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Posts Tagged ‘1970s’

There was a time when any science fiction film that wanted to be taken seriously found itself helplessly caught up in the wake of 2001: A Space Odyssey – SF wasn’t SF unless it was cerebral, austere, and concluded on a note of either pessimism or wilful obscurity. This tendency is visible in movies from the late 60s until about a decade later – even the coming of George Lucas’ stellar conflict franchise didn’t quite kill it off, with Disney’s 1979 entry to the robots-and-ray-guns subgenre, The Black Hole, concluding with a bafflingly surreal sequence.

Even so, very few of these movies are quite as out there as Phase IV, a 1974 film directed by Saul Bass. Bass is best remembered as a legendary graphic designer and creator of some of the most memorable credit sequences in cinema history, and this was his only feature film: it’s clear throughout that as a director his focus is overwhelmingly on the visual element of the movie.

This is an early example of a film which dispenses with a conventional title sequence entirely (somewhat ironic, given who the director is), simply opening with the caption ‘Phase I’. Ten full minutes elapse before we actually see a human being, with the story being told via montages and voice-over. Some kind of cosmic event has occurred (the film is unspecific about what it actually is), but its key terrestrial consequence goes unnoticed by almost everyone: across the world, different species of ants, normally in competition with each other, cease their hostilities and begin to work together. But to what end? Strange geometrical structures, constructed by the ants, appear in the desert of Arizona, along with crop circles (the film predates the modern crop phenomenon and may in fact, it’s been suggested) have been one of its inspirations).

Entomologist Dr Hubbs (Nigel Davenport, best known to a generation of British viewers as fruity-voiced tycoon Edward Frere in Howard’s Way) cottons on to what the ants are up to and persuades the powers that be to fund an investigation into what exactly is going on. A lab is set up in a geodesic dome out in the desert (this is the kind of SF movie lab where the equipment includes grenade launchers, but, you know, go with it) and Hubbs sets about annoying the ants in the hope of learning what has happened to them, and ideally teaching them not to get uppity with the human race. Hubbs’ assistant, mathematician Lesko (Michael Murphy), is more cautious and inclined to take a moderate approach, but soon enough the scientists are besieged by hostile ants, along with a young local woman (Lynne Frederick) whose farm was destroyed by the formic hordes. Can Lesko find a way of communicating with the ants, whose collective intelligence is no longer in doubt, or is this just the first stage in a battle that will decide the fate of the world?

Fairly heavy stuff, I think you’ll agree. The film would probably agree, too, considering the intense and very serious way the story is handled – there are no moments of lightness or humour and the actors are all playing it absolutely dead straight. The result is quite a bleak and austere film, rather cold in tone despite the desert setting.

This isn’t the man-vs-killer-ant movie you might be expecting – I vaguely recall it turning up on TV in a double-bill with Them! at some point in my youth – and the striking central image of the movie’s poster, that of an ant gnawing its way out of the centre of a human palm, occurs relatively early on, and not quite as a moment of full-on horror, either. There’s less death-struggle and more philosophical and mathematical discussion as the two scientists discuss what’s going on in fairly abstract terms.

Even so, the most memorable parts of the film don’t concern the human characters but the ants themselves. There are numerous weird, long sequences of ants rattling around in the nests, doing significant but obscure things, clambering around inside human machinery, and so on. It’s a masterclass in editing skill, I suppose – the way the footage of the ants is assembled manages to suggest intention and a vague sense of what is supposed to be happening – but also betrays Bass’s fascination with playing with images and storytelling on a purely visual level. There is, obviously, a lot of miniature photography of ants in this film; there is also time-lapse photography, slow-motion filming, and various other optical effects too.

Many of these are accompanied by an expository voice-over from Murphy, and I wonder if this was something the studio insisted on as the movie started to take shape – the voice-over adds to the impression that this is a rather odd B-movie, but it does stop the film from becoming completely oblique and wilfully enigmatic. As it is, much is left for the viewer to decide – are the ants being actively controlled by some cosmic force to reshape the nature of life on Earth? Or has some random influence caused the ant hive-mind to experience a form of uplift, and it’s the ant superbrain itself which is responsible for everything that happens?

It’s all left very unclear – not least because the studio cut about five minutes from Bass’s preferred climax, leaving it a very brisk 84 minutes in total. If the extant film is off the wall, then the original would have been downright freaky – a reconstruction of the original ending exists on the internet, apparently depicting what the world will be like after Phase IV is completed, and the bizarre impressionistic symbiosis of human and ant that is shown in it is not quite like anything else I’ve ever seen.

Despite all the fascinating and unique things about Phase IV, however, this is still one for the ‘novel but deeply flawed’ category. The B-movie premise and characterisations don’t help the film when it comes to achieving the level of rarefied sophistication it’s clearly aiming for, while the visual storytelling, while innovative and memorable, is just a bit too slow and abstract for the film to work as a thriller or conventional drama. The film’s visual distinctiveness and general air of weirdness mean it is worth watching, if you like abstract SF movies or maybe even art movies generally, but as a conventional piece of movie entertainment this is basically a tough and probably not especially rewarding watch.

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It would be impossible to write the history of American genre film-making without devoting a hefty section to American International Pictures and its founders Samuel Z Arkoff and James H Nicholson (also known as Jack’s dad). These are the guys who made the original version of The Fast and the Furious, and a bunch of other movies which have brilliant titles even if they’re (perhaps deservedly) obscure: The Astounding She-Monster, Frankenstein Conquers The World, I Was A Teenage Werewolf, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die… those films alone sound like a long weekend of bliss to me, and there are hundreds more.

Not that AIP didn’t aspire to a touch of class sometimes, perhaps most famously with their cycle of Poe adaptations overseen by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price. Those films came out in the late 1950s and early 60s, and nearly ten years later Price was back with the company for another well-remembered and reasonably classy outing, in Robert Fuest’s The Abominable Dr Phibes.

The film is set in 1920s England (not that this is immediately apparent). Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey) is investigating a series of bizarre and grisly murders: one man has been stung to death by bees, another savaged by bats, a third has had his head crushed by a rigged fancy-dress mask, and so on. It turns out that all the victims were doctors, and a further connection is that they all worked on the same case, an operation overseen by Dr Vesalius (Joseph Cotten). The patient died, and Trout begins to suspect that her husband, who was believed dead, may in fact be nothing of the sort.

He is right, of course, for the outraged widower, Dr Anton Phibes (Vincent Price, of course), brilliant organist, theologian, and inventive genius, is back on the scene and intent on extracting revenge on the men he holds responsible for the death of his beautiful young wife (I suppose this qualifies as another ‘Vincent Price Broods Over His Dead Wife’s Portrait’ movie – Mrs Phibes is played by the delectable Caroline Munro, only adding to the movie’s cult credentials). Can Trout anticipate Phibes’ plans and stop him from completing the nine murders he has planned?

Stripped back to its absolute bare bones, The Abominable Dr Phibes sounds relatively straightforward – an unhinged killer sets out to take revenge on a group of men he holds responsible for a loved one’s death. What elevates the film from being a relatively routine suspense or horror movie into its own special realm is the bizarre, whimsical, baroque detail the film indulges in throughout. The film could have just opened with Dr Phibes emerging from his inner sanctum and setting off to orchestrate another murder. However, what actually happens is that Price emerges through the floor while playing a pipe organ (rather in the manner of Reginald Dixon), performing a piece by Mendelssohn. Having completed this important part of his plan, he goes on to engage in a little ball-room dancing with his enigmatic sidekick (Virginia North), the music being played by a band composed of life-sized clockwork automatons. Then he goes off to murder someone.

I don’t say this as a criticism of the movie, far from it – for it is the absurd excess of the film, and its darkly comic overtones, that give it so much of its charm and entertainment value. Is there a particularly plausible reason for Phibes to theme his revenge scheme around the biblical plagues of Egypt? Well, no, of course not: but it would be a much duller film without this. You could argue it is part of a great tradition of extravagant, somewhat gothic horror – and the film is surely partly inspired by The Phantom of the Opera – where odd details are actually very important. Things like the way that Phibes can only speak by plugging a gramophone into the side of his neck, and only eat and drink in a similar manner, may not be terribly important to the plot, but they add enormously to the atmosphere and style of the film.

Now, seasoned Price-watchers will of course be aware that the structure of this film is not unique in the actor’s canon: embittered maniac, aided by a mysterious young woman, embarks upon a series of elaborate themed murders against those he perceives as having done him wrong. That is, of course, the outline synopsis not just of The Abominable Dr Phibes but also Douglas Hickox’s Theatre of Blood, which came out a couple of years later. The Abominable Dr Phibes is an entertaining and well-made movie, but it can’t help but come across as a dry run for Hickox’s movie, which is arguably superior: the theme is more coherent, and it’s not afraid to really put the pedal to the metal when it comes to including elements of black comedy.

And, of course, it gives Price an unparalleled opportunity to show off his range. In The Abominable Dr Phibes, he’s playing a character who is effectively permanently masked and largely mute, thus drastically limiting the options for Price’s performance. That the actor still gives a striking and memorable performance says much about his class, but the thing that distinguishes Vincent Price from peers like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee is his capacity for outrageous, operatic, over-the-top performances, and it’s this that’s missing from The Abominable Dr Phibes.

This is a fun film, which feels very much like a product of the British film industry in the 1970s – various distinguished figures show up for brief cameo roles (Terry-Thomas, John Laurie, Hugh Griffith) – for all that you can, perhaps, if you squint, see how it may have had some kind of influence on a later generation of horror movies (one element of the climax seems to me to anticipate Saw). Its ostentatious wackiness may not be to everyone’s taste, nor does it really make ideal use of its biggest asset (Price himself), and so for me the real significance of this movie comes from the fact it represents a first attempt at the formula which Theatre of Blood later perfected so wonderfully. Still highly entertaining in its own right, though, of course.

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I almost feel the need to apologise for the recent tendency of the writing here or hereabouts to dwell on some fairly repugnant topics: there has been quite a lot about prejudice and particularly anti-semitism, of one form or another, in the last couple of weeks. Weirdly enough, I think this may be linked to the fact that I have been looking at a lot of film musicals recently. As I have said in the past, while you might automatically assume that musicals are the most frivolous and escapist of forms, the fact is that it’s often these films that allow us to consider the most serious ideas and darkest material in an accessible way.

So, on to some more anti-semitism set to a catchy tune, in the form of Bob Fosse’s 1972 film Cabaret, which I am tempted to describe as coming at the tail end of the era of the classic Hollywood musical (even though this film was made in Germany with a largely local cast). This seems to me to be a slightly peculiar film in many different ways – it was, for example, the first musical to receive an X certificate from the censor (hard to believe these days), and, in terms of the Oscars, the most honoured film not to receive the award for Best Picture.

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The film is set in Germany in 1931, towards the end of the Weimar Republic. Arriving in the city is the diffident and reserved English academic Brian Roberts (Michael York), studying for his PhD and teaching English to make ends meet (well, it can’t be a vocation for everyone, I suppose). Lodging in the same house is another expat, the American Sally Bowles (Liza Minelli), who dreams of stardom while performing as a singer and dancer at the decadent and sleazy Kit Kat Klub. After a few false starts, the two embark upon a relationship, but Sally’s ambitions, unrealistic though they perhaps are, continue to be an issue. Meanwhile, in the background, German society becomes harsher and darker as the Nazi movement grows in strength and influence.

The thing you first notice, watching Cabaret, is that it is practically the antithesis of the sung-through musical (a production like Evita or Les Miserables featuring no spoken dialogue whatsoever) – I might even go so far as to describe this as a drama with occasional songs, rather than full-blown musical in its own right. The second thing is connected to this, and it’s that Cabaret is, for want of a better expression, a diegetic musical. Virtually every other famous musical is non-diegetic (they are, to quote my mum, ‘where’s the orchestra?’ musicals) – characters spontaneously burst into song as they go about their lives, and no-one seems especially surprised by this (indeed, the supporting artists often join in the choruses and dance routines). Cabaret has a different approach and a different structure, for – with the exception of the chilling ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’ – all the songs are staged as musical performances at the Kit Kat Klub, and are mostly either character songs by Minelli, or reflections of or commentaries on the plot by the Klub’s Master of Ceremonies (a remarkable performance by Joel Grey). As a result, Cabaret is surely the only musical where the leading man doesn’t sing a word (although Michael York’s brand of fresh-faced, impeccably-cheekboned earnestness is effectively deployed), while the main male singer (Grey) doesn’t really participate in the main plot at all.

The result is that the musical routines have an unsettling, almost claustrophobic quality, tinged as they are by the atmosphere of the club: smoky, decadent, reeking of moral turpitude. If we’re going to look for a metaphor in this film (and why not?), it could be that the collapse in values on display in the club is intended to reflect that of wider German society at the time, thus creating a dangerous moral vacuum in which the Nazi ideology was able to establish itself.

Possibly somewhat at odds with this interpretation of the film is the fact that Sally herself is a fairly amoral character herself, and yet we are supposed to connect with and care for her as the story proceeds. If this happens at all, it’s because of Liza Minelli’s enormous vulnerability and heart as a performer, as well as her chops as a singer and dancer. It may just be that I’ve met a few too many real-life Sally Bowleses – vivacious, charming individuals, whose hedonism and self-centredness nevertheless mean they often leave emotional devastation in their wake – and this made me slightly wary of the character to begin with. Certainly, I found the personal drama of the relationship between Brian and Sally and the various other people they encounter – most prominently Helmut Griem as a wealthy playboy who initiates an odd love triangle with the couple – to be less compelling than the subplot about the gradual encroachment of Nazism.

Then again, I suppose that one of the points the film is trying to make is that the Nazis were able to seize power largely because people either didn’t pay them much attention or didn’t take them seriously if they did, being much too concerned with other things. The film is generally understated in this area, though still effective, and the moment when the increasingly-malevolent MC’s performance of a seemingly absurd comic song (‘If You Could See Her’) is revealed to be a repugnant piece of anti-semitic propaganda is genuinely shocking.

I’ve watched Cabaret a couple of times and while I think it’s a well-made and thoughtful film, I find it quite difficult to warm to. Perhaps this is because of its studied amorality and cynicism, in comparison to the genuine emotion and sympathetic characters to be found in most other musicals. As I say, I’m not sure it’s really a true musical, but the presence of the songs means it’s hardly a conventional drama either. Still, it’s an iconic movie with many effective moments in it.

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We seem to be going through one of those moments when the musical is having, if not quite a renaissance, then certainly a moment in the sun – a rather fine TV documentary series on the form finished just the other night, several of my friends are displaying almost unseemly levels of excitement having landed tickets to the stage show Hamilton (please God let it not be about Neil and Christine), and, of course, La La Land looks likely to achieve stunning success come this year’s Oscars.

I never used to think of myself as a musicals kind of person, and indeed I was rather underwhelmed when I saw Phantom of the Opera on stage in London back in 2003. But since seeing West Side Story on the big screen a couple of years ago, I’ve come to realise that musicals can do things that no other type of film are capable of, and that some of the great movies are ones with songs in them. So I thought it would be a nice idea to look at a few of them over the next few weeks.

First up, then, is Norman Jewison’s Fiddler on the Roof, from 1971 – perhaps one of the last truly great musical movies. We are discussing one of those genres that normally does very well at the Academy Awards, but that year proceedings were dominated by The French Connection: perhaps in 1972 people were in the mood for gritty realism in the same way audiences currently seem to be longing for hopeful escapism.

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Based on the short stories of Sholem Aleichem, proceedings concern the situation of Tevye, a garrulous milkman living in the Russian Pale in the early years of the 20th century. Tevye is, of course, played by Topol, who gives a towering performance of such warmth and vitality that it practically fills up the screen. Tevye is a devout Jew, and devoted to the traditions of his faith and community, despite all the trouble they cause him. As a poor man, he has the problem of trying to find husbands for his five daughters, which he finds quite difficult enough. But outside his village, the world is changing, and anti-semitic pogroms against the Jewish population are becoming a fact of life…

This is the kind of film that would probably make those people who write books on How to Sell Your Screenplay shriek and fall over in alarm, for it really doesn’t adhere to the normal kind of dramatic structure. Instead, the first half of what is really quite a long film is largely devoted to depicting the long-established world in which Tevye lives and the simple pleasure he derives from both his religion and the associated traditions – even when idly fantasising about being wealthy (in, of course, ‘If I were a Rich Man’), Tevye admits that the greatest benefit would be the opportunity to spend more time praying and studying holy texts. And then, in the second half, his world falls apart, on practically every level. Fiddler on the Roof is not afraid to be manipulative on this front, and while the film does end on a hopeful note, it’s just that – only a note.

That the film manages to feel so thoroughly tragic is, in itself, something of an achievement, I suppose, for in some ways Tevye’s world should feel alien rather than comforting. The question of how to get five young women married off was also the basis of last year’s Mustang, where the same kind of community traditions were uncompromisingly depicted as oppressive and virtually abusive. Fiddler on the Roof manages to dodge this problem, firstly because no-one actually ends up being forced to get married against their will, and secondly because Topol makes Tevye into such a lovable character you can’t help but feel for the guy.

And feel for the guy you do, thanks to a selection of extraordinarily passionate and beautiful songs, many of them influenced by traditional Jewish klezmer music. As is often the case, most of the really great songs are in the first half of the film, where there’s the big scene-setting song, character songs, comic songs, a love song, and to top it all off the irresistibly beautiful ‘Sunrise, Sunset’ (surely guaranteed to have virtually any parent with grown-up children welling up, I would wager).

The second half is a little less blessed, but by this point you care so much about the characters that the songs almost seem secondary to the story (when the film was re-released in 1979, two of the second-half songs were cut out) – and here again, Topol’s sheer charisma is vital, as it keeps you on his side through moments where he could come across as too reactionary and unsympathetic. As it is, his rejection of his middle daughter for marrying a Gentile does not seem solely an act of cruelty.

It’s such a big performance in the main role that everyone else struggles to make much impression, although there’s always Norma Crane as his wife. The film’s European production base means there are some unexpected faces amongst the secondary characters and in the lower reaches of the cast list – Paul Michael Glaser appears as the revolutionary Perchik, while Ruth Madoc is unrecognisable as a comic spectre and a young Roger Lloyd Pack turns up as a Russian Orthodox priest. Lovers of pub quizzes might want to remember that this is the movie which Dave Starsky, Gladys Pugh, and Trigger the street-sweeper all appear, though sadly never in the same scene.

As you might expect from a film directed by Jewison and based on a stage show by Jerome Robbins, the direction and choreography is immaculate, with the spring brightness of the early scenes slowly shifting to an icy bleakness by the time the story reaches its end. In the end this is another film from Jewison about the cost of prejudice, and its pointlessness; less shrewd and angry than In the Heat of the Night, this time the purpose of the movie is simply to make you care. And it’s a purpose it achieves with enormous success.

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I see from the (conspiracy of failing liberal – it says here) media that many people are concerned about the possibility of prominent American figures being unduly swayed by shadowy forces emanating from somewhere east of Europe. I don’t quite see what all the fuss is about, for this sort of thing has surely been going on for decades now. I offer as Exhibit A the 1975 movie Love and Death, in which Woody Allen’s brainspace has clearly been hacked by a number of well-known Russians.

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This even extends to abandoning his usual font and jazz-influenced score in favour of a different style of lettering and a soundtrack almost entirely drawn from the works of Sergei Prokoviev. Once the shock of this subsides we find ourselves in Russia during the Napoleonic Wars. The noted soldier, poet, and abject coward Boris Grushenko (Allen) is awaiting execution, and passes the time by narrating the story of his life. It is a stirring tale of war, self-discovery, and all the other stuff you usually find in this sort of film. Boris’s unrequited love for his cousin Sonia endures despite her marriage to an elderly herring merchant, and the two of them are eventually married. However, with the French on the march, Sonia proposes the two of them engage in a daring exploit to save Russia…

Hmm. The thing about trying to write a synopsis of Love and Death is that simply describing the events of the story really doesn’t communicate the tone of the movie. The unwitting modern viewer, aware of Allen’s latter-day reputation as a cerebral misanthropist, might even be lulled into suspecting the director was genuinely attempting a pastiche of or homage to Tolstoy, Pasternak, Eisenstein, and various other serious artists.

Of course not. This is one of the Early, Funny Woody Allen movies, dating from the period when he was more likely to be parodying Ingmar Bergman than trying to imitate him. This isn’t quite the same kind of movie as his previous film, Sleeper, which is essentially a slapstick comedy – instead, it’s rather more like one of the Monty Python movies in that many of the jokes derive from inserting Allen’s modern sensibility into a period setting. Inevitably, this takes the form of an unstoppable stream of snappy one-liners – ‘Shall we say pistols at dawn?’ asks someone, challenging Boris to a duel. ‘Well, we can say it. I don’t what it means,’ comes the response. ‘You’re a coward!’/’Yes, but I’m a militant coward’, ‘Are you suggesting passive resistance?’/’No, I’m suggesting active fleeing’ – and many, many more.

As well as all this, though, there’s a running gag where virtually any conversation has a tendency to turn into a disquisition on moral philosophy, which arguably is an attempt at a genuine parody of Russian literature. However, the thing about dialogue like ‘judgement of any system or a priori relation of phenomena exists in any rational or metaphysical or at least epistemological contradiction to an abstract and empirical concept such as being or to be or to occur in the thing itself or of the thing itself’ (‘Yes, I’ve said that many times,’ is Allen’s response) is that for it to sound convincing, the writer has to know what he’s talking about – it’s a bit like Les Dawson’s bad piano playing, you have to know your stuff before you can start taking liberties with it. In the same way, there’s a scene in which Boris and his father converse at some length and the dialogue consists almost entirely of references to the works of Dostoyevsky. Sequences incorporate references to classic films like Battleship Potemkin, Alexander Nevsky, and The Seventh Seal. Much of what’s on screen is very silly and broad (and there are still a few of those slightly off-colour jokes which occasionally pop up in early Allen movies and are especially uncomfortable these days), but there’s also an assumption that this movie is being watched by an intelligent, educated audience – so, in some ways, very much like a Monty Python movie.

It’s an interesting movie – not, if you ask me, the funniest of the Early, Funnies but still an entertaining watch anyway. Allen’s next film was Annie Hall, which marked a real milestone in his development as a film-maker – a much more sophisticated and emotionally intelligent movie. There’s not much sign of that here, although Diane Keaton does get more scenes without Allen and more chance to develop a genuine character, and Allen’s willingness to display his erudition so openly does perhaps suggest someone becoming interested in moving beyond simply being a straightforward gag-merchant. Perhaps this is more of a transitional film than it first appears. If nothing else, it suggests that Russian influence on a famous American can also produce rather farcical results – but on the other hand I think most of us have already figured that out for ourselves…

 

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Most people, if you mention the name Akira Kurosawa to them, will of course say ‘Who’s that? Is he Japanese?’ People who do know who Kurosawa is are mostly aware of him for the same handful of reasons: he’s the guy who did the original versions of much-remade stories like The Magnificent Seven and A Fistful of Dollars, he’s the guy who did those extraordinarily epic historical dramas in the 1980s, and – inevitably – he’s the guy whose movies had such an influence on Star Wars.

Public perceptions of Kurosawa only really scratch the surface of a very long and extraordinarily diverse career, containing more than a few genuine oddities. Nothing brings that home quite as firmly as watching his 1975 film Dersu Uzala. This isn’t a sweeping historical epic in the manner of his other films, isn’t a contemporary drama, isn’t even remotely Japanese in its subject: it’s a Russian-language adaptation of the memoirs of an explorer in the far east of Siberia.

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Yury Solomin plays Vladimir Arsenyev, the explorer in question, and the film opens with him searching for the grave of his old friend – but the frontier is being opened up, and the old sites are being lost in the chaos of development. The rest of the film is set in flashback, properly getting under way in the very early years of the 20th century with Arsenyev’s first expedition. Arsenyev and the soldiers accompanying him are somewhat startled to encounter a native hunter named Dersu Uzala (Maxim Munchuk), who they recruit as their guide due to his knowledge of the local terrain.

The Russians initially dismiss Dersu as a half-savage simpleton, for he can barely speak and views the world in terms of spirits inhabiting elements and objects, but Arsenyev at least soon comes to be deeply impressed by his knowledge and understanding of the natural world, his wisdom, and his compassion for others. Various adventures ensue, with Dersu saving Arsenyev’s life on at least one occasion, and the two forge a friendship that will have a great influence on both their lives.

Why was a feted Japanese director like Kurosawa making a movie in Russia in the early 1970s? The moment found Kurosawa in something of a transitional period in his career: he had only made one movie since Red Beard in 1965, the unsuccessful Dodes’ka-den, and – the same old story – he couldn’t persuade anyone to give him the money to make another film. Kurosawa was dispirited and apparently suicidal when the Russian company Mosfilm gave him the chance to make Dersu Uzala, a project he had supposedly been interested in for many years.

Kurosawa’s career naturally falls into two halves – the lively black and white films he produced with great frequency up until the mid 60s (many of them with Toshiro Mifune in the engine room), and then the rather more intermittent colour films which followed, some of them made due to the patronage of successful American fans like George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. It seems to me that this latter period is about Kurosawa’s adoption as a Legendary Director, and it seems to me that it’s not a title that he wears particularly lightly: the films have a rather stately quality and can feel a bit concerned with their own deep significance.

And you sometimes get the sense that Kurosawa is measuring himself against other Legendary Directors. Maybe it’s just me, but watching Dersu Uzala I got a very odd sense of Kurosawa trying to be David Lean: this is a long movie with an built-in interval, set amidst the glories of nature, with a superficial adventure narrative concealing a more serious meditation on how to live and the fallibility of man. Comparisons with Lawrence of Arabia would not be unreasonable, it seems to me.

Is it that good a film, though? Well – it’s hard to compare it to your typical epic piece of cinema, because it only has about three proper characters and on the face of things not very much happens for most of the duration except for people wandering about in the woods. And yet it remains thoroughly engaging: the developing friendship between Arsenyev and Dersu is moving, and the last act of the film, where events take a darker turn, is profoundly poignant.

I suppose you could argue that the film is a little bit simplistic and predictable in the way it lauds the simple folk wisdom of someone living in the wilderness – I can’t help thinking the tendency to do so says more about our own disenchantment with modern technological society than any real merit in going back to nature – but it’s far from alone in doing so. Very few of those other films have the same sheer quality as Dersu Uzala: there is some breathtaking cinematography of the wilderness, a thoughtful, economical script… added to a minimalist soundtrack, the result is a film with an almost mystical quality, a genuine sense of occurring beyond civilisation.

It’s not that surprising that American directors weren’t exactly queueing up for the English-language remake rights, though. (You could argue that those went to Australia, anyway: a quick gender change for one of the characters, a few more jokes, and a considerably happier ending, and Dersu Uzala essentially transforms into Crocodile Dundee.) Perhaps that’s for the best, as this does feel like one of those unique films. Much more accessible than it sounds (and its reputation would suggest); not just of interest to Kurosawa completists, this is a genuinely great movie.

 

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You wanna go to the Devil but you don’t like the flames/Blood on Satan’s Claw is my middle name…

Mean Machine, The Cramps

One of the many reasons why I find my local art-house cinema, the Phoenix in Jericho, to be so cherishable is its capacity to put on a genuinely surprising range of films: whether they be five-hour-long silent biographies of Napoleon, or semi-documentaries about the Afghan rap scene. Top prize for this year’s unexpected revival, however, must go to the decision to show, in the Sunday lunchtime golden oldie slot (usually home to things like West Side Story and Casablanca), as part of a season of films for Christmas, Piers Haggard’s cult favourite The Blood on Satan’s Claw, originally unleashed upon the world in 1970 (also known as Satan’s Skin in the USA).

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This is the kind of film which the average person takes one look at and says ‘Hammer Horror,’ which is an understandable mistake to make. It is in fact the work of Tigon Films, a company which (along with Amicus) was one of Hammer’s main competitors in the late 60s and early 70s. Tigon’s reputation these days is mainly due to its being responsible for Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan’s Claw, two films which generally get lumped together with Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man as part of a subgenre known as ‘folk horror’, although if you ask me the best category for these films would be called ‘Films which are difficult to categorise’ – Bertrand Russell would surely approve. (Blood on Satan’s Claw was, apparently, appearing at the Phoenix as part of a season of films ‘inspired by’ the ghost stories of Charles Dickens and M.R. James – and there is something oddly Jamesean about its preoccupation with atmosphere and insidious dread.)

Our juvenile lead for Blood on Satan’s Claw is Ralph Gower, doughty ploughman at an unnamed village somewhere in Mummerset in the 18th century. He is played by Barry Andrews, who appears to be wearing one of those permed wigs that make people look like one of Harry Enfield’s Scousers – this at least distracts from Andrews’ (previously discussed hereabouts) unsettling resemblance to a young Hugh Grant. I should mention that Andrews is far from alone in making interesting choices in the tonsorial department – there is such an extravagant festival of fake hair on display throughout that Blood on Satan’s Claw should really have been made by Wig-on, not Tigon.

Well, Ralph is busy ploughing one day when he turns up a deformed, furred skull, that of neither man nor beast (and still with an eyeball intact – the first of many grotesque flourishes). Not wanting to touch the thing, he pops off to fetch the local judge (Patrick Wymark), only to find it has disappeared when they return. The judge dismisses it as superstition to begin with, but then strange events start to sweep the village: a young woman goes mad overnight, and when she is dragged off to bedlam one of her hands is found to have been replaced by a hideous claw. Her fiance (Simon Williams) in turn hacks off one of his own hands while in the grip of a terrifying hallucination. A strange affliction begins to trouble the young people of the village, some of whom form a mysterious cult led by the comely Angel Blake (Linda Hayden). Violent death and horror ensue as the demonic force plaguing the village grows in strength…

To be perfectly honest, the plot of Blood on Satan’s Claw does not strictly speaking make a great deal of sense, in coldly logical terms anyway. Instead there is an almost impressionistic succession of scenes and images, working together to build up an almost tangible sense of unease and disquiet, punctuated by disturbing outbursts of quasi-erotica and gory violence. This film doesn’t have the cachet of either The Wicker Man or Witchfinder General, but you can detect its DNA in nearly anything made by Ben Wheatley, for instance. (Blood on Satan’s Claw also has a bit of a rep amongst Doctor Who fans, due to its containing notable big-screen performances by Anthony Ainley and Wendy Padbury, not to mention an uncredited Roberta Tovey.)

What really makes this film distinctive, when on paper it sounds rather like just another low-budget Hammer Horror clone? Well, to answer that, I will say that Hammer started off as a ‘respectable’ film company, and their early horror films in particular are almost ridiculously genteel and well-mannered. There’s an argument to be made that Hammer’s best films are all essentially classic British costume dramas with just enough horror and sex added to satiate the audience of an exploitation movie. Blood on Satan’s Claw is considerably less polite: it tackles the exploitation elements with a ghastly, full-on enthusiasm and relish. There’s little in the Hammer annals with anything like the shock value of the sequence in which Wendy Padbury’s character is lured to her eventual death.

That it is as effective as it is is mostly down to Piers Haggard’s direction, which brilliantly juxtaposes a sense of bucolic innocence with the supernatural threat – Marc Wilkinson’s dreamy, unsettling score is also a major plus. The strengths of the film are more than sufficient to offset its weaknesses – a clearly tiny budget, for one thing. The climax, too, is clearly dependent on camera effects and rousing music to try and make up for the sheer crapulousness of the monster suit involved.

The openly supernatural tone and nature of the film is one of the things that distinguishes it from the other well-known folk horror movies, and adds to the apparent similarity to more mainstream horror films. It also has a touch of Gothic about it in a way the other folk horrors don’t (ancient evil resurfaces to threaten an enlightened modern world), and also, perhaps, a bit of a subtext about the generation gap – the evil and corruption spreading like a disease seems mostly limited to the younger members of the community, while it falls to one of their wiser elders to sort everything out.

That said, there is something deeply disquieting about the judge, the character who in a Hammer film would probably be played by Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee (apparently Cushing wasn’t available and Lee was too expensive). Wymark’s character is cold and ruthless – ‘You must have patience, even while people die… Only thus can the whole evil be destroyed… you must let it grow’ is his cheery message at one point, while later he promises ‘I shall use undreamed-of measures to conquer the evil!’ (The ‘undreamed-of measures’ turn out to be a damn great sword, which for some reason the judge carries around wrapped in a floral blanket until it’s time to go into action.) In short, even the good guys in this film are sort of a bit frightening and evil. For all its presumably cheerful conclusion, with evil banished, one is left profoundly disquieted by the whole thing. Which was presumably the intention.

Probably about a dozen people turned up to watch West Side Story the last time it was revived at the Phoenix – it was very gratifying to see about twenty people coming out to enjoy Blood on Satan’s Claw on the big screen. This movie has lost none of its entrancing, unsettling power – it’s as marvellously, deliriously nasty as it was when it was first released. Fingers crossed for more Golden Oldie Christmas horror at the Phoenix in future.

 

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