Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘1970s’

Let us take a moment to glance into the future, by which of course I mean 1970, or thereabouts: there’s going to come a time when The Avengers ceases production, after all, and what is everyone involved going to do then? Well, emigrate to America in the case of Patrick Macnee, not make a Bond film in the case of Linda Thorson, and as for the boys behind the scenes…

It seems like most of the key creative personnel stuck together with an eye to going into movies. Brian Clemens, producer and de facto head writer on the show, eventually ended up writing and directing a couple of the later Hammer horrors (Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde and Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter), so perhaps it’s not entirely surprising that a little while before this he was involved in what’s effectively a horror movie: Robert Fuest’s And Soon the Darkness.

(This is one of those movies where you do get a sense that the title is a placeholder which they never really got back to. Quite apart from the fact that it’s roaringly inaccurate even in terms of basic grammar, it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the plot, which takes place in the course of an almost completely sunny day. But there we go. I suppose it has a kind of ominous tone to it which is by no means completely inappropriate.)

We find ourselves in rural France, which is flat and seems rather underpopulated, in the company of two maternity ward nurses from Nottingham, who are on a cycling tour. They are played by Pamela Franklin, who never seems to have really hit the big time (though she was in The Legend of Hell House), and Michele Dotrice, who is still probably best remembered for playing Betty Spencer in Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em.

It soon becomes quite apparent that going on holiday together was possibly not the wisest move the girls could have made, for they clearly have very different temperaments: one of them is very sensible, cautious, and organised, and insists that they stick to their planned schedule and itinerary, while the other is much more laid-back and even a touch hedonistic, happily letting herself get distracted by some of the handsome young hommes they come across as they travel. (Seasoned horror movie watchers will already have worked out which one of the duo is likely in for a sticky end before the conclusion of the story, which is why I’m being rather vague about who plays who: it would practically count as a spoiler.)

Well, after stopping for a break on the road, the two girls have a genuine falling-out, with one of them pressing on and the other staying where she is, alone in the woods. But is she quite alone? (Hint: of course not.) Her friend eventually grows worried about her, something which is in no way mitigated by the fact that a female hiker was murdered in those same woods a couple of years earlier, and the killer was never caught. A young man (Sandor Eles) approaches her, presenting himself as a Surete detective on holiday, but is his offer of help all that it seems? Who can she trust?

Brian Clemens’ co-writer on this movie was none other than Terry Nation, who was another contributor to the final season of The Avengers. (The two men seem to have had quite a good working relationship, at least until Clemens ended up taking Nation to court over the issue of who actually originated Survivors.) Both Clemens and Nation have near-legendary reputations as originators of a certain flavour of pulpy, escapist entertainment (Clemens shaped The Avengers into its classic form, as well as creating The New Avengers and The Professionals, while Nation heavily influenced the BBC’s SF-fantasy output in addition to creating – on paper, at least – Survivors and Blake’s 7), so it is a bit of a surprise to find that And Soon the Darkness is a relatively gritty, down-to-earth psychological thriller. Both men are, you would think, a bit out of their comfort zone, and this is before we even come to the fact that the main characters are a couple of young women.

Then again, that’s kind of essential as the movie is really just an exercise in what the French would possibly call le jeopardie du femme: which is to say, it’s a film about young women, but one made largely by, and for, men. There’s often a trace of that little exploitative edge to the film, where the male viewer at least is invited to momentarily entertain some unacceptable thoughts. I suppose this kind of catharsis is an inherent part of the horror genre makes me feel a bit uncomfortable, and one thing you can say about And Soon the Darkness is that it’s relatively restrained in this area.

This is because it is relatively restrained in pretty much every area, a restraint which may arise partly from creative decisions but also probably owes something to the fact it has clearly been made on a very low budget. There are a handful of characters and locations, none of them especially lavish, no big set pieces or crowd scenes… as an exercise in parsimonious storytelling it’s quite impressive, but one wonders why the film is stretched out to well over ninety minutes, other than for solely contractual reasons. you can understand why this kind of film would start slow and then gradually build to a thrilling climax, but in this case it starts slow, stays quite slow, occasionally decelerates for a bit, then goes back to being just slow rather than actually glacial, and then there’s a climax and it stops.

This is the crux of the issue when it comes to this film: it’s slow and not much happens. You can sense that Nation and Clemens are working very hard to try and generate a bit of intrigue when it comes to the identity of whoever-it-is that’s been murdering young women on holiday, but in the end as a viewer you fundamentally understand that it’s either going to be Sandor Eles or it isn’t, and if it isn’t then it will be someone rather unlikely (basically because Eles’ character is the only plausible suspect). Another consequence of this is that rural France comes across as a very sinister and unsettling place, inhabited by shifty, alarming locals. One can imagine a lot of reproving missives from the French Tourist Board arriving on the producers’ desks, complaining about the poor light this movie places the whole continent in. It’s hardly likely to make people approach their European holidays, or indeed Europe in general, with more positivity. (The roles of Brian Clemens and Terry Nation in subliminally laying the foundations for the Brexit disaster: discuss.)

Well, I suppose most of the acting is pretty good – this is one of Sandor Eles’ better roles, I think, as he mainly seemed to get stuck with second- or third-banana parts in his films for Hammer – and Robert Fuest does the best he can with the material. This is an efficient, economical little psycho-horror-thriller, let down a bit by sluggish pace and lack of incident. But given the names on the script you would be forgiven for expecting something with a bit more colour and life and fun.

Read Full Post »

People talk a lot about the decline and even the death of the western as a film genre, despite the fact that they still make cowboy movies, just nowhere near as many as they used to. Just when the genre fell out of favour is relatively easy to determine: as long ago as the late seventies, John Badham was making Outland, which is essentially just a western set on one of the moons of Jupiter, his logic being that it was easier to raise the money for a science fiction film than something with a historical frontier setting.

More evidence for the ‘George Lucas killed the western’ school of thought, perhaps (a little ironic given the western imagery and tropes sprinkled through the first of his stellar conflict movies in particular). If we accept this, we can quite accurately date the Last Days of the Western (as a popular mainstream genre, anyway) to 1976 or 1977 – which, if nothing else, bestows the title of Last Great Traditional Western on Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales, a film better equipped to bear it than almost any other.

Eastwood himself plays Wales, who at the start of the film is a struggling farmer with a wife and young son. But then they are caught up in the savagery of the American civil war: his home is burnt to the ground and his family are killed by Unionist fighters. For a moment the familiar chilly Eastwood mask slips and we see him rendered almost insensible with grief: but then he teaches himself to shoot and  joins up with a Confederacy militia.

As the opening credits end, so does the war: with defeat for the Confederacy. Wales’ commander, Fletcher (a terrific performance by John Vernon, who is rather under-used) has negotiated the terms of their surrender – but Wales cannot yet bring himself to relinquish his hatred, and does not go with the others. This proves to be a wise move, for Fletcher has been sold a pack of lies: the other soldiers are ruthlessly shot down after giving up their arms. Despite an attempted rescue (this yields up the daunting image of a grim-faced Eastwood manning a gatling gun), only Wales and another young man escape, and the lad is grievously injured.

Perhaps not quite realising who they are dealing with, the Union authorities commission Fletcher to hunt Josey Wales down, so he can be killed by Terrill (Bill McKinney) – the man who killed Wales’ family – and his men.

It almost sounds like a chase movie, but for the fact that after a while, Wales isn’t sure he’s being pursued (he does keep running into bounty hunters everywhere he goes, though).  But where is he running to? Nowhere, really: he’s just running. Even this would be easier if he didn’t keep acquiring waifs and strays and misfits on the trail: an aging Cherokee chief with a nice line in dry repartee (Chief Dan George), two settlers heading for a new home in Texas (Paula Trueman and Clint’s then-wife Sondra Locke), and so on. As the chief suggests, Josey Wales is very good at getting rid of people he doesn’t like – but will he find it quite to easy to dispense with people he does genuinely care for?

The context for The Outlaw Josey Wales is interesting. You don’t really need to know anything about the American civil war to follow the story, but if you do know the topic it is immediately apparent this is another film laden with regret regarding the conflict. I always used to think it felt almost as if Hollywood believed that the wrong side won – you can sense that same regret in movies from Gone with the Wind to Cold Mountain – but now I wouldn’t put it quite so strongly. This movie doesn’t concern itself with the causes or politics of the war any more than The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, in which it is just an appropriate backdrop for a cynical tale of adventurous gunmen trying to get rich quick. However, The Outlaw Josey Wales deals with the end of the war, and feels almost post-apocalyptic in places: there is a sense of a shattered civilisation beginning to pull itself back together and rebuild, particularly in terms of the nascent community that Wales finds himself increasingly committed to.

This itself is a bit of a departure considering Eastwood’s role in his films for Sergio Leone was essentially that of the Angel of Death, cooler, faster and meaner than anyone else in the west. The role is almost an operatic cartoon character; what sets the two great westerns Eastwood directed apart is the way in which they examine how a person gets that way (or at least gets to be perceived that way), and – crucially, in the case of this film – if there is a way back to being a human being.

‘We all died a little in that war,’ says Eastwood towards the end of the film, basically encapsulating the theme of the movie. The story is about death, and loss, and grief, and then learning to go beyond it  and find hope somewhere else. At one point, when the climax seems imminent, Wales rides off to single-handedly take on the local native tribe, with little expectation of a safe return – but rather than the bloodbath the audience may be expecting by this point, Eastwood (underplaying masterfully) delivers a quiet speech about the unimportance of governments compared to the reality of people learning to live together in peace, without endless violence. When I first saw this movie it felt like a left turn; now I watch it and it is one of the most moving and powerful scenes I can think of. (Needless to say Eastwood knows his audience and still manages to orchestrate the movie so it concludes with a hum-dinger of a shoot-out.)

That’s the joy of The Outlaw Josey Wales: you get all the stuff you want – Eastwood at the height of his powers, commandingly cool, with great one-liners and superb action – but also a genuinely touching story about a man who has surrendered himself to violence finding the courage to contemplate that, perhaps, there is another way of living. If this movie does mark the end of an era, then it does so in the best possible way, for this is an excellent film.

Read Full Post »

John Carpenter’s 1976 movie Assault on Precinct 13 opens with a cosmopolitan group of young Los Angelinos out for a walk one night. As their neighbourhood is perhaps not the swankiest, they have opted to play it safe and are all carrying automatic weapons. Unfortunately, when they bump into a group of police, the officers of the law are likewise not inclined to take any chances and mow them all down with pump-action shotguns, apparently before the youths manage to get a shot off. These days this sequence feels rather provocative, though it was probably never intended to.

The rest of the movie takes place in the course of the next twenty-four hours. The leaders of the street gang whose members were killed meet and swear a blood oath to exact vengeance for the deaths of their friends – quite who is never made entirely clear. Initially it seems to be anyone who crosses their path, particularly ice-cream men, before they settle for ‘anyone sheltering someone we don’t like’. This is a plot device, to be honest, but a very functional one.

Carpenter goes on to introduce the various characters who will populate the story: Lieutenant Bishop (Austin Stoker), a Highway Patrol officer on his first night’s duty – a decent, principled man, keen to make a difference, Bishop isn’t completely delighted to be given a posting supervising a near-derelict police station on the verge of being entirely shut down. All he has to do is answer the phones, redirect anyone who comes in to the new station, and make friends with the secretaries (Laurie Zimmer and Nancy Loomis).

Meanwhile, a group of prisoners is being transferred from one penal institution to another. Amongst them are Wells (Tony Burton), a fairly undistinguished crook, and Napoleon Smith (Darwin Joston), a celebrity multiple-murderer with a bit of an attitude, not to mention an ego. Also going about his business is Mr Lawson (Martin West), a man taking his young daughter to visit his mother. And, of course, the gang warlords are on the prowl, looking for trouble.

Needless to say, all these characters eventually come together at the virtually-abandoned old precinct: Lawson has a shocking run-in with the gang and ends up killing one of them. With the others on his tail he takes refuge in the precinct, where the bus carrying Wells and Smith has made a brief stop. Before anyone realises what’s happening, the building has been surrounded by dozens of heavily armed gang members, all apparently out for Lawson’s blood, and all of them totally psychotic.

The movie basically treats the gang members like something out of a horror movie, which makes the ensuing alliance between Bishop, one of the secretaries named Leigh, and the two convicts more plausible. The quartet have to work together in order to fend off the waves of attacks the gang throw against the precinct, all the while trying to raise the alarm or find a way to escape…

The last time I wrote about a John Carpenter movie, I was unfortunately obliged to be fairly unkind about it, and proposed the standard thesis: that Carpenter is one of those people who for some reason has done his career backwards. It’s perfectly understandable for people’s work to improve over time, as they practise and learn from their mistakes – the fact that this happens is one of the very few benign laws of nature – but there is something a little bit baffling about people who get worse as they progress through their career. Carpenter started with this film, Dark Star, Halloween, The Fog and The Thing, but then unaccountably seemed to go off the boil, and what ensued is essentially – oh, dear, I feel awful for saying this – a long slide into creative irrelevance.

But this movie – oh, boy! If we’re going to go with the ‘backwards career’ notion, it follows that Carpenter’s first proper movie should be amongst his best – and so it is. Halloween is the early Carpenter film that gets all the attention, not least because it was a huge hit and consolidated a new horror subgenre (I hesitate to say it actually invented the slasher movie, because, you know, Psycho). I fully see why Halloween is so acclaimed, but for sheer pleasure and entertainment value, this is the Carpenter movie for me.

Of course, watching it now, you can see that this was a director who would at some point do something noteworthy in the horror genre – the faceless, silent gang members have something of George Romero’s zombies about them, and the precinct-under-siege of course recalls the embattled farmhouse in Night of the Living Dead (Carpenter has acknowledged the debt). But you might also anticipate there would be a proper western somewhere in Carpenter’s future, given Assault kind of resembles a mash-up of a zombie movie and a cowboy film – I’ve heard it described as an ‘urban western’, which strikes me as as good a description as any (always assuming we’re still allowed to use the word urban figuratively, anyway).

What we can learn from a film like this is that sometimes a script doesn’t need a lot of subplots and subtext and character motivation: it sets up the situation and characters with supreme economy, and, once it has brought them together, proceeds to play out virtually in real time, apart from a couple of cutaway sequences. Even then, there is barely a wasted moment or line – virtually all of Darwin Joston’s dialogue in the first part of the film is setting up a pay-off near the end. Carpenter has said the final script was put together in not much more than a week, which only goes to show that an intense creative blitz can sometimes pay dividends.

Having the right neighbours probably helps, too: Carpenter was living in the same building as Darwin Joston at the time, and Joston knew Austin Stoker from other acting work, and this was how the film found its two male leads. It is almost impossible to look at this film now and not wonder why Stoker, Joston and Laurie Zimmer did not go on to much more substantial movie careers – Joston in particular is effortlessly charismatic, but the others aren’t far behind him. The pay-off to the whole movie comes in the final shot, when Bishop and Smith walk out of what’s left of the precinct side by side, and it’s one of those moments which almost lifts you out of your seat.

The rather charged by-play between Joston and Zimmer, not to mention some of their other dialogue, does betray Carpenter’s great fondness for the films of Howard Hawks – Assault also owes a debt to his Rio Bravo – a classic Hollywood touch to what is still clearly a low-budget exploitation movie with some notably graphic violence. There’s still a film-school-punk edge to Carpenter’s work at this point, most obviously in the ice cream scene – the censor insisted Carpenter remove this, or the film would be given an X certificate (Carpenter obliged, but then put the offending moment back in for the film’s wider release). Even the director has since admitted he perhaps goes a little too far at this point.

Well, maybe: but it’s the combination of traditional virtues and restless edginess that gives the film its energy and ability to relentlessly grip and entertain. It occurs to me we are sometimes a bit too hard on John Carpenter, and are too inclined to judge him based on his later films: if you or I happened along and made a film as good as Assault on Precinct 13, then promptly retired, we would still be acclaimed as having made a significant contribution to cinema. Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, and The Thing go to comprise a very impressive legacy, to say nothing of Carpenter’s other movies. But for me, this is the one at the top of the pile.

Read Full Post »

The Island of Doctor Moreau tends to lag somewhat behind The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine and The Invisible Man when it comes to cultural profile, but if nothing else I suppose this puts it marginally less at risk of truly dreadful modern ‘re-interpretations’ (BBC non-adaptation of War of the Worlds, I’m looking at you). The disaster of the Marlon Brando-starring adaptation probably means we won’t see another big-screen version for a good long while, and while on one level this is a relief, it would be nice to at least consider the possibility of someone coming along and doing the story justice.

Taking a decent swing at the challenge is Don Taylor’s 1977 take on the novel (title marginally shortened to save on typesetting, I guess), which was probably the most distinguished entrant in a brief H.G. Wells cycle from American International (other movies in this ‘series’ were The Food of the Gods and Empire of the Ants). This is not an exceptional film in any respect, but its approach to the source material is interesting.

We open in the middle of the Pacific, where we find Michael York and his cheekbones in a lifeboat, along with two other men, one of whom has just carked it (thus we are signalled what dire straits they are in). York and his friend throw the corpse over the side, while the audience is inevitably distracted by the way that the lifeboat seems to be surging along at a fair old clip (mainly because it is being towed by the camera boat). Eventually they wash up on a rather substantial tropical island. York goes to explore, gets spooked by something in the undergrowth and ends up falling into a pit trap, while his companion is set upon by mysterious figures and killed (off camera). (There are, to be honest, various plot holes and unanswered questions here, based on what we later learn about how the island is set up, but these do not occur to us until much later, if at all.)

Well, York wakes up in the slightly dingy hacienda-style home of the owner of the island, Dr Paul Moreau (Burt Lancaster), which he shares with his dissolute factotum Montgomery (Nigel Davenport) and a beautiful young woman named Maria (Barbara Carrera) – not to mention some rather ugly servants. It seems York will be stuck there for a bit, but Moreau offers his hospitality, while warning him not to leave the compound after dark. York discovers that Moreau was briefly celebrated as a scientist of genius, but has since become a recluse here on the island. Taking York’s curiosity as a sign he is possibly a kindred spirit, Moreau reveals his collection of bottled embryos and informs York he is searching for the secret of what gives living creatures their form, and why this morphological destiny seems so inflexible. ‘Can we change that destiny?’ ponders Moreau. ‘Should we?’ responds York, quite properly for the hero of this sort of film.

It turns out, of course, that Moreau has been putting his ideas into practice by injecting different animals with human genetic material and creating a collection of hybrid creatures, most of which are roaming around on the island looking not unlike extras from Planet of the Apes (director Taylor helmed one of the best Apes movies, and John Chambers did both sets of make-up). York is appalled, especially when Moreau indicates to him that the position of the ‘true’ humans on the island is precarious – one sign of weakness and the beast-men may rise up and kill them all. In order for any of them to survive York will have to be as brutal and ruthless with Moreau’s creatures as his host is…

When I wrote about The Island of Doctor Moreau a few years ago, I admitted to being left a little troubled by the arguably racist dimension of the colonial interpretation the book lends itself to: Moreau’s genetic uplift of the animals into something approaching human form as a metaphor for the ‘civilising’ efforts undertaken by colonial powers during the century in which Wells was writing. It’s to the credit of the film that this kind of idea lingers on here, though by implication more than anything else – it also occurs to me that the film’s take on this is more explicitly critical of Imperial power structures, anyway, suggesting that the ‘masters’ are brutalised and diminished by their role as much as anyone. It’s a shame the film doesn’t explore these kinds of ideas further.

The other thing I noted about the book is the extent to which it falls down if assessed in terms of standard narrative dogma: the story takes a while to get going, the protagonist doesn’t actually have any influence on the story, events would have played out the same way if he’d never actually been there, and so on. As regular readers will know, I am quite wary of adaptations which only treat the original text as a set of general suggestions, but I can understand why people might think there was room for improvement here. The screenwriters certainly come up with a strong idea for the final act of the movie: annoyed by the persistent failure of his attempts to turn animals into men, Moreau decides to approach the problem from the other direction and turn York into an animal. It’s this which leads directly into the climax of the movie (providing a few quite effective scenes along the way). On the other hand, this does remove the creepier and more downbeat aspects of the book’s conclusion, but you can’t have everything.

On the whole, though, the movie is well-mounted, and most of the performances are very decent: Burt Lancaster certainly looks the part as Moreau, and York makes the most of what’s a fairly underwritten role. Even when it’s departed from the substance of Wells (which happens quite frequently) the film has the sense and atmosphere of what’s ultimately one of the great pieces of Gothic SF (though not often described in those terms, I note). The only bit of it which really falls down in the love-interest subplot featuring Carrera’s character, which is presumably there in deference to the diktat that All Films Must Have Romance In Them (Or At Least Some Soft-Focus Sex). Nearly all of these scenes feel like a graft taken from somewhere else, and the operation is not a complete success. You keep expecting a twist ending where Carreras starts turning into a mongoose, or something, but it never happens. (Apparently such a conclusion was scripted, but Michael York refused to film it on grounds of taste and decency.)

In the end this is a decent film rather than a great adaptation – it’s never quite as visceral or as disturbing (or, indeed, as Gothic) as you would really like it to be, but the basic shape and concerns of the book survive at least as well as in some other, rather more celebrated Wells movies. If the film really has a flaw, it’s that it seems a little too interested in playing it safe in the name of commercial viability, but you can’t blame the film-makers for the nature of their industry. Worth a look, anyway.

 

Read Full Post »

As anyone who’s dug through the archives of the blog will know, a lot of my earliest reviews were written for the online newspaper of a very early social media/open-source collaborative encyclopedia website, and I still do a piece for them every week. Usually this is a topical review, which has obviously been tricky for the last couple of months, but at least this frees me up somewhat to contribute to the themed issues the paper occasionally runs. They recently did an ornithological number, which I treated with due respect by submitting an update of my 2012 review of The Giant Claw, and I have just been informed they’re following this up with a bug-themed issue, and would appreciate something appropriate.

Well, as you know, if I have a genuine passion in my life, it is science fiction, and there does seem to be an implicit link between insects on film and the SF genre. You can start the line with Them!, and then trace a path through the years, taking in such treats as Tarantula! (not actually about an insect, of course, but as we shall see taxonomic precision is not the strong suit of arthropod-related cinema), The Deadly Mantis, The Fly and its sequels,  and so on, down through Phase IV and on to the present day (personally I’ve always felt that Aliens in particular owes a huge debt to Them!). This doesn’t even touch on the Japanese contribution to the tradition – how can one not mention Mothra? (There are also the giant caterpillars which appear in Rodan and, much later, Godzilla Vs Megaguirus.) It’s actually a lot harder to think of insect-related movies which aren’t SF – the only ones I can think of are The Naked Jungle and The Swarm, in which Charlton Heston and Michael Caine contend with large numbers of our exoskeletal friends.

Still, the sheer number of bug movies in the SF-horror vein suggests there has always been money to be made here. This may explain the nature (no pun intended) of the distinctly odd movie The Hellstrom Chronicle, made in 1971 and directed by Ed Spiegel and Walon Green. The Hellstrom Chronicle was advertised in the style of those SF-horror projects, on the strength of its various baleful pronouncements on the future of the human race, which seems to me to be rather disingenous considering it is actually a wildlife documentary (albeit one including brief clips from Them! and The Naked Jungle). Nevertheless, the film was a financial success and won an Oscar and a BAFTA, so it clearly didn’t do anyone any harm.

After some striking opening footage representing the formation of the Earth and the origins of life itself, and then some nice footage of carnivorous plants doing their thing, we meet the radical scientist Dr Nils Hellstrom himself. Hellstrom has a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy), an MS (Master of Science), and is WF (wholly fictitious). He is played by Lawrence Pressman, who basically hosts and narrates the entire movie. Hellstrom is, by his own admission, a fanatic, a heretic, and a lunatic, and has fallen out of favour with the scientific establishment due to his his unpopular Big Idea: this is that, in the ongoing struggle between the human race and the insect world, there can only be one victor, and it’s not going to be the big soft pink fleshy things.

The rest of the movie is basically Hellstrom trying to convince the audience that we’re all doomed, and supporting his argument with various pieces of state-of-the-art footage of insects in their everyday lives. We are treated to segments showing battles between red and black harvester ants, more ants attacking a termite colony, the curious sex lives of spiders, a startling sequence showing what it’s like to be inside a plane flying through a locust swarm, driver ants on the march, and so on.

The photography still looks good even nearly fifty years on, with many striking images; no doubt it seemed even more impressive back in the early seventies. It is quite fascinating and absorbing, even before one considers the contributions made by Hellstrom himself. These add a lot to the tone of the movie and the impression it leaves, but viewed objectively they are frankly a bit of a mixed bag. Hellstrom’s thesis was apparently synthesised from the work of a range of contemporary entomologists, approved by two advisors from the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, and then turned into a script by David Seltzer (later to have a decent career as a writer-director, most notably as scriptwriter of both versions of The Omen). I’m guessing the advisors didn’t get a look at the final script, or if they did their notes were ignored.

There are some interesting philosophical ideas here: insects have no capacity for intelligence or abstract reasoning, but – argues Hellstrom – this also means they are incapable of stupidity or irrationality. Their lack of individuality likewise gives them a competitive advantage. (And so on: there are some ecological ideas here too.) But on the other hand, you can imagine the advisors seething every time Hellstrom refers to the entire class of insects (eight million species, more or less) as a single creature, analogous to humans (one species – extant, anyway).

In the end, though, one kind of gets the impression that Dr Hellstrom and his theories are basically here to provide a bit of colour and atmosphere to link together bits of (very impressive) footage showing insects and their cousins up close. And this they do successfully. I suppose it’s always a question of how you find an audience for this kind of film, which isn’t typical cinema fare – twenty-five years later, a European movie called Microcosmos was released, which took a much more lyrical-pastoral approach to the same sort of material, largely eschewed narration, and once again did very well for itself.

The Hellstrom Chronicle turned out to have a curious afterlife as well – apart from winning various big documentary awards, it also inspired an actual SF novel by Frank Herbert: Hellstrom’s Hive, portraying a human society run along the same lines as a nest of social insects and its conflict with ‘wild’ humanity. Perhaps more significant, though, is the way the film presents wildlife footage with a strong element of narrative, including the use of incidental music to heighten the drama and impact of what is being shown. I’ve no idea if this was an innovation of the film, or something which was widespread in nature films at the time. Certainly, The Hellstrom Chronicle does this well, and the technique has become ubiquitous in wildlife documentary series today: one of the reasons I’ve more or less stopped watching this sort of programme is that any kind of scientific or educational underpinning has been dropped in favour of simple spectacle, very often sentimental. But it would be excessively harsh to hold The Hellstrom Chronicle responsible for this. This is obviously quite an odd movie, and in some ways it feels quite dated now, but the quality of the microphotography and Pressman’s well-pitched performance keep it engaging even today.

Read Full Post »

One of the great what-ifs of cinema history is the question of what kind of career Bruce Lee would have enjoyed had he not passed away, aged only 32, a month before the release of his first major American movie in 1973. Certainly one gets a sense that big things were planned for Lee (perhaps not least by himself): the title of Enter the Dragon doesn’t really mean anything in the context of the film itself, but does make some sort of sense if you think of the film as Lee’s calling card for mainstream cinema. As it is, the card marked a departure rather than an arrival, but what a card it is.

Directed by Robert Clouse, the film opens with a mysterious British chap turning up to watch Lee (whose body appears to consist of something in the region of 90% sinew) put the smackdown on a rather less athletic member of his own temple (the proof that a successful career is not just the preserve of people who work out is that this actor, Sammo Hung, went on to become a martial arts superstar in a series of films with titles like Enter the Fat Dragon).

The spectator turns out to be Mr Braithwaite, a representative of British intelligence. Braithwaite wants Lee to attend a martial arts tournament to be held on the private island of the reclusive Mr Han (Shih Kien), and try to turn up evidence that Han is a drug-dealing white slaver. Lee’s own tutor takes him to one side and reveals that Han is actually a corrupted renegade member of Lee’s own Shaolin temple. On a quick trip home before heading off to the tournament, Lee’s dad reveals that it was Han’s men who drove his little sister to commit suicide some years earlier. It is fair to say he heads off on his mission feeling very well-motivated.

Other people on the boat are less burdened with back-story, but then this isn’t a vehicle for them. Chief amongst these are charmingly roguish (or possibly roguishly charming) American gambler Roper, (John Saxon), and his mightily-Afro’d old ‘Nam buddy Williams (Jim Kelly).  (This isn’t a particularly forgiving script for the various Asian actors: the Enter the Dragon drinking game includes taking a sip every time someone refers to the mysterious ‘Loper’ or ‘Wirriams’, two characters who are occasionally mentioned but never seen.)

Well, soon enough everyone arrives on Han’s island and gets down to the business of kicking great lumps out of one another. Will Han succeed in luring Roper and Williams (or even Loper and Wirriams) into joining his nefarious organisation? Will Lee succeed in his mission? Will everything come to a peaceful conclusion? (Clue: of course it won’t.)

Enter the Dragon has a bit of an image problem amongst my immediate family: when my father came across me watching it, he was moved to start leaving me slightly sarcastic notes around the house suggesting I might want to reconsider my choice of recreational viewing. My sister refused to stay in the room during a subsequent viewing some years later. The case that the movie is essentially just schlock, a kind of soft-core pornography of violence (and perhaps not just violence) is, at first glance anyway, a difficult one to answer. My answer would probably be: yes, but what schlock! What violence!

It is the case that this is not a film aspiring to heights of erudition and a sophisticated insight into the human condition. It is emotional, kinetic, superficial and visceral. ‘Man, you come right out of a comic book,’ says Williams to Han at one point, scornfully, but he overlooks the fact that he himself and every other character and plot element has been derived from comics and pulp fiction. The Bond series seems to have been a particular donor: at one point Han gives Roper a tour of his secret base (he keeps his own skeletal severed hand in a display case, or so it is implied), and of course he is carrying a white cat around with him as he does so.

There is something bizarrely reductionist about the plot: the film establishes characters and setting in the most minimal way. Lee, driven martial arts guru, is playing Lee, a driven martial arts guru; Han, it is made absolutely clear, is a very naughty man; and there is a kung fu tournament which will provide many opportunities for violence. Perfunctory doesn’t begin to cover it, but then the film is primarily a vehicle for Bruce Lee and his martial arts choreography.

You do get a strong sense that the producers of the film are playing it very safe and don’t fully appreciate what a talent they had on their hands in Lee – this is not the most demanding of acting roles for him, but he still manages to find places to play scenes against expectation and find comedy in unlikely moments. Given his natural charisma, it’s easy to imagine him carrying off a much more sophisticated role very successfully. He certainly doesn’t need to be teamed up with John Saxon, who is presumably here to do the heavy lifting in the acting department and present a Caucasian face for audiences resistant to a Chinese lead actor. Saxon gives a decent performance considering he is essentially supernumerary to the film. I only found out recently that the actor is in real life a karate black belt; nevertheless, his fight scenes in this film have a distinct whiff of dressage about them as he hops about somewhat inelegantly.

Any action involving Lee is on a different level, however, whether it’s an individual fight or the sequences in which he takes on armies of opponents singlehandedly (Jackie Chan is somewhere in the crowd, as well as doubling for Lee in a few stunt sequences). You can almost sense that the grammar of the American martial arts movie is being written as you watch, but few other stars have had Lee’s intensity and virtuosity. The fight in the maze of mirrors is one of those sequences which has been endlessly ripped off ever since. Pretty much the only complaint you can make about the fight sequences is that Clouse’s direction is often not up to scratch, filming Lee in mid-shot where the full extent of his speed and skill is often unclear (too much is going on beyond the edges of the frame).

It’s hard to imagine where an eighty-something Bruce Lee would be now; possibly still producing and directing movies, but most likely having moved on to something else – politics, perhaps, or spirituality. We shall never know. This is, of course, his most famous film for western audiences, and one designed for him. He dominates it completely, and yet for all the irresistible entertainment it provides, it somehow doesn’t do him justice. But this much is obvious even while you’re enjoying it as an irresistible piece of genre cinema, and I imagine it does a great job of inspiring people to learn more about him.

Read Full Post »

My usual position when it comes to Theatre of Blood (1973) is that it shows that everyone has at least one great film in them – but only one in some cases. The script is wonderful, the direction is capable, and the music is fantastic – and yet none of the people responsible for these things have a noteworthy career beyond this film. The one who came closest was Douglas Hickox, the director, who had a longish career, much of it as the AD on fifties potboilers: I’ve heard of some of the films he made (Behemoth the Sea Monster and Zulu Dawn, for example), but would struggle to describe them especially distinguished. Nevertheless, every year BIFA gives out the Douglas Hickox Award for the best new director, which probably isn’t anything to do with Theatre of Blood – but I can’t help feeling it should be.

The movie is set in the present day and opens with pompous theatre critic and grandee of London society George Maxwell (Michael Hordern) being summoned by the police to move a gang of homeless people on from a property he is involved with. Maxwell wades in fearlessly – ‘We’ll have no trouble here!’ he cries, unwittingly spawning a catchphrase for a future age. However, the mob of homeless people clearly would like there to be some trouble, and set upon Maxwell, bloodily stabbing and hacking him to death, all in sight of an oddly detached policeman and a poster advertising a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

Maxwell’s fellow critics are upset, which rapidly turns to alarm when a second of their number (Dennis Price) is run through with a spear and his corpse tied to a horse’s tail, thus reproducing the death of Hector from Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. A third (Arthur Lowe) has his head sawn off in his sleep (this one comes from Cymbeline). Someone is clearly staging a season reviving some of Shakespeare’s most spectacular murders, with the members of the Critics’ Circle in the central role each time. But who, and how?

The surviving critics are uneasily reminded of the actor Edward Lionheart (Vincent Price), who would only ever appear in Shakespearean roles and whom they were all routinely very cruel to: in the end, their mockery, and the fact they refused to give him their award for best actor, drove Lionheart to apparently commit suicide by diving off the balcony of leading critic Devlin (Ian Hendry), into the Thames. But his body was never found – could he have survived somehow? Devlin approaches his daughter Edwina (Diana Rigg), but she is hostile and uncooperative.

Meanwhile the murders continue, restaging scenes from Richard III, Othello and The Merchant of Venice (a radical reinterpretation where Antonio does get his heart cut out – ‘Only Lionheart would have the temerity to rewrite Shakespeare,’ says a shocked Devlin, who seems to be more aghast at this than the death of his colleague). Can the police track Lionheart down before there’s no-one left in England to write theatre reviews…?

Quite why this particular group of people wound up making a film as distinctive as Theatre of Blood remains a mystery, but the lineage of the film itself is rather less obscure: it’s obviously a successor to the two Dr Phibes films Price made for American International in the preceding couple of years, but one which greatly refines and enhances the same formula. The basic plot, of a vengeful madman committing a series of extravagant murders, is retained, but the slightly laborious, almost steampunkish whimsy of the Phibes films is dispensed with along with the period setting.

Perhaps most significantly, the weird decision to make Phibes horribly scarred and functionally mute, thus seriously impacting on Vincent Price’s ability to give a performance in the role, is no longer a consideration. As a result this is one of the actor’s greatest films, as he gets to play not just Lionheart, but Lionheart performing many of Shakespeare’s greatest roles. One of the reasons why many horror films from the fifties, sixties and seventies are so memorable is because they feature some of the finest actors of their generations, never quite getting the respect they deserve: you could argue that Theatre of Blood is on some level an oblique commentary on this whole phenomenon. But let’s not overthink this – it’s Vincent Price and Diana Rigg performing a range of characters (policemen, masseurs, rather camp hairdressers called Butch), causing mayhem and performing Shakespeare: how can it not be brilliant?

The film’s other stroke of genius, or possible good fortune, comes in the casting of Price’s victims, for Theatre of Blood has possibly the most distinguished ensemble of any British horror movie (even if most of them are only in extended cameos): quite apart from Price, Rigg, and Hendry, the cast includes Hordern, Price, Lowe, Robert Morley, Jack Hawkins, Harry Andrews, Coral Browne, and Diana Dors. (Milo O’Shea and Eric Sykes play the detectives.)

I suppose some people might say that Theatre of Blood isn’t really a horror film because it’s not actually scary – and it is true that it functions as a knowing, grand guignol comedy more than anything else. But even here the film has a few surprises to offer: in places it actually becomes genuinely moving to watch. You believe in the relationship between Lionheart and his daughter completely, and the critics do seem unspeakably cruel as they mock and scorn Lionheart just before his ‘suicide’. The film has an unexpectedly bittersweet, melancholic tone to it, almost as if it is suggesting that there is no place for someone like Lionheart in the modern world – that, rather than taking his revenge on the critics, his plan is simply a doomed parting shot from an earlier age of sincerity (even if it is rather hammy sincerity).

Because, apparently, even as late as the 1970s, it was apparently unacceptable for a film to conclude with Vincent Price getting away with it. Perhaps this was the result of moral concerns, or perhaps because one of the things that lifts the film is that fact that Lionheart is somehow a doomed, tragic figure from the start. The manner in which his plan comes undone is one of the few weak links in the script, but it does lead to an appropriately spectacular and operatic finale. This was apparently one of Vincent Price’s favourites from amongst his own films; Diana Rigg feels it is one of her best, as well. I can’t argue with that. This is one of the great obscure treasures of the British horror tradition.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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 pieces of real estate 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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »