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Posts Tagged ‘1970s’

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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The pre-titles sequence of Robert Young’s 1971 film Vampire Circus has a lot of heavy lifting to do, exposition-wise, so perhaps it’s not surprising that it doesn’t completely hang together. We find ourselves in the usual Hammer evocation of an 18th or early 19th century Osten-Europ (resembling, as ever, woodland a short drive from Pinewood Studios), where a young girl is playing under the kindly eye of local schoolteacher and upstanding citizen Muller (Laurence Payne). But wait! A young woman (Domini Blythe) appears and entices the girl away with her, luring her off to the local castle. Muller is sent into an awful tizzy by this.

All very well, I suppose, until it becomes apparent that the woman is actually Muller’s surprisingly young wife. At this point the characters’ behaviour and reactions, and thus the whole sequence, more or less stops making sense. Oh well. It turns out that Mrs Muller has been having a fling with the local nobleman, Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman, who has a bit of a look of a young Timothy Dalton). Mitterhaus is, unsurprisingly, a vampire, albeit one with a uniquely non-frightening name (in English he’d be Count Middlehouse). The count polishes off the little girl (initial gore quotient met), which Mrs Muller enjoys watching rather too much. ‘One lust brings on the other,’ smirks the count as she slips off her costume (initial nudity quotient met) and the two of them get down to it.

Well, not entirely surprisingly, Muller has been organising an angry mob with flaming torches and a cartful of barrels of gunpowder, and they all turn up at this point. Not having bothered to bring any crosses or garlic, however, the count carves a bit of a swathe through them before he is finally staked and the castle blown up – but not before he can whisper a few dying commands to Mrs Muller (who flees into the forest) or promise a terrible revenge on his assailants and their children.

Yes, this is another of those vengeance-of-the-vampire movies that Hammer had a few goes at in the early 1970s. At least one of these, Taste the Blood of Dracula, is from near the top of the Hammer Horror stack, so perhaps it’s understandable that they should keep going back to it. This is from a lower bracket, though. Fifteen years later, the town of Stitl (home to Muller and the rest) is suffering from an outbreak of a mysterious plague, and the place has been encircled by armed men who shoot anyone trying to get out.

The local doctor, who’s new in town and has the thankless role of being the guy who says ‘Don’t be absurd! Vampires don’t exist!’ at the start of Hammer vampire movies, thinks this is normal plague-type plague, but the Burgomeister (Thorley Walters), Muller the teacher, and everyone else who was there when Count Middlehouse was disposed of have other ideas.

Spirits are briefly lifted with the arrival of the enigmatic and glamorous Circus of Night rolls into town, having somehow got past the circle of armed soldiers. Running the enterprise is a gypsy woman credited as Gypsy Woman (she is played, with considerable oomph, by Adrienne Corri). Everyone rocks up to the circus and enjoys looking at a few caged animals, some slightly tacky exotic dancing, and some more peculiar acts.

Now, here’s the thing that basically turns Vampire Circus into a melodrama you have to indulge rather than a film you can take completely seriously. Senior figures in the community are worrying that the plague is the result of a curse laid on them by Middlehouse the vampire. You would think that all things vampirical would be playing on their minds a bit. And yet no-one seems to find the fact that the circus acts include a man turning into a black panther and acrobats turning into actual bats remotely suggestive. Furthermore, the fact the gypsy woman is credited as Gypsy Woman is presumably to conceal the revelation that she is actually Mrs Muller, come back to exact revenge. It’s not really clear why no-one recognises her – or, alternatively, why her appearance has changed so much. Nor is it quite clear why it has taken her and the count’s cousin Emil (Anthony Higgins, credited as Anthony Corlan) a decade and a half to get round to avenging him.

Then again, all of these films are somewhat melodramatic. Some of the narrative shortfall in Vampire Circus may be down to the fact that it was Robert Young’s first film as director, and his inexperience meant the production overran to the point where the producers shut it down and simply told the editor to do the best he could with the available footage. This may be another reason why the storytelling occasionally feels a bit strained; it’s probably also the best explanation for a sequence in which a group of minor characters are savaged to death by a panther which seems to be realised in the form of an astonishingly manky-looking hand puppet.

Once you get past the obviousness of the title and plot (George Baxt, credited for ‘story’, claims he was paid £1000 just for coming up with the title and had no other involvement with the film), this is a reasonably solid horror fantasy with an agreeably dreamlike atmosphere and impressive visual sense – it’s lurid and garish and a bit surreal in places, but engagingly so.

On the other hand, the main villain is woefully weak, even by late-period-Hammer standards, and none of the performances are particularly strong. You kind of come into these films expecting the juvenile leads to be wet and forgettable, but Vampire Circus is lacking the strong character performances so many Hammer movies benefit from – Thorley Walters is okay, but not in it enough; Adrienne Corri has presence and charisma to spare, but is hampered by the fact she’s playing the sidekick of other characters.

One thing about this movie is that for what feels like a production-line exploitation movie, it has an unusually interesting cast, even by Hammer standards. Quite apart from Walters, Corri, Payne, Higgins and the rest, lurking around the circus are Dave Prowse (one of many pre-Darth Vader fantasy and horror roles), Robin Sachs (another prolific fantasy and horror actor), and the Honourable Lalla Ward in pretty much her first professional acting engagement. It’s not entirely surprising the movie has become something of a cult favourite.

Vampire Circus is a bit of an oddity in the classic Hammer canon, as it’s a standalone vampire film with no particular connection to its series about Dracula and the Karnstein family – if you discount Countess Dracula (which this was released in a double-bill with, and is really a Dracula film in name only), the only other example is Kiss of the Vampire from 1963. I suppose the central notion and its execution is strong enough to justify the film’s existence, but it would have been interesting to see that double-bill fifty years ago: two very different films, one vibrant, lurid and almost impressionistic, the other chilly and measured and rather more thoughtful. Vampire Circus is a flawed movie and not even the best film about bloodsuckers Hammer Films made that year, but it has enough novelty value to be worth watching even so.

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Rumours were rife a few years ago that the revered Canadian auteur David Cronenberg was considering retiring from film-making, simply because trying to find financing for his projects had become too much of a grind. Whether or not this is true (the current rumours are of a possible film noir-ish movie, shooting this year with Cronenberg’s regular collaborator Viggo Mortensen), there has been a bit of a gap, and Cronenberg seems to have filled his time by writing a novel, Consumed.  Some might be surprised that the acclaimed director of such historical dramas and psychological thrillers as Spider, A History of Violence, Eastern Promises and A Dangerous Method should choose to go into print with what’s essentially a horror novel about cannibalism and techno-fetishism, but there is a reason why Cronenberg is still routinely referred to as a cult horror director and the high priest of body-horror in particular.

This is a label Cronenberg picked up back in the 1970s and early 80s, off the back of a string of films with titles like Shivers, Rabid, and Scanners. I think it’s fair to say that early Cronenberg has a very strong and distinctive taste, and one which still lingers in certain aspects of his later work: it might not be going too far to suggest the main theme of the Cronenberg canon is a fascination with all things psycho-sexual, an interest which initially manifested in a string of no-foolin’ horror movies.

The psycho-sexual element is present front-and-centre right from the start of Cronenberg’s 1979 film The Brood, which opens with unorthodox mental health professional Dr Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed) deep in a therapy session with a clearly troubled man. Raglan’s favoured method is something known as psychoplasmics, in which the patient’s repressed emotions manifest through physiological changes in their body: tiny lesions erupt all over the skin of Raglan’s subject as the psychoplasmic demonstration continues.

Watching this is architect Frank Carveth (Art Hindle), whose estranged wife Nola (Samantha Eggar) is currently receiving intensive treatment from Raglan. The relationship between Frank and Nola is acrimonious, to say the least, and much of the trouble centres around the question of who gets custody of their five-year-old daughter Candy. When Candy returns from a visit to see her mother with scratches and bruising, Carveth is naturally concerned and starts looking for legal grounds to block Nola’s access to her, or at least keep Candy away from Raglan’s clinic.

Meanwhile, Raglan continues Nola’s therapy, encouraging her to work through her repressed anger and resentment towards various people in her life, including her mother. It is quite clearly not coincidental, then, when Nola’s mother is brutally bludgeoned to death by someone or something (Cronenberg makes it quite clear the killer is not a normal human being) while baby-sitting Candy.

The tragedy repeats itself when Nola’s father, visiting the house while drunk and grieving, meets a similar fate. Carveth himself confronts the killer, who expires in front of him: a deformed, sexless midget, with no digestive system or umbilicus. But what is the connection to Nola and Raglan, and why does the creature bear a slight but disturbing resemblance to Candy herself…?

Well, and needless to say spoiler alert, it seems that Nola has proven an exceptional subject for psychoplasmic therapy, and her body has been sprouting cysts or sacs, each of which produces one of these homuncular creatures: born of a deeply troubled psyche, they act upon Nola’s subconscious desires without her being aware of it. Raglan, who despite his serious and urbane demeanour is clearly a lunatic mad scientist of the classic type, has getting on for a dozen of these things locked up at his clinic, but they have started breaking out and articulating Nola’s repressed emotions in an actually physical way…

A response of ‘Ewwww,’ is entirely acceptable, and may in fact be obligatory for the scene where Eggar produces yet another of her psychoplasmic spawn, tearing open the birthing pouch with her teeth. (Cronenberg complained that a lengthy shot of Eggar licking the newborn creature was edited by the censors with the result it gave the impression she was actually eating it, ‘much worse than I was suggesting.’) To be fair, though, apart from a little bit of bloody violence, this is a relatively restrained film prior to the climax: indeed, until the first murder, the focus is almost domestic, with Carveth and Nola more concerned about their family situation than anything else.

Bearing this in mind perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Cronenberg himself had recently been through fraught divorce proceedings, to which this film formed a response: the director suggested it was a variation on the same theme as Kramer Vs Kramer, ‘only more realistic’. Perhaps it says something about the essentially cerebral nature of Cronenberg’s work that this never really feels like a personal story, the director working out an issue of his own – indeed, the characters are quite thinly presented, just adding to the sense this is on some level an allegory or fable. There is perhaps something problematic in this interpretation: Carveth is the loving, misunderstood father; Nola a vindictive loon.

Cronenberg himself has suggested this is the closest of all his films to being a ‘classic’ horror movie, and if I was going to be harsh I would suggest The Brood certainly features a lot of horror movie acting as it is stereotypically (and perhaps unfairly) understood, by which I mean that Hindle is a bit wooden and Eggar is over the top, and the best performance comes from the mad scientist. At this point in his career Oliver Reed was just transitioning from (ahem) brooding, saturnine leading man to brooding, silver-fox, borderline-unemployable character actor, and he is unusually restrained but as effective as ever as Raglan. You kind of wish he was in the movie a bit more; if nothing else he provides serious gravitas.

The classic-horror-movie-ish-ness of The Brood extends beyond the presence of a mad scientist doing weird experiments; the homicidal midgets inevitably recall the killer from Don’t Look Now, and there is something of the slasher movie in the way the creatures sneak into their victims’ home or place of work before suddenly unleashing bloody slaughter upon them (though ‘basher movie’ might be more apropos given their clear fondness for blunt force trauma). There is inevitably some tonal unevenness when it comes to the combination of schlocky, slightly camp horror and intense psychological drama, but on the whole this just gives the film a distinct identity of its own. This may not be one of Cronenberg’s most ambitious or visually striking films, but it’s satisfyingly intelligent and repulsive in a way he manages uniquely well.

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Sometimes you sit down to watch a movie in the fairly certain knowledge that it is not going to be – how can I put it? – entertaining in the intended sense. (I write this as someone who often enjoys really bad movies much more than reasonably competent ones.) Something about the opening titles of Mark Robson’s 1974 film Earthquake started sending subliminal messages that this was going to be one of those occasions, practically from the word go. Ominous music plays over various scenes of Los Angeles and its inhabitants, all enjoying another day of sun, and there’s nothing immediately grisly about how it’s put together, beyond the fact that it all somehow looks a bit TV-movie-ish.

Various plots start to unfurl. We are, of course, in disaster movie territory here, and the conventions of the genre require a lengthy period of introduction, establishing all the various characters and their concerns before we get to the good stuff (i.e. the wide-screen death and destruction). Is the appearance of Charlton Heston as Stewart Graff, top American footballer turned ace civil engineer, the moment at which Earthquake crosses the Rubicon into bad movie territory? I would say not, but then I like Charlton Heston and generally cut him some slack.

Graff is the main character and the film dwells on his situation at some length.  It seems he is working for his father-in-law’s construction company. Said father-in-law, Royce, is played by Lorne Greene, who is a familiar face from TV rather than an actual bona fide movie star, but whatever. Royce’s daughter and Graff’s wife is Remy, who is played by Ava Gardner, another of those grand old Golden Age of Hollywood stars who was still roaming the landscape in the middle 1970s.

Sadly, however, Graff and Remy have found themselves trapped in a loveless marriage (mainly, it must be said, because the plot appears to demand it). Graff is pondering some extramarital whoa-ho-ho with young widow Denise (Genevieve Bujold), and it is the tension in this love triangle, and Graff’s personal dilemma with respect to it, which is the central dramatic pillar of the movie.

Still, you can’t have a properly spectacular earthquake with only one pillar about the place, and so it is with Earthquake the movie: various other plotlines are being painted in at the same time (with the kind of broad brush that will be familiar to aficionados of the disaster movie genre). These include the various travails of tough cop Lou Slade (George Kennedy), who’s suspended after punching out a colleague over a jurisdictional matter; the tale of tightly-wound supermarket worker Jody (Marjoe Gortner), who seems to have an awful lot of personal issues to process; and the problems of aspiring motorbike daredevil Miles (Richard Rowntree), who’s looking to hit the big time. (It was the mid-1970s, there was a motorcycle daredevil on every corner in the USA.)

Also present (in the first part of the movie, at least) is a subplot about a group of seismologists, in particular one played by Kip Niven. Niven thinks he has figured out a method of earthquake prediction, which is good; what’s not so good is that the numbers suggest a massive, city-levelling quake is imminent. Should they warn people and risk a panic? The head of the university suggests they ask Niven’s supervisor, who is off on a field trip. But there is no answer, for the supervisor has found himself up close and personal with a quake in a pretty terminal way. As methods of generating tension and foreboding go, this is just about competent, but the seismologists are notably absent from the post-quake section of the film, the implication apparently being that they all died (which is sort of ironic). (At least forty minutes was cut from the film before its release, including all the post-quake scenes with the academics.)

Well, as you’ve probably surmised, the massive, city-levelling quake duly turns up and the rest of the movie deals with the aftermath and various problems that arise as a result of it. In simple terms of plot carpentry it’s all fairly sound, although there is inevitably a touch of melodramatic soap opera about how it is actually implemented.

Front and centre in this, once again, is the ongoing entanglement involving Heston, Gardner and Bujold. It’s really something about this which prevents me from taking Earthquake at all seriously as a piece of drama, and my grounds are, I admit, entirely superficial and probably quite reprehensible: Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner were both about fifty when they made this film and – how shall we put it? – the aging process has worked upon them in different ways. Heston has retained that intensely stolid virility which is an essential part of his screen persona. Gardner’s career, on the other hand, was largely defined by her femininity and sensuality, and the fact she was (let’s be honest) a very beautiful woman.

She never feels entirely at home in this movie. Her role is a thankless one: she plays a needy, manipulative woman, almost a shrew, the assassin of Graff’s happiness. Regardless of the facts, she looks significantly older than him – more like Lorne Greene’s wife than his daughter – to the point where the marriage doesn’t really convince, at least not as it’s presented here. And yet the relationship is central to the drama of Earthquake, particularly its climax. Graff is forced, in the starkest and most melodramatic terms, to choose between the obligations of his joyless marriage and the possibility of a new happiness with Denise. The choice he eventually makes is rooted in a rigid and inflexible morality that feels very anachronistic, given the 1970s setting: there’s something very Old Hollywood about this film, so perhaps Ava Gardner does belong here after all.

And yet in other ways one gets a sense of a more modern kind of film-making on the verge of being born: this was 1974, after all, and Jaws and the birth of the modern blockbuster was less than a year away. Earthquake may be sprawling and hokey and melodramatic, but it’s also a high-concept movie dependent on extensive special effects for its success (or otherwise). It even has a score by John Williams. But it’s not quite there yet. If Earthquake feels old-fashioned and clumsy to the modern viewer, that shouldn’t really be a surprise: it probably had more than a whiff of that about it when it was brand new.

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I haven’t done a full statistical analysis of what the most common opening shots of Hammer horror movies are, but I would imagine that there would be a high incidence of forests, castles, implements of execution, and glowering skies of various hues. Vistas of row upon row of terraced houses in the grim urban north would be correspondingly lower on the list, especially when soundtracked by someone reading out a fairy tale. And yet this Coronation Street-meets-Jackanory approach is exactly how Peter Collinson’s Straight On Till Morning chooses to make its bow.

The unexpectedness of tone persists, as in one of the houses we meet Brenda (Rita Tushingham), the young narrator of a fairy tale she has apparently written herself. Domestics are afoot between Brenda and her mum (Annie Ross), as Brenda insists on going down to London to find a man to take care of her and the child she is expecting. Already it is clear that Brenda may not have an absolute stranglehold on reality, but she is also stubborn and determined and duly rocks up in the Smoke, finding herself in a milieu not a million miles away from that of Hammer’s Dracula AD 1972, a slightly shabby demi-monde of mildly debauched young people in the usual startling fashions of the period. She gets a job in a shop, moves in with a co-worker who is having an affair with the boss (the co-worker is Katya Wyeth, and the boss Tom Bell, though his role is so minor and tangential it barely qualifies as a cameo), gets to know another young man who works there (played by James Bolam, likewise appearing less than you’d expect, considering he’s third billed). You would expect Bolam to be the decent, sensible lad whom Brenda eventually ends up. For best results, this movie requires expectation management, however.

Meanwhile, we of the audience are also getting to know Peter, a young man Brenda literally bumps into in the street not long after arriving in London. Peter is played by Shane Briant, possibly the last individual to qualify as a Hammer horror star, here making his first appearance for the studio (he would go on to make three more, Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell amongst them). It is rapidly made clear that, despite his good looks and well-heeled appearance, there’s something not quite right about Peter, as many of the women in his life have realised too late.

Persistent lack of success at landing a bloke causes reality to crash in on Brenda and she goes out for a midnight walk, sobbing and wailing as a rather maudlin song plays on the soundtrack. However, we have now reached the inciting incident of the movie – and not before time, some might say – as she happens upon a scruffy dog named Tinker, also out for a midnight walk. Tinker belongs to Peter, whom she also spies. Displaying a hitherto undisplayed capacity for low cunning, Brenda dognaps Tinker, takes him home and gives him a bath, before taking him back to his owner. As ways of manufacturing a cute-meet go, this is fairly extreme, but for all its relatively mundane setting, this is not a movie which is short on extreme personalities.

For Peter is fully aware of what Brenda is up to, and invites her to stay with him. It transpires that she is not actually up the stick, but would like to be, and telling her mother she was formed part of a not-especially-coherent plan to get her used to the idea of becoming a grandparent. Again, Peter suggests that he might well be open to assisting Brenda with her plans, though he dismisses the fake name she initially gives herself – Rosalba – and christens her Wendy instead. However, a grisly (and not strictly necessary) reminder of Peter’s own issues soon arrives, as he takes against Tinker (whom Brenda has groomed somewhat) and makes his views very clear, using a craft knife…

Quite nasty stuff, but one thing about Straight On Till Morning is that there’s hardly any gore in it: the unpleasantness is almost entirely implicit, with the film owing its adults-only certification to some moderately graphic sex scenes early on. It’s another departure from the Hammer formula – Briant’s presence aside, this is probably the least Hammer Horror-like Hammer horror movie of the lot – in a movie which is obviously trying to do something different.

It would be nice to think that this was born of a desire by the company to broaden its palette a bit and move into other areas – it was released back-to-back with another contemporary psycho-thriller, a slightly more conventional fem jeop movie called Fear in the Night, which at least had Peter Cushing and Ralph Bates in it. However, the fact that the bulk of the movie takes place in the same small apartment, with most scenes being played out between Tushingham and Briant, suggests simply that one of the defining influences on Straight On Till Morning was the fact it was made on a punishingly low budget. Divergence and distinctiveness were really forced upon it.

Even so, I’m not sure this fully explains one of the most striking things about the movie, namely its editing. The actual direction of the scenes, the compositions and the handling of the actors, is perfectly fine, but Collinson frequently opts to rapidly intercut between scenes, juxtaposing clashing images and settings, in a way which is almost subliminal. This gets a bit wearisome very quickly: it’s certainly an interesting experiment, but on this occasion it’s an experiment which fails, badly.

In the middle of all of this, Shane Briant and Rita Tushingham are doing the best they can, and neither of their performances is anything to be ashamed of. This is no faint praise considering the unhinged, wildly implausible characters they are both saddled with playing, or the dubious nature of the plot they are forced to enact. Some of the contrivances involved I trust you will already have spotted for yourself: the rest concern Briant’s character, who (it’s implied) is really named Clive, and has from somewhere acquired a homicidal hatred of beauty – hence his fondness for bumping off the beautiful women who are drawn to him like flies, the fate of the recently-bathed Tinker, and the fact he’s drawn to Brenda (whose main character point seems to be that she is a bit plain-looking). Where to start with the implicit misogyny? The downbeat naturalism of it somehow makes it seem far worse than any of the dodgy T&A-themed vampire movies Hammer were putting out at around the same time. (You may also have spotted an implied conceit relating to Peter Pan, involving the title of the movie and several character names, but this doesn’t really inform the plot or theme much.)

Some of this would be excusable if the film somehow redeemed itself through its resolution: but such is the scantiness of the budget that the climax seems to have been omitted. The movie concludes with an annoyingly open, unresolved ending – the implication of what’s happened is clear, but there’s no sense of actual closure. Straight On Till Morning has been very difficult to like up to this point – it’s got an implausible opening, a talky and largely static mid-section, and a pervasive atmosphere of charmless nastiness – but as it draws to a close it actually becomes objectionable. It is, literally ninety-something minutes of your life you will not get back, and stakes a good case for itself as Exhibit A for the decline and fall of Hammer Films in the early 70s.

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My parents, like many others, were quite cautious about letting me watch horror films when I was a child – I don’t feel that I properly started my education in this area until I was just into my teens, with the BBC’s wonderful season commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of the first colour Hammer horror film. Nevertheless, as a child you do see things that scare and disturb you – when I was quite young, I remember having several supposedly-educational books which had pages I always avoided looking at – one depicting some creepy deep-sea creatures, the others… I think it was something to do with either organ transplants or prosthetic body parts (possibly both). These things do stay with you.

And then there was the day, when I think I would have been about nine, when my class at school all trooped downstairs to find a screen and a projector had been set up in one of the spare rooms. We were going to see a film! Hurrah! Our excitement was only leavened by the fact that this was surely going to turn out to be something educational. And so it proved – but as well as being educational, the short film in question arguably qualifies as the first horror film I ever saw. I still remember the sense of dread and discomfort I felt while watching it: to say it made an impression on me is an understatement.

The film in question is entitled Building Sites Bite, made in 1978 and written and directed by David Hughes. The object of the piece is to raise the young audience’s awareness of the dangers involved in trespassing on building sites, but the approach is not notably dry or fussy. A rather snooty woman (a young-ish Stephanie Cole), her somewhat-spoilt son Ronald (Nigel Rhodes), and their dog (a dog named Snoopy, playing him or herself) visit their relatives, a distinctly lower-middle-class bunch. To say the atmosphere is throbbing with class-related tension is an understatement. The son of the household, Paul (Terry Russell), is not nearly as impressed with his cousin as Auntie is, and (in his interior monologue) is rather scornful of his ambition to be a surveyor or architect. Is young Ronald even aware of basic health and safety principles?

Well, Paul fantasises that he and his sister Jane are in control of a super-high-tech testing programme with Ronald as the subject of their investigations. Through the miracle of a TARDIS-like teleporting shed, Ronald is transported to the edge of a building site, and told they want him to find Snoopy who has wandered somewhere inside. So in Ronald goes, finding the dog in a trench, which then collapses on him, smothering him to death. Snoopy mysteriously escapes, presumably so as not to upset the audience.

Frankly, I remember being pretty upset at this point anyway, given the hard-hitting depiction of Ronald’s demise, and quite glad the film was surely over. But no! Paul and Jane have the power to resurrect Ronald, luckily enough. Or perhaps not: because they proceed to teleport him to a series of other building sites. He is electrocuted! He is crushed by an industrial vehicle! He smashes his head open on a piece of pipe! He is killed when a stack of bricks collapse on him! He drowns! (Snoopy always scampers away without a scratch.) Educational films like this were outside the remit of the BBFC, and so there are levels of gore and general nastiness far beyond what children would be allowed to see in a film.

I was never a particularly outdoorsy or adventurous child, and so they needn’t have really shown me this film. But they did. Watching it again recently was a rather less traumatic experience than back in the eighties. What really struck me was the subtext of the film, though – most of it takes place in Paul’s head, and he seems to be a genuinely disturbed child, taking great pleasure in imagining his cousin’s death in great detail. This seems to be largely motivated by class resentment – Ronald and his mum are both much posher than Paul and his family, with Ronald wearing a cravat throughout his various misadventures. All of this went over my head at the time, which is probably just as well.

Of course, this was by no means the only film along these lines made in the 1970s, and Building Sites Bite doesn’t have quite the degree of notoriety enjoyed by some of the others. There were lots of other potentially lethal places around back then, and John Krish’s The Finishing Line (1977) looks at another one, the railway line.

Again we are privy to the imaginings of a (presumably quite disturbed) young lad, who – after an unseen headmaster declares that ‘the railway line is not a place for playing’ – imagines a school sports day taking place by the side of railway line, complete with brass band and refreshments. Various events take place: Fence-breaking, Stone-throwing, Last One Across (the line, with a train oncoming), and the Great Tunnel Walk. Needless to say, all of these result in horrific injuries and death amongst the competitors, with an astonishing shot from near the end of the film depicting dozens of bloodied child corpses laid out on the lines, while more of the walking wounded stumble out of the tunnel.

John Krish was an experienced film and TV director – responsible for Unearthly Stranger, and various episodes of The Saint and The Avengers – which explains the deftness with which he creates an atmosphere like that of a surreal, deadpan black comedy throughout The Finishing Line. The conceit is carried through quite rigorously, with umpires and other officials carefully checking and reporting the gory results of the different events, apparently with complete indifference to people staggering around with blood gushing from their injuries. (One familiar actor appearing here is Jeremy Wilkin, who also provided the voice of Virgil Tracy in later instalments of Thunderbirds.)

The question, of course, becomes one of just how disturbing and upsetting one of these films should be. The Finishing Line certainly has a cinematic quality to it, which only adds to its impact. It’s presumably because of this that the film was withdrawn after a couple of years, simply because it was so graphically effective.

Horror-movie style poster promoting the DVD release of Apaches.

Less grisly, but possibly even more memorable, is Apaches, also from 1977, directed by John Mackenzie (later to do The Long Good Friday, The Fourth Protocol, and Ruby, amongst others). The venue for slaughter this time is the British countryside, where we find six young children playing (mostly) cowboys and indians in and around a farm, while elsewhere adults are preparing for a mysterious party.

Well, you can probably guess what happens next: as part of their games, one of the children clambers onto and then falls off a moving trailer and is crushed under the wheels, then a second falls into a slurry pit while playing hide and seek and drowns, and so on. Weed-killer, lethal machinery, heavy and precariously-balanced objects – the film does a sensational job of implying that the average farm is a complete deathtrap; one wonders how The Archers or Emmerdale has lasted this long. (I should say that this does seem to be a fairly poorly-run farm, with the children still allowed to run wild even as the death-toll racks up.)

Then again, the thing about Apaches in particular is that it really does feel like an actual horror movie (albeit a short one): there is that same sense of tension throughout, the knowledge that something grim is inevitably around the corner all the time, and a willingness to stretch plausibility to generate its effects. Moments in Apaches are genuinely disturbing and horrible, and once again the effectiveness of the film is reinforced by the director’s skill. The child acting is actually not too bad (much better than in Building Sites Bite), and Mackenzie understands the power of moments of stillness and quiet. There is an understated realism to the film that meshes surprisingly well with its clear intention to make an impression on its young audience: I watched it for the first time recently, and had to take a break partway through, it was that gruelling an experience.

Any discussion of the public information film as quasi-horror would not be complete, of course, without a mention of perhaps the most famous exponent of the form: Lonely Water, directed by Jeff Grant and made in 1973. This one is much shorter than the other films mentioned here, but punches above its weight due to the way it intentionally adopts the conventions of a horror movie, up to and including casting the great Donald Pleasence.

‘I am the spirit of dark and lonely water,’ whispers Pleasence’s voice-over, as the camera shows a mist-wreathed swamp, in which a dark, cowled figure appears to stand on the water. (Many aspects of this film seem to me to have been nicked from The Masque of the Red Death, particularly the appearance of the spirit.) ‘Ready to trap the show-off, the unwary, the fool…’

Various scenes of young children getting into difficulty in or near water quickly follow, always with the figure of the spirit looming, sometimes almost subliminally, in the background. (One of the children featured is Terry Sue-Patt, later of Grange Hill, who later recalled just having fun on the river-bank while making the film – seeing the finished version was apparently an enormous shock for him.) Eventually, one drowning child is helped to safety by two of his wiser peers. (‘Sensible children!’ snarls Pleasence. ‘I have no power over them!’) With the spirit thus exorcised, its robes are thrown in the river, though it still gets to make its famous, echoing promise – ‘I’ll be back!’

Even the director was astonished by how full-on the horror elements of the Lonely Water script were, and the execution of the film does nothing to tone them down (Pleasence is not pulling his punches in the voice-over, either). This film has become something of a legend amongst those who saw it when it was new. There are stories, possibly apocryphal, that Lonely Water didn’t just reduce the number of accidental deaths by drowning, it actually made some children reluctant to go swimming at all, no matter in what situation. Whether that counts as the film just being too effective at its job, I don’t know: but even today it’s still remarkably accomplished artistically for what’s basically just a public information film.

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‘We saw this film and thought of you. We figured you’d appreciate it,’ said a friend of mine, perhaps conscious of the fact that it’s been tricky to track down and watch interesting movies recently. This, of course, is the sort of moment which reveals all sorts of profound things: what someone’s assessment of you is like, as well as what their true character is (perhaps). It’s probably just as well that he took pains to explain just how he came across such a deservedly obscure oddity as Burgess Meredith’s The Yin and the Yang of Mr Go (he’s been reading Meredith’s autobiography), and probably equally fortunate that he didn’t go into too much detail as to why it put them in mind of your correspondent.

The background to this movie is probably more interesting (and certainly more coherent) than the story itself, but let’s get the plot synopsis out of the way first, as it should give you a flavour of just how weird this movie is. It opens with Burgess Meredith performing acupuncture on James Mason, while the two of them spout cod-thriller dialogue at each other (apparently someone has paid Meredith to conspire in Mason’s murder, and now he wants Mason to pay him even more not to, or something). After a few minutes you realise that both of them are actually supposed to be Chinese, not that either of them is doing much more than wearing Chinese-style clothing (either that or the dreadful film quality doesn’t show the yellowface make-up).

With this out of the way, we get the opening credits and a prefatory voice-over delivered (and here a degree of self-bracing would be advisable) by Buddha. Yes, that Buddha. Apparently every fifty years the Buddha likes to amuse himself by using the power of his third eye to reverse the essential character of a human being (which means we must be due another one of these, and let’s face it – we’re not short of promising subjects at the moment).

For the time being, though, James Mason’s Mr Yin Yang Go is just another Asiatic supervillain – although the script does make it clear that he is actually Chinese-Mexican, which Mason subtly indicates by playing him with the same British accent he brought to pretty much every film he ever made. Based in Hong Kong, Mr Go is trying to get the plans for a new missile system out of captured American scientist Bannister (Peter Lind Hayes), and when just bribing him doesn’t work, he is forced to find a new approach.

This involves recruiting American draft-dodger and aspiring writer Nero Finnegan (Jeff Bridges), and paying him a large sum of money to engage in some rather surprising and intimate activities on film with Bannister, so Bannister can be blackmailed by Go. But CIA agent Leo Zimmerman (Jack MacGowran) is looking for Bannister and Mr Go as well, and – pretending to be a publisher with a James Joyce fixation – takes Finnegan out on the town in the hope of finding some clues. Things proceed in this vein – Zimmerman chasing Go, with Finnegan and his girlfriend (Irene Tsu) caught in the middle – for quite some time, until Go and Finnegan find themselves fleeing the CIA in a helicopter.

At this point the Buddha unleashes the power of his third eye on Mr Go (I am honestly not making this up), and rather than a callous power-broker, Go becomes a philanthropist, determined to help the world. He fakes his own death, puts on a ridiculous disguise, and sets about becoming a force for good…

As noted, the background to this movie is pertinent and, to say the least, curious: a product of the fag-end of the sixties, it was filmed on location in Hong Kong, directed by Burgess Meredith from a script he wrote himself. If nothing else Meredith proved himself to be an astute spotter of talent, or at least very lucky, by casting a young Bridges (credited as ‘Jeffrey Bridges’) in one of his earliest roles. They, together with nominal star James Mason, apparently had a (literally) high old time while making the film, partaking liberally of the local herbal tobacco, especially during the lengthy breaks in filming occasioned whenever the budget ran out.

Eventually – if you believe some of the folklore surrounding this film, anyway – the producer literally stole the footage of the incomplete film and decamped to America, leaving a disconsolate Meredith to pay everybody’s hotel and bar bills. According to Jeff Bridges, at least, most of the participants assumed the film was lost, until Bridges came across it listed in a directory of films available to hire fifteen or twenty years later: the producer had shot some linking footage with Broderick Crawford – who, in the time-honoured fashion, does not share the screen with any of the main actors – and cobbled something together out of the rushes. Bridges and Burgess apparently watched the resultant monstrosity together with a mixture of disbelief and hilarity.

Knowing all of the foregoing does not make The Yin and the Yang of Mr Go any more coherent or less exasperating to watch, but I can promise you that all of the behind-the-scenes shenanigans clearly inform what ended up on screen. The film’s poster (which, by the way, actually manages to get the name of it wrong) promises that it ‘will make you think of Dr No‘. I can reveal that it did not make me think of Dr No. It did, however, give me a very good idea of what it must be like to accidentally take mind-altering drugs while in the mid of a flu-induced fever dream. The rambling, disconnected narrative – what look like important scenes of exposition play out with the actors muted and sub-Bacharach easy listening tunes blasting out, presumably because someone lost the actual soundtrack – is coupled to the most primitive production values imaginable: on some level this is technically an exploitation film (there’s enough gratuitous nudity from the female extras), but the utter shoddiness of the filming and sound make the experience of watching this feel rather like watching (or so I would imagine) pornography with all the sex edited out.

I know I am on record as actually quite liking weird and obscure old films, especially one which may be a bit questionable by conventional critical standards. But the thing about most of these odd old films is that they are at least marginally functional in a couple of departments – they have competent cameramen and sound recordists, and the plot makes a vague sort of sense. None of this is true of The Yin and the Yang of Mr Go. People on YouTube make more competent films than this nowadays using a phone. It has a certain gobsmack value – every time you think it can’t get any stranger, it reliably does – but beyond that it’s really hard work. (And I realise I haven’t even mentioned the fact that Meredith and Mason are both playing Chinese characters. This film has much more serious problems than that, believe it or not.)

I have long enjoyed Burgess Meredith’s work as an actor, in Batman and The Twilight Zone, Rocky and Torture Garden, and in many other venues. He is never less than very watchable in any of them. But as a writer and director, on this evidence he almost makes Madonna look like Leni Riefenstahl. Watching it was an eye-opening and possibly mind-expanding experience, but not exactly pleasurable in the sense it is generally understood. Feel free to check it out for yourself (it’s available to view for free in at least two dark nooks of the internet) but bear in mind that no-one will give you a medal for watching it, no matter how much you may feel you deserve one.

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