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Posts Tagged ‘1970s’

I’m always on the lookout for a chance to do something new and innovative on the blog, not to mention a chance to showcase my freakish ability to identify obscure actors in minor roles. And so, hot on the heels of our look at Lust for a Vampire, featuring David Healy in the small but relatively important role of Raymond Pelley (aka Angry Father of Early Victim), I thought we would move on and examine another Healy movie from 1971 – Guy Hamilton’s Diamonds are Forever, in which the actor treats us to his take on Vandenberg Launch Director (an uncredited performance). (Other movies featuring the work of Mr Healy which are reviewed on this blog include You Only Live Twice, Phase IV, and The Ninth Configuration.)

Oh, who am I kidding, it’s just a coincidence (I’m still quite proud to have spotted him though). When you’ve spent nearly seven years reviewing virtually the entire canon of Eon Bond movies, you do start to run out of ways to start them off, but as this is the very last vintage Bond to cross off my list, that’s one problem I probably won’t have to worry about much in future.

Diamonds are Forever is one where Connery came back, for an enormous fee and for one film only, after an arguably rather overconfident George Lazenby decided not to stick around in the part. Fleming’s original novel provides about a third of what happens on screen, as Bond finds himself mixed up in diamond (well, duh) smuggling in Las Vegas, taking on sundry gangsters including the gay hitmen Wint and Kidd. Fairly soon, however, it all mutates into much more standard Bond movie fare, to wit Bond Plot 2: evil mastermind has nefarious scheme involving satellite-based superweapon. Other points of interest include the scene where Q uses his talents to defraud a casino, the one where Blofeld (Charles Gray) dresses up as a woman, and the one where Natalie Wood’s kid sister gets thrown out of a hotel window in her pants.

In the past I have commented on how the addition of SPECTRE and Blofeld to films based on books in which they did not appear often resulted in the improvement of the story. I’m not sure the same can be said in this case; while the presence of Blofeld in this movie was probably inevitable given how the previous one ended, all that results is a fairly bland piece of by-the-numbers Bond – the boxes of the formula get dutifully ticked, but not much new gets added to the recipe.

You could view Diamonds are Forever as the conclusion of the first phase of Bond movies, which nearly all concern themselves with Connery’s Bond taking on SPECTRE in various ways. From being virtually ever-present in the early films, neither SPECTRE nor Blofeld would really feature again for over forty years after this point, and I have to say that while this may have been forced on the film-makers for legal reasons, making most of the Roger Moore movies standalones with new villains does give them more variety and life. I’m always much more entertained by the blaxploitation or chop-socky stylings of the early Moore films than by anything in Diamonds are Forever.

One way in which Diamonds are Forever does set a precedent for the rest of the series is that it establishes that it is perfectly acceptable for Bond to be an older gentleman. Connery was in his early 40s by this point, and the part wasn’t played by anyone younger than this until the advent of Craig (who was only a couple of years shy of 40). Fleming’s Bond is said to be 37 at one point in an early novel, so it’s not as if this is wildly at odds with the source material. Quite what one should make of Connery’s performance here is another matter – as someone pretending to be a smuggler, he certainly has the ‘smug’ part down pat. One never gets the impression that Sean Connery has a problem with a lack of self-belief, and in this film he’s practically a battering ram of entitled self-satisfaction.

This is not especially good news for a film which has an odd tonal problem – there’s some quite hard-edged violence at a couple of points (there are sequences which trouble the TV censors more than most older Bond films), but coupled to a slightly camp tone. All the Bond films are essentially masculine wish-fulfilment fantasies, but it somehow feels more obvious here than in many other cases, and in a particularly unappealing and slightly sleazy way. Connery gets the dodgy ‘collar and cuffs’ gag (to be honest, I’m not sure he or Blofeld has an interaction with a woman in this film which isn’t basically patronising, although Bond is pretty patronising to most of the men, too), and there’s the very dated and frankly dubious (if not outright offensive) material with Wint and Kidd to consider as well.

One of the dated elements of the movie which occasionally draws attention is the rather peculiar sequence in which Bond, having infiltrated the enemy base, discovers what appears to be the filming of a fake moon landing in progress. This was 1971, after all, when the Apollo programme was an ongoing thing, and it has been suggested that this is a not terribly deeply coded signal as to what was really going on at the time. Quite how Eon got wind of the lunar hoaxes and why they decided to blow the gaffe in this slightly oblique way is never really adequately explained, though.

It would be nice to find more genuinely positive things to say about Diamonds are Forever – I suppose I’ve always enjoyed Charles Gray’s performance, and the theme song is good too. In the end, though, this is Bond as an almost totally mechanical, formulaic spectacle, and entirely lacking in the lightness of touch and charm which the best films of the series possess. A bit of a disappointment however you look at it.

 

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It comes as a bit of a shock to me to realise that I’ve been a fan of Hammer horror for just about thirty years, my personal satanic baptism following the BBC documentary The Studio That Dripped Blood and the accompanying season of films. What seems almost incredible, though, is the realisation that some of these films were less than twenty years old at the time. It’s impossible to be objective about these things, of course, but it feels like a great cultural chasm separated the early 1970s from the late 1980s in a way that isn’t quite the case when it comes to the late 1990s and nowadays. Perhaps it’s simply the fact that Britain had a viable national film industry in 1970 in a way it doesn’t have now.

One thing I am sure of is that I was technically a bit too young to watch most of these films at the time – although I note that when older Hammer films get revived on the big screen these days, they often get recertified much more leniently (as a 12A rather than an 18, for instance). Well, whatever, I’m sure a steady diet of gore, nudity, and the occult never did me any harm (he says, looking around his tiny rented garret, conveniently forgetting his becalmed career and string of failed relationships). That’s not the same thing as saying all of these movies were actually any good, of course, but sometimes a really iffy Hammer film has fleeting pleasures of its own.

I first saw Jimmy Sangster’s 1971 film Lust for a Vampire at the back end of 1989, and even at the time I remember being rather unimpressed with it. This is another Fine-Style production, the sequel to The Vampire Lovers, and while a few of the supporting cast return, none of the featured players do (and everyone’s playing different characters anyway).

We find ourselves once again in early 19th century Austria – this is one of the comparatively rare Hammer films which is quite specific about its setting – where, to no-one’s particular surprise, the undead are stirring. A cheery, buxom village maid is kidnapped by the evil Count Karnstein (Mike Raven) and used in a dark, gory ritual to resurrect the comely female vampire Carmilla (Yutte Stensgaard, on this occasion), although she spends most of the movie calling herself Mircalla. It’s obviously not made entirely clear, but it seems that Count Karnstein is supposed to be the Man in Black from the previous movie, up to his old tricks again (most of the impact of the character comes from the fact that Raven is being dubbed by Valentine Dyall, which is slightly ironic given Dyall himself famously played the Man in Black on the radio). The resurrection scene is interesting in the way it recalls similar moments from both Dracula, Prince of Darkness and Taste the Blood of Dracula, but the striking thing is how much more explicit the satanic overtones become over the years – another example of standards changing (this trend really culminates with Dracula AD 1972, where Christopher Lee is restored at the climax of a full-fledged Black Mass).

Well, anyway. Next we meet novelistic aristo Richard LeStrange (Michael Johnson), a bit of a charming rogue who’s in the area to research his new novel. The local landlord obligingly delivers a mighty slab of exposition concerning the Karnstein family and their vampiric activities, but this doesn’t stop LeStrange from heading up to Castle Karnstein to have a poke about. What follows is a genuinely atmospheric and slightly eerie sequence as he finds himself stalked by a trio of silent, robed young women, which actually recalls an episode from early in the novel of Dracula itself. This may be the single most effective bit of the movie.

The punchline, of course, is that the girls are actually pupils from the local finishing school, visiting the castle of the vampires on a school trip with their tutor (Ralph Bates). LeStrange swings by the school with them, finds himself engaged by the cornucopia of feminine pulchritude on display, and then absolutely smitten by the arrival of Mircalla as a new pupil. LeStrange promptly wangles himself a job as the school’s new English teacher in order to give Mircalla some real attention. Of course, when the school standards board get wind of this sort of behaviour, he’s bound to get it in the neck – but perhaps he has more pressing concerns to worry about…

Lust for a Vampire isn’t really very much more distinguished than its title suggests, though of course it does give good T&A (well, T, mainly). That said, there are moments which suggest a genuinely interesting film might have been made from Tudor Gates’ script, and it is worth noting that Hammer originally envisaged a movie where Ingrid Pitt reprised her role as Mircalla, Peter Cushing played the creepy school teacher, and Terence Fisher directed. As it turned out, Pitt declined to return (she made Countess Dracula instead), Cushing dropped out very late on due to his wife’s declining health, and Fisher ended up being replaced by Jimmy Sangster. For what it’s worth, Sangster and Bates do the best they can with some slightly rum material, but Stensgaard is definitely not in Ingrid Pitt’s league as an actress. The sense of a bit of a bodged job is just compounded by the producers’ decision (without the knowledge of even the director) to soundtrack the movie’s key love scene with the rather execrable pop song Strange Love.

The film falls down as badly as it does simply due to bad characterisation, poor scripting, and some uninspired performances. The fact that the protagonist is apparently an unprincipled rake who cons his way into a school in order to seduce one of the girls studying there is, well, not the sort of plot development you can imagine featuring in a modern film. It also robs the film of any overriding sense of morality – there’s no Van Helsing figure here, just a lot of people wandering about with extremely poor impulse control (they wheel on a Catholic cardinal, who just happens to be passing, for the climax). That said, it’s a fairly odd school, with much more casual nudity and implied lesbianism than one might expect to find on the curriculum. A stronger script might have made this a bit more excusable, but as it is, the film just comes across as leery.

This time around Mircalla seems a lot more interested in boys than on her initial outing, with the lesbian vampire aspects of the story toned down a bit (apparently at the behest of the BBFC). An awful lot of horror films contain not-very-thinly-veiled metaphors for and about sex, but on this occasion it looks rather like a cigar is just a cigar: you can give a rather sour interpretation to The Vampire Lovers, where lesbianism/vampirism is a scourge which must be stamped out, but in this case? Beyond the revelation that many men like blondes with large breasts, the film doesn’t have much to say for itself – it is purely exploitative in this regard.

Viewed from a modern perspective, there is a lot about Lust for a Vampire which is either creatively or morally suspect. It’s a slightly less iconoclastic vampire movie than its forebear, to be true, but most of the innovation is replaced by either half-baked melodrama or simple prurient exploitation. It entertains as a Hammer horror only really at the most basic level. Ralph Bates later regretted having anything to do with it, and while I wouldn’t go that far, I wouldn’t suggest this film to anyone but a Hammer completist.

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Is it the case that there is a hidden purpose to the universe, communicated to us only subtly and obliquely? Should we draw meaning from apparently random events happening around us every day? Personally I tend to doubt it, but you have to keep an open mind, don’t you. Quite what I am to infer from my DVD rental service sending me two Fine-Style lesbian vampire Hammer horror movies on the spin I’m not entirely sure. It may just be the guys there are going through one of their joined-up-thinking phases (still no sign of Tiptoes though, after five years of waiting).

The big difference between The Vampire Lovers (the first Fine-Style Hammer) and Lust for a Vampire (its sequel), of course, is that the first one is a vehicle for Ingrid Pitt, and the second one, well, isn’t. Ingrid Pitt’s status as one of Hammer’s big names is slightly surprising when you consider she only made two films for them, compared with the dozens featuring Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing. This must partly have been due to the decline of the company as the 1970s progressed, but the fact that Pitt apparently had a very unhappy experience making the second of her Hammer movies may also have been a factor. I was surprised and slightly saddened to learn this, as the film in question – Peter Sasdy’s Countess Dracula, from 1971 – seems to me to be far superior to any of the Fine-Style movies.

Despite appearances, this is not part of the main sequence of Hammer’s Dracula movies, and one suspects the title is mainly there because of its marquee value. (You could argue that there’s a moment in the movie suggesting a shared continuity, but if so the characters are remarkably reluctant to cry vampire, given some of the events of the story.) Instead, it is drawn from the legend of the notorious Hungarian serial killer Elizabeth Bathory, a 17th century noblewoman implicated in the sadistic murder of anything up to six hundred victims (though most credible accounts put the figure much lower). The Hammer version of the story takes a few liberties, to say the least, and focuses on the most lurid aspects of the case.

The film’s setting is a little vague, but the producers have a decent stab at authentically creating somewhere that looks like 16th century Hungary rather than the usual generic 19th century Transylvania. (There are many spectacular hats.) Count Nadasdy has recently passed away, leaving his widow Elizabeth (Pitt) and various family retainers to discover the contents of his will. Elizabeth’s tough-love approach to managing the estate means that peasants are forever running after her carriage screaming ‘Devil woman!’, but I suspect that in medieval Hungary this just counted as strong and stable leadership.

Well, in a commendably brisk and economical bit of exposition, the premise for the film is rapidly established: an unexpected beneficiary of the will is young soldier Imre Toth (Sandor Eles), much to the chagrin of loyal old retainer Captain Dobi (Nigel Green), who had expectations of his own. Amongst these was unfettered access to the Countess herself, who despite her aged condition finds herself rather taken with Imre. Everyone settles down to await the return of the Countess’s teenage daughter (Lesley-Anne Down), whom no-one has seen since she was a small child.

And then the Countess makes an unexpected discovery, when a typical household accident results in the blood of a serving girl being splashed in her face. Say what you like about alpha-hydroxy acids and hydroquinone, it seems that nothing lifts and restores the skin like a decent spray of virgin blood. Revelling in this opportunity to become young and comely again (and with serving girls being easy to come by), Elizabeth decides to impersonate her own daughter (as you would) and let herself be wooed by Imre. But her new beauty regime is a uniquely demanding one, even with the connivance of Dobi and her maid, and how long can she keep her grisly secret?

I was talking about horror movies in a general sort of way, the other day, and I suggested that the less interesting stories of this type are basically just about the threat of something unpleasant happening to you (like being stabbed or tortured to death). The more interesting kind of horror movie concerns itself with a different class of concerns, less immediately visceral but equally universal. It seems to me that Countess Dracula is very much of this type, having such a strong and resonant central theme that I’m slightly surprised this particular story hasn’t been reworked in the forty-plus years since it first appeared.

I might even say that this is a movie which looks stronger and stronger as the years go by, for the simple reason that it is about ageing and how people come to terms with this (or, of course, don’t). For most of us the gradual decline of our bodies and appearance is one of those things that is so inevitable we take it for granted (not that this stops us worrying about it). But, if the opportunity to be young and vital again presented itself, how much would it be worth to us? What would we be prepared to sacrifice?

The movie is very open about the jealousy that the old have of the young, nor does it really shy away from the fact that this often goes hand in hand with desire. Is it socially acceptable to be attracted to someone twenty or more years younger than you? Largely not, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Countess Dracula is the best kind of horror film in that it lifts up the rocks under which these uncomfortable truths lurk and examines them in its own, slightly lurid way.

Its main asset is Ingrid Pitt herself. This is a film with a notably good cast (Nigel Green, Maurice Denham, and Peter Jeffrey all feature), but it’s still Pitt’s performance that you remember at the end of it. Not only is she equally convincing as a severe old widow, a vivacious young woman, and an insane crone at various points in the narrative, but she brings genuine emotion and pathos to the character. One of the great innovations of The Vampire Lovers was to imbue its monster with emotions and vulnerabilities – Carmilla behaves and reacts much more like a human being than, say, Christopher Lee as Dracula, who has quite rightly been described as a monolith of pure evil. The same is true of the Countess here – she may be a vicious, manipulative person throughout, but she is not just a cipher or cut-out. She is never really sympathetic, but her motivations are unpleasantly understandable.

Pitt’s performance is the film’s core strength, but it also benefits from a strong set of supporting players and some impressive production designs (sets were inherited from another, slightly more mainstream costume drama). The whole thing looks and feels classy, made more distinctive still by the prominent use of what’s surely a zither on the soundtrack.

In the end, perhaps it’s a bit too classy – or perhaps too economical with the exposition at the start. There’s a definite sense of the film running out of things to say and do well before its somewhat understated climax, and even then it seems to be positioning itself more as a psychological horror movie than one of Hammer’s typical supernatural fantasies. There are not the gallons of Kensington Gore you might expect from Hammer’s take on the Bathory legend, for the film is fairly restrained in this regard – ‘It needed more cruelty, throat slashing, blood hounds, blood!’ was Pitt’s own opinion in later years. The money shot of the film, when it arrives, is much more concerned with Ingrid Pitt’s nudity than it is with the fact she’s supposedly bathing in human blood.

Still, there is much to appreciate here, for all that a little more colour and energy wouldn’t have done it any harm. In the end Countess Dracula is a memorably chilly and slightly uncomfortable film to watch, with a very strong central performance and a compelling metaphor at the heart of the story. A superior film from Hammer’s early 70s output.

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Early in 1995, I think, my local art house cinema ran an extremely short season of vampire movies – if you can call two movies a season, anyway. One of these was Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos, which is a very untraditional example of the subgenre – I went to see it and rather liked it, unlike a friend of mine, who admitted she was only interested in vampire movies that were sexy. The other one was – a bit of a curve ball – Roy Ward Baker’s The Vampire Lovers, then about to enjoy its diamond anniversary. I can barely bring myself to admit it, but I passed up this opportunity to enjoy a Hammer horror revival on the big screen – it wouldn’t happen these days, obviously. I’ve no idea if my friend went along to see The Vampire Lovers, but if she did I imagine she would have been well satisfied, for this is definitely intended to be one of the sexy vampire movies.

The story, such as it is, opens in properly Gothic style with a portentous narration from Douglas Wilmer, playing a magnificently bewigged vampire hunter. The vampires in this movie are a weird, almost spiritual menace, though they still sleep in coffins some of the time and are strangely attached to their shrouds. Wilmer has an axe to grind, as his family has already suffered from the attentions of the undead. A predictably comely young bloodsucker shows up (played by Kirsten Lindholm, an extremely attractive young woman in a movie not short on them) only to get her head chopped off almost straight away. So it goes sometimes.

Inasmuch as any of what follows makes rational sense, we may surmise that the rest of the film is set some years later. The first section of the film basically constitutes another prologue, greatly extended this time, telling of how General von Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing) comes to take into his home a mysterious and alluring young woman named Marcilla (Ingrid Pitt). Marcilla becomes very close to the General’s niece Laura (Pippa Steel), which may or may not have something to do with Laura’s sudden and rapid decline and death under mysterious circumstances, accompanied by some rather suggestive nightmares, not to mention vampire bites about the chest region.

It’s perhaps more rewarding to consider The Vampire Lovers as a succession of impressionistic set pieces than as a conventional narrative. It certainly goes some way to excusing repetitiveness of some of the plotting, as all the above essentially starts to happen again, only in the home of an Englishman named Morton (George Cole) – quite what Morton is doing in Austria in the early 19th century is never really established, nor is what language everyone is speaking, but I digress. Morton likewise finds himself taking Marcilla into his home, except now she is going by the name Carmilla. She seems just as keen on the company of Morton’s daughter Emma (Madeline Smith) as she was on Laura, too, despite the misgivings of her governess (Kate O’Mara). Is history about to repeat itself? Will handsome local lad Carl (Jon Finch) realise what’s going on, and will Peter Cushing come back for the climax of the movie?

As you can perhaps tell, narrative rigour is not The Vampire Lovers’ strongest suit, for not only is it rather repetitive, it doesn’t really bother to keep the audience in the picture when it comes to some fairly basic plot elements, such as what’s actually going on. It seems to be the case that Wilmer’s vampire hunting at the start of the film was not that thorough, and at least one (and possibly more) of the beasties has returned, many years later, to ravage the daughters of the local aristocracy. But who is the mother of Marcilla (or Carmilla)? Is she a vampire too? Who, for that matter, is the Man in Black who occasionally pops up to survey Carmilla’s (or Marcilla’s) doings with such evident satisfaction? Both of them disappear out of the film without explanation.

An uncharitable viewer might conclude that the film is less concerned with trivial things like coherent plotting than it is with Ingrid Pitt getting her kit off and sinking her fake fangs into the necks and bosoms of various other cast members (many stories of said fangs falling out and having to be retrieved from the cleavage of Kate O’Mara by enthusiastic prop hands are in circulation). The film is very much a product of its time, an exploitation movie in the truest sense – calculated to fully exploit the more liberal censorship regime which came into force in 1970, by including more explicit nudity and gore than had been possible in previous Hammer horror movies. This is certainly a much more lurid film than anything from the company’s 1960s output.

How much of this new direction was forced upon Hammer by the general decline of the British industry and how much by the film’s producers, Harry Fine and Michael Style, is a bit unclear – another oddity of the film is that it is, uniquely, a co-production between Hammer and American International Pictures (noted makers of some of Vincent Price’s best horror films) – you would have to be a bit imaginative to see this film as a true synthesis of the two company’s styles, though.

Apart from the decision to go in a more brazenly exploitative direction, The Vampire Lovers’ greatest innovation is the casting of Ingrid Pitt in its main role. Pitt is a world away from the typical decorative, fragile Hammer starlet – she has a powerful, mature presence, and is a better actress than you might assume. Of course, she’s quite obviously considerably older than the character she’s meant to be playing, not to mention the young girls upon whom she preys (Pitt was over 30 when she made the movie), but this is excusable in the circumstances: it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role.

The various scenes of Ingrid Pitt wafting about graveyards in something diaphanous with a plunging neckline have acquired a certain iconic quality of their own, and it’s easy to see why she’s just as much a Hammer icon as Cushing or Christopher Lee, despite only appearing in a couple of films for the company. That said, it’s equally easy to discern a little discomfort on the part of film-makers when it comes to making a film about such a powerful, sexually aggressive woman – in the end, of course, it’s a gaggle of middle-aged men who end her reign of slightly kinky terror, but even before this, it’s strongly implied that Carmilla (etc) is really the pawn of the Man in Black and not nearly as independent a woman as she might seem.

It would be slightly ridiculous to try and claim The Vampire Lovers as some kind of feminist movie, anyway, given it was largely designed to incorporate as much soft-core lesbianism and nudity as Hammer could possibly get away with. These days it seems mostly rather tame, and as a result the shortcomings of the plot are laid as bare as the younger female members of the cast. But there is the reliable pleasure of a Peter Cushing performance to consider, and the perhaps unexpected one of Ingrid Pitt’s performance, too. In the end this is a landmark movie in the history of Hammer horror, regardless of how good or not you think the film actually is.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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