, you don’t argue with Kubrick. History does not recall what Stanley’s favourite Python movie was, but this is mine. Watching it again is a reminder of just how good these boys were, all those years ago. No wonder the Black Knight and the Knights Who Say ‘Ni’ and the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch have all infiltrated popular culture to some extent. Terry Jones had one of the more diverse and eclectic careers of any of the Pythons – rather than just writing and performing comedy, he was also a brewer, a historian, a poet and a film director – which may be why he never seemed to get quite the recognition and plaudits of some of the other members of the team. Certainly he deserved them, because he was very good at all these things. Possibly that may be rectified now; better late than never. The Pythons were the closest thing I had to a favourite band as a teenager. I hope we will cherish the remaining quartet appropriately while we still have them.

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Over forty years on, all the movies that Kevin Connor and Doug McClure made together have coalesced in the cultural collective memory into one disreputable, slightly garish lump: probably with a rubber monster of some kind sitting on top if it. They flow together in the mind as well: which is the one with the bi-plane? Which is the one with the giant octopus fight? Which is the one with the iron mole?

The first of the set, The Land That Time Forgot, isn’t any of those. Made in 1975, it is the one boasting a screenplay co-written by legendary author Michael Moorcock (based, of course, on the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs). As a long-time admirer of Moorcock and his work, I am perhaps biased when I say that his contribution gives the film an element of class and intelligence not present in the various follow-ups – the way the film opens and closes with the same sequence gives it a pleasing symmetry and indicates some thought has gone into it.

This material relates to a vestigial frame story which is not much gone into – it is mainly present to recreate the structure of Burroughs’ novel. The tale itself begins in 1916, with a German U-boat sinking a British cargo vessel. This is portrayed entirely from the point of view of the German crew, mainly because the submarine set is essential to the film and the cargo ship is just in this one scene: one of the hallmarks of the film is the way it manages to be thrifty without it being obvious too much of the time. Amongst the survivors are beefy American engineer Bowen Tyler (McClure) and comely English biologist Lisa Clayton (Susan Penhaligon).

Having his ship torpedoed out from under him isn’t much of a problem for a guy like Doug McClure, though: together with the captain of the ship (Keith Barron) and a few other crew members, they board the U-boat when it surfaces to refresh its air supply and take it over, rather to the annoyance of the German captain (John McEnery) and his second in command (Anthony Ainley). (The captain is one of those decent, noble German officers one so often finds in this kind of story, while Ainley is honing the performance as a fanatically malevolent psychopath that would stand him in good stead throughout the 1980s.)

So far the film has been solid, gripping stuff, but now we encounter a significant wobble, as the British seizing control of the ship from the Germans is followed in fairly short order by the Germans seizing control of the ship from the British. And this in turn is followed by the British seizing control of the ship from the Germans, again. This inelegant plotting is all to get the film to where it needs to be: the U-boat ends up lost in the southern Atlantic, low on fuel and supplies.

However, there are glimmers of hope when they come across a mysterious new landmass, surrounded by towering, icy cliffs. The German captain suspects it to be Caprona, discovered centuries earlier by an Italian explorer who was unable to make landfall due to the cliff barrier. The existence of an underwater passageway means the U-boat could penetrate the interior of Caprona, thus possibly giving them access to the supplies they so desperately need.

Well, after a tense passage and a few dings to the sub, the voyagers find themselves in a lush, tropical paradise. Finally we get the first of the rubber dinosaurs we have been impatiently awaiting, and rather superior they are too. This is no consolation to the crew of the U-boat, who find themselves on the lunch menu of the plesiosaurs and mosasaurs infesting the river they are on.

Still, at least the skirmish provides the hungry sailors with some fresh provisions. ‘Should one drink red or white wine with plesiosaur?’ wonders Keith Barron. More pressing concerns supplant correct etiquette, however: there are places in Caprona where crude oil springs from the ground, raising the possibility of refueling the sub. However, in addition to the dinosaurs, there are ape men here too – and the natives may not be friendly…

Well, regular visitors may recall my recent cri de coeur about the BBC non-adaptation of The War of the Worlds, which effectively threw away all but the most fundamental details of the original novel and ended up being almost wholly unsatisfactory as a result. Here, perhaps, we have an example of the opposite situation – an adaptation which on the whole stays remarkably faithful to the source text, to the point where it impacts on the film’s success as such.

The issue is that this is a pulp adventure – superior pulp, to be sure, but still pulp. Burrough’s plot is episodic, consisting of a series of exploits and adventures undertaken by a group of thinly-characterised individuals. There’s no sense of it building to anything, or a central issue heading towards resolution – just a series of set-piece action and special effects sequences. These are often well-mounted, but the film still feels more like a theme park ride than an actual narrative.

The closest thing to a big idea the film contains is the revelation of how life functions on Caprona. To say that this is non-Darwinian is to rather understate the matter: populations don’t evolve in the usual manner here, but individual creatures progress through the different stages of evolution in the course of their lifetime as they travel across the landscape (they apparently feel compelled to constantly travel northward towards the sea). It’s a curious idea, but the film doesn’t really do anything with it – we never see it happening and it doesn’t inform the plot in any meaningful way. Full marks to Moorcock and co-writer James Cawthorn for retaining it, but you almost wish they’d found a way to do something more interesting with the notion.

However, while the film’s weaknesses may have been inherited from the source novel, its strengths are all its own. This is a classy looking movie, not nearly as garish or silly as some of its successors (At the Earth’s Core, I’m looking at you) – the period detail is well done, with a nicely grimy feel to it. The presence of many solid British actors (there are many familiar TV faces scattered through the cast list) gives the movie a further touch of class.

Even the dinosaurs, usually the weak link in this kind of movie, are a cut above what you might expect. They are the work of Roger Dicken, a man with a relatively brief but nevertheless hugely interesting CV as a special effects technician – we can overlook the rubber bats he provided for Scars of Dracula, given that a decade later he created the facehugger for Alien. Doubtless for cost reasons, Dicken doesn’t go with the traditional stop-motion dinosaurs, or even men in suits, but opts for glove-puppet dinosaurs instead. I fear I may be damning Dicken and the movie with faint praise if I say that these are some of the best glove-puppet dinosaurs in the history of cinema. The only time the special effects really aren’t up to scratch comes in a sequence where McClure is menaced by some implausibly rigid and stately pterodactyls, but even Ray Harryhausen struggled to make this sort of thing work.

It’s a sign of the general quality of the movie that the dinosaurs only feel like one element of a bigger adventure, rather than the sine qua non of the whole thing. It’s true that the acting is not great, but then it doesn’t really need to be: the movie sets out to be a pulp adventure, and on those terms it’s a successful one: you can see why it was such a commercial success. You still have to wonder if there was some way of preserving the essentially Burroughs-iness of the story while coming up with a more dynamic and satisfying plot, but I still think a film like this is far preferable to an in-name-only updating of the book.

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There is something remarkably comforting and familiar about sitting down to watch one of the Amicus portmanteau horror movies from the 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps it is because this subgenre is so strictly defined by its conventions – you know there aren’t going to be many startling innovations, you know there’s going to be a pretty good cast, and you know that none of the component stories are going to hang around too long. It is almost the cinematic equivalent of a sushi train – if what’s currently going past isn’t really to your taste, well, maybe the next course will do the trick.

1974’s From Beyond the Grave is normally listed as the last of the Amicus anthology horrors, which I suppose is true if you’re going to be quibbly about it, although my own feeling is that 1980’s The Monster Club is really the last of the line, sharing the same format and producer (Amicus’ moving spirit Milton Subotsky). There is another connection in that both films take their inspiration not from other horror movies or American horror comics, but the works of veteran horror author Ron Chetwynd-Hayes.

The movie is directed by Kevin Connor, who went on to have a moderately good line in low-budget genre movies like Warlords of Atlantis. The linking device on this occasion is an antiques and junk shop named Temptations Limited, run by Peter Cushing’s character (Cushing is in camp mode throughout and gives a very funny performance which nicely sets the tone for much of the movie). As the film reveals, the shop has an interesting gimmick (‘a novelty surprise with every purchase!’) and an even more interesting line in customer aftercare.

First story out of the traps is that of David Warner, who plays an arrogant young man who railroads the proprietor into selling him an antique mirror for a fraction of its actual value. No sooner has he put it up in his flat than one of his bright young friends shouts ‘Let’s have a séance!’, and Warner, for reasons best known to the plot, enthusiastically agrees. Well, it turns out that the mirror is a repository for an ancient, dormant evil which now wakes up, thirsting for the blood of – well, anyone it can persuade Warner to kill for it. He starts off with a prostitute (‘Five pounds and no need to rush,’ she says, which if nothing else I imagine says something about the impact of inflation since 1974), moves on to girls he picks up at parties, but draws the line at one of his actual friends (his neighbour seems to be fair game, though).

There are perhaps a few too many scenes of Warner waking up in blood-splattered pyjamas wondering if it was all a dream, but this is quite acceptable on the whole: Warner is always a class act and manages to lift some slightly schlocky material, and the piece has an unusually eerie and effective conclusion. The only thing that makes it sit a little oddly in this film is the unleavened darkness of the story – most of the film feels like it’s pitched as black comedy, but this seems to be aiming for a more serious tone.

The next segment is rather less predictable and feels rather shoehorned into the movie – Cushing and his shop only play a very marginal role. Ian Bannen plays an office drone, unhappily married to Diana Dors with a young son (John O’Farrell, later to find fame as a writer), who strikes up an odd relationship with an ex-army street hawker (Donald Pleasance) and later his daughter (Angela Pleasance). In order to cement their friendship, Bannen steals a medal from the shop, which is the link to the rest of the format. The Pleasances eventually seem to be offering Bannen a way out of his grim situation – but do they really have his best interests at heart…?

Once again, some slightly suspect material is lifted by the skill of the perfomers (Bannen and the Pleasances in this case), although this is much more of a bizarre, whimsical fantasy than a conventional horror story (though the story certainly scores bonus points for its voodoo wedding cake sequence). This is one of the stories which has no real reason to be in a film titled From Beyond the Grave, but it is an interesting change of pace and certainly stands out.

Ian Carmichael turns up playing another one of his posh silly-ass characters in the third section of the film, which opens with him attempting to swindle Cushing by switching the price tags on a couple of snuff boxes in the shop. ‘I hope you enjoy snuffing it,’ says Cushing, deadpan, as Carmichael departs the scene. In the peculiar cosmology of the Amicus horror movies, switching price tags is a sufficiently awful crime to mark you down for vicious karmic reprisals, and Carmichael discovers he has acquired a malevolent (but invisible and thus cheap) elemental companion, who seems to have it in for his wife in particular. Luckily he makes the acquaintance of medium and exorcist Madame Orloff (Margaret Leighton), who offers to assist…

Probably the weakest part of the film, probably because the plot hasn’t got a lot going on, and the segment is forced to rely on the comic performances of the actors involved. Once again, they are good enough to make the film watchable and entertaining (some good work from the set dressers in the scene where the elemental demolishes Carmichael’s living room), but it’s not really clever or striking enough to be memorable.

And so to the final part of the film, in which young writer Ian Ogilvy buys, somewhat improbably, an imposing old door to put on the stationery cupboard in his study. You can probably write the rest for yourself, particularly if you’ve been paying attention, not least because it does bear a certain resemblance to the David Warner story at the top of the film – the door turns out to be a gateway to a domain of ancient, dormant evil, which now wakes up, thirsting for the souls of… well, you get the idea, I think.

Still, the production values aren’t bad and the story also manages to distinguish itself by having the closest thing to a genuine plot twist you’re likely to find in an Amicus film – the audience is invited to assume that Ogilvy has ripped off the till at the shop, thus marking his card for a sticky end, but it turns out he’s a decent, honest chap, and thus has a chance of making it out of the film in one piece. If nothing else it provides an upbeat conclusion.

There is, of course, still time for the final twist with the frame story of the shop. This is not the usual ‘everyone is actually already dead!’ twist as deployed in Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, Tales from the Crypt, and Vault of Horror, but something very nearly as obvious. Still, Cushing gets another chance to camp it up, being funny and menacing at the same time, and the film does conclude with a couple of good gags. Probably not the best or most colourful of the Amicus anthologies, but still an enjoyable piece of comfort viewing.

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