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Posts Tagged ‘1970s’

Cultural hegemony operating in the way that it does, the American remake of a successful non-English movie is a well-established phenomenon – there’s a very long list, including films as diverse as True Lies, Vanilla Sky, and The Magnificent Seven. Foreign-language takes on Hollywood are a little thinner on the ground, but they are still what is technically known as ‘a thing’, especially if you include somewhat unofficial versions of popular hits – we’ve already talked about Turkish Superman, for instance. (Just as an example of something completely different and rather curious, at some point this year we will hopefully get to see the French-language remake of the Japanese meta-comedy One Cut of the Dead.)

Mohammed Hussain’s 1973 film Khoon Khoon doesn’t seem to be one of those knock-offs – for a long time it was available to view on a major streamer, rather than in the depths of YouTube, and it does has a vague patina of quality about it: signs of a respectable budget and established actors. Should you be wondering, Khoon Khoon – so far as I’ve been able to work out – means Bloody Murder in Hindi. (Or possibly Bloody Blood. Or indeed Murder Murder. Bloody Murder isn’t exactly a brilliant title, but it’s better than the other two.)

A psychopathic killer is on the loose in a major city, picking off targets at random from the rooftops, and taunting the police commissioner with his demands for money – so it falls to one tough police detective to lead the hunt for the killer, and yes, you’re right, this is the plot of the classic 1970 Don Siegel movie Dirty Harry, one of the films which established Clint Eastwood as a major star. Start talking about ‘the Bollywood version of Dirty Harry‘ and people are likely to start trying to have you sectioned, but this film exists and it’s a lot better than you might expect.

The weird thing is the extent to which this seems to be a genuine fusion of American genre moviemaking and what most westerners would recognise as the classic Bollywood sensibility. I should point out that this isn’t just a film which is vaguely inspired by or derived from Dirty Harry: it really is a genuine remake, including most of the same plot beats, and with some scenes – even individual shots and camera moves – replicated in detail. The resemblance is compounded by the fact that Khoon Khoon, in a move more commonly associated with unlicensed knock-offs like Turkish Superman, reuses significant elements of the soundtrack from its progenitor. (I should also mention the appearance of pieces of music from Bullitt, at least two Bond films – Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice, if my ears don’t fail me – and the original Planet of the Apes.)

The most obvious sign of the Bollywoodisation of Dirty Harry is also musical – or, to put it another way, Khoon Khoon itself is a musical. Initially the movie is relatively restrained about this element – the Clint-analogue, Anand (Mahendra Sandhu), and his comedy sidekick Pancham (Jagdeep), are working the case, and Anand pauses to sigh about the strain this is placing on his marriage and other family relationships (needless to say, Anand is not an unorthodox loner like Harry Callaghan, but a relatable family man). Before you know it we are into a flashback/dream sequence between him and his wife, complete with verses and choruses. ‘A cold rain is falling,’ trills Mrs Anand, alluringly. (The rain machine, always a sign of something raunchy on the cards, is going at nearly full blast.) ‘The weather is very pleasant. You are very pleasant too,’ croons Anand in response. Whether it’s a sultry interlude or a weather forecast with music is not always clear, but it’s definitely not the sort of thing you find in a Don Siegel movie.

Having thus taken the plunge, the movie goes off at a bit of a tangent for the next musical number, which is delivered by one of the Scorpio-analogue’s targets, a wise old holy man. He delivers a rather nice song – diegetically, this time – about the inescapable truth of mortality and the iron hand of fate, even as Raghav, the killer, is lining up his rifle to kill him. Needless to say, the musical wisdom leads Raghav to question his life choices and not shoot the holy man – presumably it was unacceptable to show a senior cleric being gunned down, although Khoon Khoon has no problems with small children and innocent young women being offed, sometimes on-camera.

Of course, as any fule kno, it’s not as if Dirty Harry itself is entirely bereft of musical accompaniment – there is of course the scene in which a busful of school children sing ‘Row, row, row your boat’ while being held hostage by Andy Robinson. Clearly recognising this as a fundamental element of the film, the makers of Khoon Khoon double down – Raghav (Danny Denzongpa) and the hostage children get their own production number (still on the bus), singing about what good friends they’re all going to become – at least until the children sing some rather rude lyrics about him and he starts slapping them about mid-song. I wonder if I am managing to communicate to you just what an extremely strange experience watching Khoon Khoon is?

Songs aside, Khoon Khoon is a less obviously challenging movie than its forebear – it certainly works hard to stay accessible, including lengthy scenes of slapstick comedy centred around Anand’s egg-loving sidekick Pancham, and some borderline soap-opera storylines concerning Anand’s slightly strained relations with his in-laws. Anand’s an establishment figure in a way Callaghan isn’t – not so much a man on the edge as one in the very middle of the road.

And, of course, something completely absent from Khoon Khoon is the whole subtext to Dirty Harry, which for me is a film about conservative America recoiling in alarm and disgust from the counter-culture of the late 1960s. The reference points just aren’t there, of course – Raghav isn’t the ambiguous character that Scorpio is, he’s just a greedy nutter who was thrown out by his parents as a child after trying to knife his baby sibling (Scorpio has no background, almost like Christopher Nolan’s version of the Joker; Raghav gets his own flashback to establish his character). The vaguely fascist politics and ambiguous ending of the Siegel film are likewise notably absent – Anand may disobey orders and trick Raghav into attacking him, so he can gun him down like a dog, but the moment where Clint Eastwood throws away his badge is gone: the police commissioner turns up and makes a point of telling Anand what a good job he’s done, and that he’s probably going to be promoted.

I have no idea if Khoon Khoon would seem as strange to an Indian audience as it does to me: but I suspect not, because they’ve clearly worked very hard at the Bollywoodisation of it. I really like Dirty Harry – but the weird thing is that I rather enjoyed Khoon Khoon too, partly because it is so similar, but also because it is so very, very different. To me at least, it seemed like a genuine oddity, a somewhat primitive and certainly dated film, but also one with real energy and colour to it. It’s very entertaining, in all sorts of ways, and most of them are intentional.

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When we talk about something being dated, it’s inevitably meant negatively: intended to distinguish between things which just look better and better with the passage of the years (or at least, not appreciably worse) and those which appear increasingly clumsy, problematic and irrelevant. Everything gets older, of course, but some things carry the weight of years better than others.

And then there are things that date more quickly and obviously. Is it fair to say that more rooted in the concerns of the time they were made, the more likely it is that they’re quickly going to seem like quaint products of their period. (The converse of this is that period pieces have a sort of built-in resistance to this same effect – hence why, for example, the sitcom Dad’s Army has lasted so well, being set thirty or so years in the past, and probably seeming quite old-fashioned even when it was made.)

I suspect that the film we are here to discuss felt very dated within only a few years of its original release. The film was released in 1970 and directed by the great Roger Corman – although he had a rough time making it, and, after completing his passion project Von Richthofen and Brown shortly afterward, effectively retired as a director. Exactly what it’s called is a bit of a question, as the title on the poster and most likely in the TV listings guide is Gas-s-s-s; in the actual opening credits the name given is Gas, or, It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It. Irritatingly fiddly or annoyingly unwieldy? Take your pick. (The latter title is a reference to a quote from a US army officer made during the Vietnam War a couple of years earlier.)

The film opens with a rough-and-ready animated sequence, played for broad satirical laughs, in which a senior army figure and a senator oversee the opening of a new military facility which contains a stockpile of chemical weapons; due to a mix-up, the champagne supposed to be used in the ceremony is mixed up with a flask of a new nerve agent, which is released into the atmosphere as a result. (This is my interpretation of the scene, anyway; it’s a fairly allusive sequence and not meant to be taken any more naturalistically than the rest of the film.)

What matters is that there has indeed been a leak of a gas weapon, which is apparently 100% lethal, but only against anyone who is over 25 years of age. (Yes, a faintly ridiculous notion, but interesting films have been made with thinner premises.) The young people of America are left to determine the future of their nation as the old structures of society begin to crumble and fall.

Most of the film concerns a couple named Coel (Robert Corff) and Cilla (Elaine Giftos), who discover that a fascist regime is planning to take over Dallas, where they both live. They flee the city with a group of their friends (the only actor you’ll possibly have heard of is Talia Shire, who’s credited here as Tally Coppola) and set off on a journey across the country, having heard of a settlement where some of the survivors are trying to build a better society…

It sounds like a blueprint for any number of post-apocalyptic dramas – swap out the gas for a plague and the resemblance becomes acute. And indeed some of the elements of the film would be very much at home in that kind of drama. The format of the film is essentially picaresque, with the main characters travelling from one settlement to another and having various encounters and adventures along the way: they most meet brutal raiders and people trying to set themselves up as tyrants in the new world. This in itself is a problem for the film, as it precludes the development of any kind of conventional plot – it’s just a series of episodes, which all start to blur together after a while. It’s almost like a post-apocalyptic version of Easy Rider; it does seem very clear that this was another influence.

Perhaps skits or sketches would be a better word than episodes to describe the components of the script, for the intent of Gas-s-s-s is to be a satirical black comedy, very clearly aimed at the youth counter-culture of the period – in a way, it’s a sort of a weird second-cousin to The Omega Man, but while the Heston film is obviously informed by the death of the hippy dream, that death was still in progress when Corman was making this one. The director later said that his own misgivings about some of the values of the counter-culture (he was 44 when the film was released, making him an improbable hippy) were part of his conception of the film.

The script is by George Armitage (also acting in a small role), who went on to be a director himself – his work is rather variable but he did make the terrific Grosse Pointe Blank many years later. Early on there are indeed some good gags and moments that made me sit up and give the film my full attention: Coel is pursued by cops into a church, who announce they are looking for a man with long hair and beard, a real trouble-maker. ‘No-one like that here,’ comes the reply, while the camera is pointedly directed at a picture of Christ. Later on a character suggests they visit a music festival playing the sounds of the sixties – the suggestion comes that the real sound of the sixties was gunfire.

Unfortunately, it feels like the film started shooting with an unfinished script, or that there was a lot of improvisation, because the quality of the ideas and dialogue drops off quite severely as the story gets underway. To the modern viewer, a lot of it isn’t just dated, it’s problematically dated – too many casual jokes about rape, for one thing. Perhaps this is just the film trying too hard to be provocative and challenging; it feels very tame now. The same goes for the various attempts at surrealism – there’s a gun battle where, instead of firing their guns, the participants shout the names of famous cowboy actors at each other (this may also have been a device to avoid spending money on blank charges for the guns). Edgar Allen Poe keeps turning up on a motorbike to comment on whatever’s been happening (the presence of Poe may be a sort of in-joke, given all the Poe movies Corman made with Vincent Price a few years earlier); the voice of God also makes a few contributions.

The results are visually interesting but generally quite forgettable; even as a document of where American culture was at fifty-odd years ago it doesn’t feel particularly authentic, almost like a piece of hippisploitation. Corman’s place in the annals of American film-making is secure beyond a shadow of doubt; that his directorial career should have begun to wrap up with a film as confused and clumsy as this one is a shame. But it’s probably not worth your time, even so.

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Bert I Gordon’s 1977 film Empire of the Ants kicks off with some close-up footage of leaf-cutter ants going about their business, while a basso profundo voice-over does its best to make them seem menacing. The nature-documentary tone of most of the commentary doesn’t help its cause much, and it winds up by pushing the dangers of ant pheromones particularly hard, which initially seems like a stretch. To anyone not familiar with the Bert I Gordon oeuvre it gives the impression that we’re in for one of those nature-strikes-back eco-horror movies.

Indications that things may be a bit more out there come during the opening credits, which depict barrels of radioactive waste being dumped into the sea off the Florida coast. At more than one point the credits stress that this movie is based on an H. G. Wells story, which is technically true, but also in a very real sense completely fraudulent. One of the barrels of gunk (which resembles silver paint) washes up on beach, where the local ants clearly find it very tasty.

From here we find ourselves pitched into what feels like a very different kind of story. Joan Collins, in the midst of the career slump to end all career slumps, plays Marilyn Fryser, a thrusting young property developer intent on attracting new investors for her new project Dreamland Shores, a resort community on the Florida coast. (All incredibly authentically Wellsian, I think you’ll agree.) Various people duly turn up to be shuttled about by Collins, her assistant, and grizzled old boat captain Robert Lansing, and it gradually starts to feel like a conventional disaster movie, albeit one made on a punitively low budget with a cast of obscure and generally uncharismatic performers working with a pedestrian script.

A lot of horror and SF movies have to negotiate this kind of slow start and they generally do it by establishing the characters and building up atmosphere, or at least a sense of mystery. Empire of the Ants fumbles this (although I think the low budget may be at least partly to blame), which makes the opening section of the movie pretty hard going. I was rather put in mind of Frogs, another American International horror movie from a few years earlier which also concerns itself with nature getting stroppy while rich people squabble dully in the foreground.

However, this being a Bert I Gordon production (the man behind Beginning of the End, Earth Vs the Spider, The Amazing Colossal Man, War of the Colossal Beast, and other works in a similar vein), when Empire of the Ants finally kicks into gear it does so with an insane level of ambition for a low-budget film from the late 1970s. After various badly-done POV shots of compound eyes balefully watching the bickering potential investors, two of them wander off only to find themselves confronted by ants the size of horses with appetites to match. The ants themselves are realised by a mixture of composite shots mixing blown-up footage with the live actors, and – when some close-up mauling is required – giant ant puppets which are waggled in the direction of the cast.

The results are bad, but quite often not nearly as bad as you might be expecting, and the sheer guts of the film for attempting this kind of storytelling do deserve a grudging respect of sorts. In any case, I would say it’s still the case that the script and acting in this movie ends up letting down the special effects – though you should take that as more of a sign of just how awful the writing and performances are than any indication of genuine quality in the visual effects department.

Collins and the other survivors end up staggering through the jungle trying to reach a boat that will take them to safety, and at this point I did find an icy sense of horror beginning to consume me – not because the film was particularly frightening, but because I’d just looked at my watch and realised this sucker still had the best part of an hour to go.  However, the script has a bizarre left turn up its sleeve, which you might consider Exhibit B in defence of Empire of the Ants – it may be a terrible, trashy movie and an unrecognisable travesty of Wells, but it’s not entirely without some interesting ideas.

The investment party survivors pitch up in a small town not far from ant territory, where they tell their tale to the local sheriff (the ubiquitous character actor Albert Salmi) and the other townsfolk. They seem strangely unconcerned and tell them all to just calm down and relax. When they attempt to leave town under their own power, a police roadblock is in their path. The sheriff orders them dragged off to the local sugar refinery, which appears to be working flat-out.

Yes, here’s where all that opening guff about ant pheromones pays off: the queen ant of the giant brood has installed herself in a booth at the sugar refinery where she is spraying chemicals at the local people (they queue up obediently) which turn them into brainwashed slaves of the giant ants. The townspeople are producing sugar by the ton, which the giant ants turn up to munch several times a day. The ants have this in mind for Collins, Lansing and the others, of course.

Of course it doesn’t make sense in any coherent way, but it at least takes the film off in a new direction, and it sets up the conclusion – without going into details, there is a lot of running around and screaming and ant puppets on fire, and while a handful of our heroes manage to escape it is still not really clear what actually happens to Joan Collins (beyond her miraculously getting a second act to her career courtesy of Dynasty, of course). It’s a trashy ending to what’s essentially junk cinema – I suppose you could argue this is another of those cautionary tales about not messing with the environment, but that’s hardly touched upon throughout most of the story. Most of it has no moral premise or depth to it; it’s purely and simply about people running away from unconvincing giant ants.

There is surely a place in the world for stories about people running away from giant ants (convincing or otherwise). I like to think there is also a place for films which don’t let things like budget shortfalls or lack of special effects equipment get in the way of their storytelling. But Empire of the Ants is not really a great advertisement for any of these things. There is something undeniably impressive about the film’s uncompromising approach to a task for which is manifestly very poorly equipped. But that doesn’t mean the resulting movie is any less staggering to watch.

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George McCowan’s 1972 film Frogs doesn’t exactly have a fridge title, as our amphibious friends are certainly heavily featured throughout it – but at the same time it really feels somewhat misnamed. Certainly for a horror movie, which is what this theoretically is – it doesn’t achieve quite the immortal bathos, title-wise, of The Killer Shrews, but it’s getting there, especially when you consider the poster is theoretically attempting to communicate that this film is supposed to be a scary one, jokey slogan notwithstanding.

Now I don’t think much of the poster for Frogs, and yet it does seem to have embedded itself in the minds of people who’ve seen it, even if they haven’t seen the whole movie. I mentioned I’d seen Frogs to a couple of friends of mine, quite independently, and they both mentioned the poster and – in one case – they were able to describe it in some detail. It is certainly eye-catching but I would suggest that it doesn’t quite capture the tone of the movie, which is admittedly rather odd.

The movie itself starts off looking more like a wildlife documentary, as various swamp creatures are given their close-up; within the film itself, their snaps are being taken by photojournalist and ecology expert Pickett Smith (Sam Elliott), who is canoeing around the swamp in question. Snakes, lizards, frogs, all of them get their picture snapped. But gradually the images change to ones of pollution in the swamp: garbage, pollution, and chemical waste. Yup, we are in one of those nature-bites-back eco-horror films.

Now, let’s be fair, while this is a cinematic tradition going back quite a long way, it is also one which it can tricky to pin down. One very accessible list of eco-horror films includes things like the original Godzilla and Creature from the Black Lagoon, both of which are  – I would say – rather different animals (sorry). I’m thinking of things without your actual monsters, just normal creatures which have become extremely irascible, and with some sort of obvious message about the environment incorporated into the story, although this is possibly optional – most people would credit Hitchcock’s The Birds as having a significant influence on this sub-genre, although part of that film’s eerie atmosphere comes from its refusal to explain just exactly what is really going on.

Frogs is a bit more on-the-nose in this department, as well as many others. Pickett Smith gets dumped into the swamp by a speedboat driven by a couple of the ugly rich, but they are duly apologetic and take him back their family’s palatial plantation house, where the whole clan is gathering for the birthday of the patriarch, a fierce old man played by Ray Milland (whose presence in a film of this calibre is somewhat mystifying).

It turns out there are various elements of toxic family politics in play, to say nothing of the fact that the family business has been dumping pollution into the swamp on, for want of a better expression, on an industrial scale. It’s a miracle that the croaking of the frogs surrounding the house is as deafening as it is…

This is the kind of movie which has a slow build-up, or would have if it ever felt like it was actually building up to anything – the pacing remains stolid and stately throughout. Various scenes of family members engaging in soap-opera bickering are intercut with Smith wandering about doing odd jobs for Milland’s character, and of course numerous close-ups of frogs: these appear at the top of many scenes, with the camera pulling back to reveal the human beings going about their business and blithely ignoring the ubiquitous amphibians. But Smith discovers that one of Milland’s gofers has met with a mysterious death in the swamp…

To be honest, the movie is just marking time until it is able to get busy with the set-piece deaths of various unsympathetic rich people, and finally this moment arrives. One young man is out in the forest when he accidentally shoots himself in the leg; strange animate moss appears to engulf him, and if that wasn’t bad enough, it’s tarantula-infested moss. Another of the family is working in a greenhouse when a lizard deviously knocks over several containers of poison, creating a toxic miasma which bumps him off. A butterfly-loving matron unwisely chases a rare breed and ends up falling into leech-infested waters, from which she emerges only to be bitten by a rattlesnake. Her husband, when he goes in search of her, falls in the swamp and is attacked by an alligator. And so it goes on.

The astute reader may well be reading this and thinking ‘moss, tarantulas, lizards, leeches, snakes, alligators… there’s something missing from this picture.’ And this is absolutely the case: for a horror movie called Frogs, which features an apparently man-eating frog on the poster, all the heavy lifting when it comes to actually killing off the cast is done by other herptiles and species resident in the swamp. In other words, the characters may be croaking, but they’re not being croaked by the frogs. I can only assume that the frogs had a much better agent than the rest of the wildlife in the film.

The one positive thing about this anomaly is that it does make Frogs marginally more interesting than would otherwise be the case. This is a movie without many (or perhaps even any) layers of subtlety to it. The subtext and a general sense of how it’s going to go are obvious to the switched-on viewer very early on, and it’s not even as if the story is especially well-executed: there’s a lot of lousy acting, especially during the death scenes, and while Elliott has presence, it’s not as if he does a great deal (he may just be trying to keep a low profile so people don’t mention his presence in this film in a disparaging context should he get all tetchy and start grumbling about Jane Campion movies many years later). Milland’s okay, but clearly knows he’s slumming it. Bits from near the end of it jump out at you – someone gets killed by a turtle, for God’s sake, Elliott hands a pump-action shotgun to a small child during their low-octane escape from the frogs, and the film’s three non-white characters all apparently die together off-screen –  but this is a film with only one real idea to it, and one which it doesn’t communicate with much in the way of grace or deftness.

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One of the mistakes it is quite understandable that normal, ordinary people make is looking at any British-made horror or fantasy film from the 1960s and assume it was a Hammer production. It happened just the other night: the light of my life got home to find me watching Gordon Hessler’s 1969 movie Scream and Scream Again and said ‘Another Hammer horror?’ (I should explain that I have been trying to rectify some of the gaps in her cultural background by watching some of the House’s output with her – our domestic bliss was somewhat rocked when she gave Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde a higher score than Countess Dracula, but you can’t have everything.)

How does one begin to explain the subtle differences in style and approach that exist between movies by Hammer, Amicus, Tigon, and American International, to name just the major players? Actually, Scream and Scream Again is even more of an oddity as it’s effectively a co-production between Amicus (who were essentially producers Milton Subotsky and Max J Rosenberg) and American-International. Both parties brought along some of the top talent they had a history with, and the result is a film which sounds absolutely fascinating and intriguing on paper. But…

The movie opens with a man going for a jog somewhere in London. The picture abruptly freezes for a caption stating ‘VINCENT PRICE’. Confusingly, however, the jogger is clearly not Mr Price. Nor is he ‘CHRISTOPHER LEE’ (the next name to appear), ‘PETER CUSHING’, ‘ALFRED MARKS’, or any of the other people in the credits. This is bad form, credit-wise, I would say, but by making the viewer confused and probably irritable this early on it does quite a good job of establishing what they can expect from watching Scream and Scream Again.

The most striking thing about the film, in terms of its story, is the extent to which it happily runs with a number of wildly disparate plot-threads which seem to be going off in all directions, with no connection whatsoever. One of these concerns the jogger, who has some sort of seizure while running and wakes up in hospital. A sort of gruesome running gag ensues where he keeps waking up in the same room, being visited and ministered to by a beautiful nurse, and then discovering that he’s freshly missing a body part (first one of his legs is gone, then both of them, and so on – he eventually ends up as a severed head in a cupboard).

Also trundling forward is something about the various deeds of Konratz (Marshall Jones), whom we eventually discover to be a government torturer for a totalitarian state somewhere in eastern Europe. Just to make things extra baffling, the soldiers of this notionally Communist country all wear SS uniforms with the swastikas swapped out for an icon a bit like a trident. It seems that Konratz’s superiors aren’t delighted with him, something he deals with by doing a version of the Spock nerve pinch on them – at which point they take on an attitude of glazed paralysis before dribbling blood from their ears or mouth and dropping dead on the spot. This would be fine were they not played by actors of the calibre of Peter Sallis or Peter Cushing, both of whom are much more interesting to watch than Marshall Jones. Cushing has one short scene in the whole movie, despite being third billed.

Not doing much better is a second-billed Lee, who features in a few short scenes about international espionage and sending spy planes into enemy airspace. You can sort of imagine how this might end up linking up to the storyline with the mysterious behaviour of Konratz, but the connection doesn’t appear until deep into the third act.

The bulk of the film concerns another plot thread, which deals with an apparent serial killer at large in London – the killings end up being called ‘the vampire murders’, which is probably asking for trouble given the movie has Lee and Cushing in the cast. Leading the investigation is Alfred Marks, who in a sane world would be top-billed as he probably has more screen time than anyone else in the film. The trail keeps leading back to the private clinic of scientist Dr Browning (a relatively youthful-looking Price, certainly compared to his appearance in Theatre of Blood only a few years later), who swears to know nothing about them.

Time and some rather exploitative fem jeop prove him a liar, of course, as the killer – whose name is the not entirely menacing ‘Keith’ – is pursued back to Price’s lab. Keith is played by Michael Gothard, an actor with an interestingly angular face who did well in a few supporting roles like this one between the late sixties and the early eighties. Yes, Keith has been topping swinging dolly-birds and drinking their blood, although given he turns out not to be an actual vampire it’s not clear why this urged has gripped him. Vampire or not, he turns out to be a rather unusual fellow, and this proves to be key to all the various mysteries and confusions in the story. (My Former Next Desk Colleague once produced deep confusion in me when he described this film as ‘the one where Ian Ogilvy rips his own hand off’. I naturally thought he was mixed up and referring to Blood on Satan’s Claw, although in that one it’s Simon Williams who dismembers himself – easy to get all these leading men mixed up, isn’t it? Suffice to say he was thinking of… mmm, spoilers.)

Having lived through Scream and Scream Again the temptation is to look back on it as a relatively clever film which isn’t afraid to leave the audience in suspense as to what’s going on. But then your memories of any gruelling experience are likely to be coloured by relief at actually getting to the end of it, and watching Scream and Scream Again was pretty hard work. Quite apart from the disjointed nature of the plot – and the connection between the different storylines, when it comes, feels more like a slightly desperate ad hoc cobbling-together rather than a blind-siding revelation. It involves androids, acid baths, and the secret take-over of the world – apparently, at one point Subotsky’s script included aliens, but all explicit references to this were snipped out, leaving the actual identity of the villains obscure, to say the least.

Part of the reason that vintage British horror movies have endured so well is the fact that they feature such distinguish casts, people with the ability to lift and compensate for this kind of material. You would have thought that a film with Price, Lee and Cushing at the top of the bill would have little to worry about in this department – but none of them get much time on screen. Cushing is off by himself in his own little scene, and while Lee and Price do theoretically appear together, they’re only on camera at the same time for a matter of seconds. Even so, it’s an instructive display of different performance styles: Lee is all impassive intensity and playing it for real, while Price is basically just hamming it up with immense virtuosity. But it’s such a short scene it has no chance to save the film.

Scream and Scream Again feels shallow and chaotic, almost as if the people making it weren’t entirely sure what it was supposed to be about. There are certainly some talented actors involved, but never as much as you’d like them to be. The action sequences just about function, but the rest of it is fairly impenetrable and unrewarding.

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One of the things about a certain kind of lowest-common-denominator mainstream movie-making that always elicits scornful laughter from me is when the scene suddenly changes to an unmistakable cityscape showcasing – for example – the Seine, the Arc de Triomphe, and M. Eiffel’s noted tower, and the producers still feel obliged to hedge their bets by sticking a massive caption saying ‘PARIS’ (or even worse, PARIS, FRANCE) in front of it.

Nevertheless, it’s a fact that not all cities are quite so instantly recognisable, and while the opening sequence of Clint Eastwood’s 1975 film The Eiger Sanction is obviously going on somewhere in Switzerland (when comes to clues to help figure this out, the flags are a big plus), it’s not immediately clear exactly where. I was wondering about this all the way through the opening credits, as a man whose choice of a leather hat makes it very clear his character is a) shady and b) minor wanders about doing various suspicious things. (It eventually turns out that this is happening in Zurich.) The man in the leather hat, sure enough, does not long survive the opening titles, as he is the victim of a fairly nasty throat-slitting.

From this downbeat, gritty murder we are transported to the world of American academia where we meet Clint himself, who is playing the outlandish figure of Jonathan Hemlock, art history professor, expert mountaineer, retired government assassin, and monumental snob (not that any of this seems to have inclined Clint to modulate his usual performance style much). After informing his graduating class that none of them actually really appreciate art, Clint gets a classic bit where a wide-eyed young student sidles up to him and tells him she would do absolutely anything to get a good grade in an upcoming test. Having ascertained she has an apartment to herself that night, and no other engagements, Clint advises that she ‘go on home, break out the books, and study [her] little ass off.’

Yes, Dr Hemlock is one of those alpha-males who is afflicted by the curse of being utterly irresistible to women, the kind of man who gave impressionable young men in the 70s and 80s wholly unrealistic ideas about how to be successful with the opposite sex. But Clint has other problems, as the clandestine government department he formerly worked for are keen to get him back for One Last Job (or, more accurately, two last jobs, as they want him to kill the two men who murdered leather-hat-man at the start of the film).

Running the operation is a guy called Dragon (Thayer David), who – not to underdo things – is a raspy-voiced ex-Nazi albino. Dragon persuades Hemlock to come out of retirement by offering him not just a big pile of cash, but also tax exemption on his collection of priceless and questionably-acquired paintings. (We are meant to believe that, at the end of a long day’s art-historying, Clint will retire to his basement and contemplate his Pissarro all night, but personally I don’t buy it.)

It all feels very much like Clint has wandered into Bond movie territory and is giving us his take on the kind of persona Roger Moore was affecting around the same time, but the film keeps straying back into grittier territory throughout this opening act, and even seems to be going for a kind of blaxploitation vibe at times (Clint’s main love interest is a character named Jemima Brown, played by Vonetta McGee).

Anyway, once Clint has popped over to Europe and killed his first target (as befits a master of the stealth elimination, Clint ends up throwing him out of a third-floor window onto the verandah of a bierkeller below), it turns out the second man on the list will be participating in an attempt to climb the north face of the Eiger in a few weeks’ time. How fortunate that Clint is an ace mountain climber himself! And what dreadful bad luck that Clint’s handlers can’t actually tell him which of the members of the climbing team is the bad guy – he’ll just have to keep his eyes open and hope to spot a telling clue.

It’s a horrendously contrived plot, but a lot of the movie is fairly horrendous. The next section concerns Clint’s preparations for the climb, which involves him hiring old buddy George Kennedy as a trainer, and yomping around Arizona and Utah for a while, occasionally pausing for more whoa-ho-ho with Brenda Venus. There’s a subplot about him getting revenge on an old enemy, whose essential worthlessness is presumably meant to be implied by the fact that he’s a stereotypically camp homosexual – anyone who isn’t a young and virile alpha-male like Clint is basically treated with utter contempt by this movie.

Finally, and perhaps not before time, Clint and Kennedy head off to Switzerland for the actual attempt at climbing the Eiger. The saving grace of this movie – although it only goes some way to mitigating its flaws – is the scenery, and the footage of climbs in progress. (This applies to the sequences of Hemlock climbing in the south-west of the USA, as well.) Clint is clearly doing a lot, if not quite all, of the climbing himself, and the backdrops are also breath-taking. People who know their stuff when it comes to climbing apparently rate The Eiger Sanction very highly when it comes to authenticity (although hopefully not for its sexual politics).

There is certainly potential here for an effective thriller, with the natural tensions that exist between near-strangers forced to rely on one another during a potentially life-threatening ascent only being heightened by the knowledge that more than one of them is a ruthless killer, out for one of the others’ blood. Unfortunately, the film has taken so long to get to this point, and has generally been so crass and silly, that this whole concept never really gets going: the other climbers never really develop into fully-rounded characters, and there’s no real suspense in the later stages of the film. (Though many characters spend time in a state of suspension, or more accurately dangling.) The identity of Clint’s target is eminently guessable, and the eventual revelation leads into an underpowered climax that doesn’t quite work – the intention seems to have been to imply that Clint is really a much more ruthless killer than has previously been suggested, but not only does this idea feel like an afterthought, it also doesn’t really feel like it matters either way.

Clint emerges from it all with his dignity more or less intact, and his direction is also competent (it’s hard to believe he was on the verge of making a run of movies which were popular and critical successes – his next film was the brilliant Outlaw Josey Wales). Also on the cusp of rather bigger things was composer John Williams, who on this occasion seems to have been rather influenced by Jerry Goldsmith.

Nevertheless, it’s a film which skews haphazardly between Bond pastiche, cynical espionage drama, blaxploitation thriller, conventional action movie, and Bergfilm. It only really comes close to genuine success as the last, but this comes too late to really save the project. A rare example of Eastwood putting his name to a duffer.

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I’ve been saying for years that there is some irony in the fact that one of the film genres most likely to acknowledge the existence of God as a key plot point is also the one least likely to be watched or enjoyed by your actual people of faith. I speak, of course, of the horror movie (although I suppose the biblical epic is also wont to upset believers of a certain stripe). On the other hand – and join me now as I generalise egregiously – the issue may be that what for most people just seems to be good camp fun – entertainment about ghoulies and ghosties, imps and demons – may appear to those who believe in the supernatural as dangerously frivolous and in desperately poor taste. Well, it’s a working hypothesis, although I am reminded of a story Sir Christopher Lee used to tell, about a priest who revealed he had no problem with any of the films Lee made: ‘The cross always wins.’ (Clearly he never saw The Wicker Man.)

When it comes to religiously themed horror, The Omen probably takes the prize for textual fidelity (if not actual quality), loosely based as it is on the Book of Revelation, but probably coming a close second is William Friedkin’s 1973 film The Exorcist. We should not forget the huge importance of The Exorcist in showing that a well-made horror film from a major studio could be a massive hit: films like The Omen were all following in its profitable wake, in addition to aping its style to a greater or lesser degree.

This is apparent almost from the start of The Exorcist, the opening sequence of which is set in Iraq: linking a story set in the contemporary west to the ancient landscapes and civilisations of the Middle East adds immeasurably to the scope and atmosphere of the narrative. In Iraq we find Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), an elderly priest working at an archaeological dig. He uncovers some unsettling fragments and seems troubled by a towering statue he comes across; the sequence is loaded with significance but the audience is left to interpret its exact meaning for themselves; von Sydow does not appear again until the climax of the film, even though he is playing the title role.

The scene changes to Georgetown, a pleasant suburb of Washington DC; here we find actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) involved in making a movie. For the duration of the shoot she is renting a house with her daughter Regan (Linda Blair). Also living in the area is Damien Karras (Jason Miller), a Catholic priest with special responsibilities as a psychiatrist to his colleagues. Karras is struggling to care for his elderly mother and experiencing a profound crisis of faith.

Karras’ mother eventually dies, leaving him guilt-ridden and in despair. Meanwhile, small events accumulate that lead Chris to suspect not all is well: strange noises from empty rooms, the pointer of a Ouija board flicking out of her hands after Regan confesses to having played with it, Regan complaining of her bed shaking in the night. A local church statue is obscenely desecrated. Regan’s behaviour grows more and more extreme, with medical experts unable to identify what is causing it – until one of them reluctantly suggests that, as Regan seems to believe she is the victim of possession by some kind of foreign intelligence, going through with the pro forma of an exorcism might cause her to cease her strange behaviour…

I first saw The Exorcist on the big screen, when it was given a 25th anniversary re-release. And, I must confess, I wasn’t especially impressed by it, certainly as a horror movie. ‘You probably have to be a Catholic to really find The Exorcist scary’ was a line which was in circulation around the time; it’s certainly one of those movies which makes a virtue over its lingering depiction of some aspects of the Catholic faith. Watching it again, however – well, I still wouldn’t say I was scared by it. Repulsed by some bits, yes, baffled by others, but overall my feeling was really of disquiet and unease – which I suppose in many ways is a harder effect to achieve than simple fright.

Much of this may be due to some of the curious directorial and editing techniques employed by Friedkin – sequences of long, carefully choreographed shots are interspersed with sections of staccato editing, the scenes almost seeming to end prematurely as they pile up on one another. There also almost feels like there is something incorrect, if not actually bad, about the structure of the film – the actual exorcist himself feels almost like a secondary character, despite von Sydow’s prominence and presence, while the abrupt switch to a couple of minor figures as viewpoint characters for the conclusion of the film is also rather jarring. But perhaps it is these very choices – unexpected, unusual – which give the film its unsettling atmosphere.

It’s this atmosphere which stops the end of the film, in particular, from sliding too far into the realm of camp spectacle (a possibility which is always there). For me the most genuinely creepy moments of the film come earlier, when the clearly troubled Regan is subjected to the full scrutiny of modern medical science – and the doctors are baffled. (Apparently many viewers find the scene in which Regan is given a angiography, causing blood to spurt out of a tube in her neck, more distressing than any of the stuff with the spinning heads or fake vomit.) The film’s great innovation is to place supernatural horror into a realistic modern setting, and slowly build the way in which it manifests – the climax is just a little bit too close to gothic drag to really work.

The effectiveness of the end of the film is thus limited, if you ask me, but it’s helped a lot by very strong performances from Max von Sydow (the popular image of the actor as a severe elder figure of impeccable integrity no doubt originated here – von Sydow was under heavy make-up and only in his mid forties at the time the film was made) and Jason Miller (Miller is quite a long way down the cast list but in many ways it’s his subtly intense performance that carries the film). It would be silly not to mention to remarkable combined performance of Linda Blair and Mercedes McCambridge as the possessed girl and her unwelcome guest.

The Exorcist comes from that brief period in American history between the end of the sixties and the twin traumas of the Watergate scandal and the withdrawal from Vietnam (events which coloured or influenced pretty much every major film for the rest of the decade – even George Lucas’ stellar conflict movie was arguably such a massive hit because it completely rejected the cynical mundane world in favour of idealised escapism). It takes that faint sense of implicit disquiet you find in films from this time and uses the lens of the supernatural to magnify it into something with the potential to be profoundly disturbing: the realisation that the whole world has lost its soul and is completely unequipped to deal with a sudden eruption of spiritual evil. It offers no easy answers; the ambiguity and obliqueness of the film is part of what makes it so effective. A highly intelligent and well-made film, and – whatever its eccentricities – still one of the classiest American horror movies.

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My last memory of the director Ken Russell, prior to hearing of his death, was of his making some very ungenerous comments about Shaun of the Dead in the year’s end review issue of The Guardian, in what was supposedly a feature where the great and the good talked about their favourite films and books and so on of the year just ending. This struck me as a rather mean thing to do, especially coming from someone whose own films – the ones I’d seen, anyway – often seemed inclined to be tacky and filled with a tendency towards look-at-me provocativeness.

Then again, I’d mostly seen late period Russell – The Lair of the White Worm and Gothic, in particular, though the BBC ran a weekend of programming about censorship in which The Devils got shown, and I watched that then (along with Beat Girl and a few other things, not that it matters). People whose opinions I usually respect like Mark Kermode do have a lot of time for Russell and his films, so I probably need to give him another chance.

Spurring me on in this is the fact I watched his 1975 film Tommy the other day, mainly because it was on Netflix and I fancied a break from horror movies. The number of older films on Netflix seems to have declined in recent years (boo), replaced by those usually-dull bits of product marked with a red N on the choice screen, so one should make the most of them while they’re still there.

I’d actually seen bit of Tommy before, round about the same time as The Devils (Channel 4 did a weekend of programming about glam rock – themed weekends were a bit of a thing back in the mid 1990s) – but my main memories were of two other utterly dreadful movies that also got rolled out, Side by Side and Never Too Old to Rock. (If I ever feel in the need for a spot of psychic self-flagellation I’ll go back and watch some of these films again.) Whether the Who, who made the album the film was based on, actually count as a glam rock band I’m a bit uncertain about, but there is definitely a touch of the theatrical and operatic about the film (not least in the way it is sung-through).

Not being all that familiar with Tommy, as noted, I was a bit surprised by how star-studded it turned out to be. For instance, after the faintly confusing opening credits (A Film by Ken Russell – Tommy – by the Who) we initially meet Captain Walker, a heroic RAF bomber pilot, on his honeymoon in the north of England. He and his lovely wife Norah are pictured frolicking energetically in a mountain stream together (to which my reaction was primarily ‘that must have been bloody cold’ – it wouldn’t have left me in the mood, certainly). They are played by Robert Powell and Ann-Margret.

However, tragedy strikes when Walker’s plane is shot down, and his son is seemingly born fatherless (on VE Day no less). But Norah does the best for young Tommy, and while on a trip to a holiday camp she falls in with Frank (Oliver Reed under a resplendent DA hairstyle – come to think of it, he’s in Beat Girl, too), who’s clearly a bit of a dodgy character. Well, Frank and Nora get hitched, and things seem to be looking up for the family.

Until, one night, Captain Walker returns, badly scarred, having survived the plane crash after all. He is understandably put out, firstly to find his wife shacked up with Oliver Reed, and secondly when the couple panic and murder him. Tommy witnesses this, and his mother and stepfather scream at him telling he didn’t see anything, didn’t hear anything, and can’t say anything.

Well, obviously, the shock of this sends Tommy into a sort of catatonic trance where he is almost completely oblivious to the outside world. Various attempts at a cure, including faith healing and psychedelic drugs administered by scary prostitutes, come to nothing, and the grown Tommy (Roger Daltrey) has a generally terrible time with the highly unsuitable babysitters (mostly sadists and child molesters from the look of things) he is left with. But a chance of salvation comes when he discovers an unlikely gift for playing pinball machines…

As you can perhaps already tell, studied naturalism and an entirely coherent plot are not amongst Tommy’s strengths as a film. Much of the story you kind of have to accept, and in the case of some of the closing scenes of the film, actually decide for yourself what’s actually going on. This is not normally the hallmark of a particularly good cinematic experience.

However, Tommy really does work as a film, mainly because of the tag-team combination of Russell’s images and Pete Townshend’s music, which come together to remarkable effect. There’s a pop-art surrealism to the best sequences of the film which is immensely striking and memorable – perhaps the most famous of these is the ‘Pinball Wizard’ scene, in which Elton John’s tremendous performance of a belting song is enhanced by the fact he’s wearing six-foot-tall boots. Even when the music isn’t quite so memorable, Russell can be relied upon to keep things visually interesting. The climax of the film, in which Daltrey swims oceans, scrambles up streams, and finally climbs a mountain, singing most of the way as the almost-devotional anthem ‘Listening to You’ builds around him (and, incidentally, demonstrating that he possesses one of the great rock voices) is another remarkably intense and powerful piece of work.

Set against this I suppose we must acknowledge the film’s occasional excesses and excursions into actual silliness – I’m thinking of the scene in which Ann-Margret rolls around on the floor covered in baked beans and melted chocolate, and the general unravelling of the narrative once Tommy regains his senses and voice: Daltrey takes every opportunity to get his shirt off, while travelling the country by hang-glider preaching his message of enlightenment through sensory deprivation and pinball.

It also does not appear to be the case that the words ‘Good, but take it down a notch or two’ were in Russell’s vocabulary while directing some of the performers. Some of them do indeed turn up and do good, restrained work – Eric Clapton seems rather lugubrious during his solo, while Jack Nicholson turns up and gives an impressive demonstration of how to steal a scene from Oliver Reed – but others, frankly, have all the dials turned up well past 10.  Tina Turner spends most of her screen-time maniacally screeching straight down the camera lens, which is a bit unsettling if you’re not expecting it (and maybe even if you are – it kind of put me in mind of Jennifer Hudson in Cats).

But on the whole it is hugely entertaining, thrilling, visually-interesting stuff. Apparently Russell made a few changes to the storyline implied by the original album, most of which seem quite wise to me, and found a way to make a film about a topic he’d been interested in for a while – spiritual leaders who turn out to be deeply flawed individuals. The film is provocative about religion, to say the least, from very early on – remembrance day crosses are juxtaposed with the cruciform shape of bomber planes and Robert Powell in a crucified pose (which must have been useful practice for him), while there’s another extraordinary sequence (the film is not short of them) set in a church devoted to the worship of Marilyn Monroe.

You couldn’t really say that Tommy doesn’t look a bit dated; it almost seems to have become one of those time capsules of pop culture from a past era – the music is classic rock, and in small ways it did remind me of lots of other films from the mid-seventies like A Clockwork Orange (although the extravagant visual sense also put me in mind of Hellraiser II if I’m honest, and that’s a film from much later). Even some of the costumes are re-used from other films (Richard Lester’s Three Musketeers). But it really does hang together as a whole, as a film with its own distinct identity: grandiose, extravagant and surreal, rather like a feature-length music video, and immensely watchable, witty, and entertaining.

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Proof that you can take anything too far comes as we look at yet another pseudo-Arthurian movie (must be about the fifth since the summer). Frankly, I have nobody but myself to blame: a little research into the personnel of The Spaceman and King Arthur would have revealed that leading man Dennis Dugan went on to receive no fewer than four nominations for Worst Director at the Golden Raspberries, winning once (for his work across the entire year of 2011, impressively enough), while actual director Russ Mayberry was the man who went on to be sacked from the proverbially dreadful TNG episode Code of Honour, mainly due to his casting decisions (the main actors later tried to have the episode removed from re-runs).

I should mention that this film is currently available on Mouseplus under its original title, Unidentified Flying Oddball, which is a perhaps appropriately rubbish title, but gives little sense of what it’s actually about. The title was changed to something more like the British one even for an American re-release.

Anyway, unless you have very small and undemanding children, or enjoy the sight of distinguished British actors trying to hide their embarrassment, there is little here to detain you, I suspect. The film opens with a reasonably decent and slightly meta gag, as what has appeared to be a model pretending to be a space rocket turns out to just be an actual model space rocket, at a NASA demonstration.

Even the poster is so embarrassed it’s pretending to be Italian.

The UK production base for this film is instantly apparent to those of us in the know, as playing Air Force generals and senior US politicians are familiar faces like Robert Beatty (guest artiste in too many British TV series to mention) and Bruce Boa (assured of a certain kind of immortality by his performance as Mr Hamilton in Fawlty Towers, but he was also a rebel general in the best of the stellar conflict films, too). A top NASA boffin (Cyril Shaps, another ubiquitous character actor) demonstrates their concept for a new spaceship capable of travelling at close to the speed of light, but the politicians refuse to risk the lives of brave young American men (or women).

Nevertheless, a brainwave strikes the boffin and he gets on the phone to one of his technicians, Tom Trimble (Dugan) – Trimble is presumably some sort of robotics expert, but he honestly comes across as an all-purpose idiot savant. Anyway, Trimble builds an android to fly the spaceship, and for reasons best known to plot contrivance makes it a duplicate of himself (cue dodgy split-screen effects and a chance for Dugan to show his – what’s the opposite of range? Anyway, that – as an actor).

Well, the mission is nearly scrubbed when the android has an attack of nerves, and Trimble is sent into the capsule to deliver a pep talk. At this point the launch vehicle is struck by lightning and, er, launches, sending both of them into space. Trimble decides he doesn’t fancy experiencing thirty years’ worth of time dilation and turns the ship around, only to notice that something very odd is happening to the clock…

Yes, there is a reason why the credits suggest this is based (very loosely, one suspects) on Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Trimble lands in 6th century England, where he soon meets good-hearted local girl Alisande (Sheila White) and shortly afterwards is captured by scheming knight Sir Mordred (Jim Dale). Off they are taken to Camelot, where King Arthur (Kenneth More) is holding court, in the presence of (most notably) Sir Gawain (John le Mesurier) and Merlin (Ron Moody) – in this version of events, Merlin is just a rather wily conjuror, having no actual magic powers.

There follows a chunk of film in which Trimble must avoid Mordred’s various attempts to do him in, in the course of which he uncovers some of his enemy’s nefarious plots; with Mordred now banished but planning to conquer Camelot and usurp the throne, it once again falls to Trimble to save the day. Needless to say, he achieves all this through a combination of advanced technology, scientific knowledge, and slapstick mugging.

There’s the odd funny moment or sequence in Spaceman and King Arthur – the fight between Trimble and Mordred, with the latter using a magnetised sword, is probably the best of them – but the main problems of the film are that it’s just not funny enough to succeed as a comedy and too contrived and silly to work as a more straightforward adventure. Some really shonky special effects don’t help the film’s cause much.

The main reason to watch it, as noted, is the cast, which is quite remarkable for something which is essentially a frivolous piece of fluff: Jim Dale is best known for appearing in ten of the better Carry On films in six years, but has also had a distinguished career in the music business and on Broadway; Kenneth More was one of the biggest movie stars in Britain for a while in the 1950s; Ron Moody won all sort of awards and nominations for playing Fagin in Oliver!; and Sheila White was in Oliver! too,  but for my money was most memorable for her brilliant performance as the crazed Messalina in I Claudius. Pat Roach, reliable British heavy, is here as well. And all of them do battle with the material as best they can.

The results are rather endearing, if not as entertaining as you might wish. Moody, you feel, is a little underserved; Jim Dale manages to find some sort of sweet spot between playing the villain ‘straight’ and servicing the slapstick required of him. White really does have a thankless task, though, playing a character who’s not only apparently quite dim, but also required to do things almost without motivation. All of them outperform Dugan, though.

You can just about imagine how this film might work as an incredibly whimsical piece of entertainment, given a lead performance of sufficient charm and comic skill and with some of the more contemporary gags taken out (Trimble takes a girly mag back in time with him, which inevitably causes a stir amongst the peasants). I’m thinking, really, of something like Danny Kaye’s The Court Jester, which is a very silly film, but still rather watchable. Dennis Dugan, however, is to Danny Kaye as a paper plane is to an F-15: he’s nowhere near good enough, although to be fair the script is giving him no help whatsoever. This film probably looked very dated and primitive back in 1979 and the passage of time has done it few favours.

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Is it time for another potentially embarrassing confession? Could be. I have mentioned before that I never really had a favourite rock group or band growing up; I didn’t really get into music at until my late teens. That role was played by, amongst other things, comedy, which I was just as obsessive about as any Oasis or Take That fan. Forget all that ‘comedy is the new rock ‘n’ roll’ stuff people were spouting in the early 90s when David Baddiel and Rob Newman were selling out arenas – Monty Python were my favourite group a good six or seven years earlier. And yet – and here’s the thing – much as I loved the TV series when I finally got to see it properly, much as I fell about laughing when Monty Python and the Holy Grail finally came on TV, much as I followed the other projects of the group members – Fawlty Towers and Ripping Yarns, obviously; Michael Palin going around the world; any Terry Gilliam film you cared to mention – when I finally got to watch Monty Python’s Life of Brian, ten years or so after its 1979 release, I was distinctly underwhelmed by it.

This despite the fact that at least one member of the group considers it the pinnacle of their work together; this despite the general acclamation the film has received (as well as numerous writs for blasphemy). It’s almost enough to make one doubt one’s own opinion. But not quite, though.

The movie is of course another of those Terry Jones projects which managed to get itself banned in Ireland on its initial release. It opens with a tried and tested Python gambit – opening ‘straight’ and sustaining a note of serious authenticity for as long as possible, before something silly happens. In this case it is the Three Wise Men turning up at a stable in Bethlehem, in search of the new-born Messiah – only to be confronted by Mandy (Jones), perhaps the apotheosis of all those ratbag old women he played in the TV series, and her infant son Brian. Suffice to say the Wise Men have unwisely come to wrong stable, just around the corner from one where a more famous nativity scene is in progress.

Cue animated titles and the (rather magnificent) ‘Brian Song’, which leads us into a genuinely impressive recreation of Judea in the first century (shot in Tunisia, sometimes on sets left behind by Zeffirelli when he finished making Jesus of Nazareth – something the Italian director was apparently hopping mad about when he found out). Brian (Graham Chapman) and his mother lead fairly ordinary lives, until a shock discovery about his own origins challenges everything Brian believes in, and incites him to rebel against the Roman occupation.

Here’s one of the odd things about Life of Brian – you can summarise the plot in broad strokes and it doesn’t actually sound that funny. Brian attempts to join a local resistance group, the People’s Front of Judea, but ends up as the only survivor of a raid on the palace of Roman administrator Pontius Pilate (Michael Palin). While escaping from the Roman pursuers with the unwitting aid of some passing aliens (all right, this bit sounds quite funny), Brian finds himself mistaken for the Messiah and pursued by a large following. Can this help him deal with his various travails? One thing is certain: it’s never not a good idea to take a positive view of the world.

Needless to say, the various Pythons play various parts – John Cleese gets some juicy moments, Terry Gilliam contributes a couple of the gargoyle-like grotesques he seemed to specialise in at this point in his career, and while Eric Idle doesn’t get a single really memorable character, he does get to sing the closing number (which, stripped of its context and blackly comic impact, has nevertheless gone on to become hugely popular as a sort of vaguely jolly song).

It almost goes without saying that there are many sequences in this film which are very funny indeed and which have, in some cases, embedded themselves in popular culture – the unfailingly funny stoning scene, the ‘What have the Romans done for us?’ routine, the closing number, Spike Milligan’s cameo (demonstrating, as others have previously observed, the art of upstaging John Cleese and Michael Palin simultaneously – no small feat). But the odd thing about them is they do feel like sketches grafted onto a more extended narrative with varying degrees of success.

This, I think, is the main difference between Life of Brian and the Python films and TV shows that preceded it – it has a confidence and cinematic quality to it that the previous films often lacked, but at the same time the structure and nature of the film is more conventional – it doesn’t have the fake credits or non-ending that marked Holy Grail out as being essentially a continuation of the TV series, which often featured similar gags and conceits. Life of Brian actually has a fairly coherent story, with a moral premise of sorts, and even genuine moments of sincere feeling and pathos (only very occasionally, of course).

The movie is also surprisingly on-the-nose about its message, as well. It’s essentially about ideology, particularly the absurdity of fanaticism – something shared by Brian’s followers and the various squabbling terrorist groups he encounters in the course of the film – and the Pythons are not afraid to lay it on a bit thick in this department. ‘You’re all individuals! You don’t have to follow anyone!’ yells Brian to the pursuing throng, and the editorial message is so clear you almost expect a caption poking fun at the lack of subtlety at this point.

Not that anyone was paying much attention to the film’s subtext back in 1979, of course. I suspect that much of the stature of Life of Brian owes to the kerfuffle that greeted its release, some elements of which have virtually become folklore – Strom Thurmond attempted to ban it in South Carolina on his wife’s insistence, while many other bans succeeded – it remained banned in Aberystwyth for thirty years, at which point the mayor repealed it (the mayor’s own nude scene in the film may or may not have been a factor). Cleese and Palin’s skirmish with Malcolm Muggeridge and the Bishop of Southwark on a chat show very quickly became the stuff of satire itself.

How much the Pythons were genuinely shocked by the strength of the reaction to the film is somewhat unclear. ‘Next year we will have to live with the impact of the film… there will be something of a sensation,’ predicted Michael Palin in his diary at the end of 1978. Nowadays the team are very clear that the film does not ridicule Jesus (he is played dead straight by Kenneth Colley, in a tiny cameo) and it’s more about challenging doctrinaire belief systems and parodying biblical epics, but this does strike me as a little disingenuous – especially as they are also on record describing cut material in which Jesus has trouble booking a table for the last supper and later helps out with the carpentry of the crucifixion. The presence of a number of biblical personages, and the use of some significant imagery (most obviously in the crucifixion sequence) also makes the claim that the film has nothing to do with the origins of Christianity sound a little disingenuous.

Maybe the film is still as shockingly irreverent (even heretical) as it sets out to be; I don’t know – maybe we’re all just too familiar with it now. As I say, there are some very funny sequences, but other sections of the film don’t make me laugh as hard or as long as other things they’ve done. For me it’s lacking the essential Python willingness to tear the formal conventions apart; it has a beginning, a middle, an end, character development, and all the usual stuff. Which make it a better conventional film, I suppose – but I come to Python looking for something completely different. It’s still a cherishable movie with some very funny moments, but it’s not really amongst my favourites as far as their work is concerned.

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