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Posts Tagged ‘1970s’

Never a sniff of Tiptoes, as it turned out. Hey ho. It has been a pleasant five or six years with Lovefilm, though, and it would be remiss of me to be too harsh on the service for its persistent failure to provide one particular probably-dreadful dwarf-themed Matthew McConnaughey rom-com. To the end, the mechanics of how the company decided what discs it was going to send me remained obscure – was it ever anything more than a form of eeny-meeny-miney-mo? I expect I shall never know. It’s hard to discern any particular significance to the final disc that was sent to me, fine and welcome though it is: Billy Wilder’s 1970 film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

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As is fairly well-known in interested circles, the version of this film which is generally available includes only a portion of Wilder’s original ideas for it – the initial intention was to make almost an anthology, with four linked stories casting Baker Street’s most famous residents in a different light. Two of the stories were removed at the insistence of the studio (what remains of them are available as additional material), meaning that what remains is a little curious in its structure, to say the least.

The film, naturally, concerns various exploits of Sherlock Holmes (Robert Stephens) and his faithful amanuensis Dr Watson (Colin Blakely). Initially we find them between cases, with Holmes contending with the depression inactivity always brings on in him, and Watson trying to dissuade him from his cocaine habit. Then they are invited to the ballet, where the prima ballerina has a rather eye-opening proposition to make to Holmes. His delicate attempts to evade the entanglement which she has in mind end up seriously annoying Watson. Almost wholly played for laughs, this is indeed a very funny segment, although rather politically incorrect by modern standards (there are many jokes about gay ballet dancers). Plus, it poses the question at the centre of the film: what kind of personal life does Sherlock Holmes have? Is he even capable of an emotional involvement with a woman?

This is developed in the rest of the film, all of which concerns a single, rather peculiar case which Holmes finds himself involved in, albeit unwillingly to begin with. A young woman (Genevieve Page) is delivered to 221B Baker Street late one night, having been fished out of the Thames. The only real clue is that she has Holmes’ address on a scrap of card in her hand.

It transpires that she is Gabrielle Valladon, a Belgium woman whose engineer husband has gone missing somewhere in Britain. Initially reluctant, Holmes finds the case has enough unusual features to pique his interest, the trail taking them to the Diogenes Club and his brother Mycroft (Christopher Lee), and then on to the shores of Loch Ness, while also including a mysterious party of Trappist monks, bleached canaries, the Book of Jonah, and, if not a midget submarine, then certainly a submarine for midgets…

The story is undeniably rather bizarre, but not very much more so than many Conan Doyle tales, and I suppose the key qustion must be whether this is intended as a spoof Sherlock or simply a pastiche. Much of the film is played somewhat tongue-in-cheek, of course, but it is less broad than, for example, Thom Eberhardt’s Without a Clue (my research has just turned up the news that Judd Apatow is doing a funny Sherlock Holmes with Will Ferrell: oh, God), and it has a rather wistful, melancholy quality which is not what you’d expect from a straightforwardly comic film. The movie is somewhat impertinent towards some elements of the canon, but affectionately so, and in the end I would say this was much more a pastiche than anything else.

Certainly, Mark Gatiss and the Unmentionable One, creators of the great Sherlock Holmes pastiche of our day, have spoken openly of the influence of Private Life on their own version of the Great Detective, especially with respect to its presentation of Mycroft Holmes as some kind of spymaster. You could even suggest that Gatiss’ own performance as Mycroft is basically his interpretation of that given by Christopher Lee in this film.

It is traditional to suggest that Robert Stephens gives us a rather theatrical Sherlock in this film, and this is true: none the worse for that, of course, I would say. He’s a rather good one-shot Sherlock, and the same is true of Colin Blakely as Watson; Blakely plays the part for laughs when it’s called for, but also keeps the character grounded and credible in the film’s more dramatic moments.

As well as a piece of Sherlockiana, of course, the film also seems to me to have a curious place in the cultural history of the Loch Ness Monster. Most famously, one of the Monster props made for the film sank to the bottom of the loch and was only rediscovered in 2016, briefly causing a degree of excitement amongst monster hunters. However, the film also presents the monster phenomenon as being well-known in the 1880s, with various characters making reference to it as an established mystery. This, of course, was not the case, with the Loch Ness monster legend only acquiring currency in the early 1930s (very shortly after the release of King Kong, indicatively enough) – the film gives the impression of a lengthy history of monster sightings prior to the 20th century, for which there is no real evidence, and so you could argue it has contributed to the perpetuation of this charming myth. It’s hardly grounds to criticise the film, either way.

This is a lavish, charming, funny film, and not without grace notes of darkness and melacnholy, as noted. Most of these one-shot Sherlock Holmes seem to vanish without much of a trace, with only the film and TV series seeming to linger in the memory – Rathbone, Cushing, Brett, Downey Jr, Cumberbatch. That this one has not, quite, may be a result of what a singularly unusual take on the Great Detective it presents, but it also surely has something to do with the overall quality of a superior movie.

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I’ve thought for a long time that there’s nothing more comical than a botched attempt at a horror movie, and few things more guaranteed to chill the soul than an inept comedy film. By this logic, then, comedy-horror films are particularly odd beasts, because you have to get both things right, and in the appropriate places, too. Film-makers who attempt to hedge their bets by putting a few funny bits in what’s supposed to be a horror movie are taking a big risk, and when they come a cropper it is frequently spectacular.

On the other hand, when it works, the results are often something quite distinctive, which sort of brings us to the case of Robert Fuest’s 1972 film Dr Phibes Rises Again, a sequel (rather self-evidently) to the previous year’s The Abominable Dr Phibes. Wikipedia lists this movie as a horror film, plain and simple; the IMDB takes a more cautious position and pegs it as ‘comedy, horror’. None of this really does the peculiar tone of the movie justice.

We open with a brief recap of the first film, and the murderous revenge-spree undertaken by the insane genius Dr Anton Phibes (Vincent Price, obviously) – theologian, organist, inventor, and general man of many parts – against the doctors he blamed for the death of his wife (Caroline Munro, not doing a great deal). The film concluded with Phibes eluding the police and putting himself into suspended animation alongside his wife, in preparation for the hour of his return.

And, of course, said hour has now come. The sequel opens with Phibes rising from his sarcophagus, and – just to get things off on the right foot – he proceeds to do a little light dusting around his crypt, before rattling off a few organ arpeggios. As you would. From somewhere or other he summons his glamorous assistant Vulnavia (Valli Kemp, this time around), his plan being to use an ancient map in his possession to find the River of Life which runs through the basement of a secluded Egyptian temple. The River of Life will apparently resurrect Mrs Phibes and give the pair of them eternal life (whether it will allow Dr Phibes to grow a new face is not made clear). However – zounds! – in the years since the first film, Dr Phibes’ house has been demolished and the map stolen.

Luckily the doc knows exactly who would be in the market for a relic like that: Darius Biederbeck (hmm, like that’s a real name), played by Robert Quarry. Biederbeck is also searching for the River of Life – it eventually transpires that he has managed to enormously extend his own life by (presumably) alchemical means, but his means of doing this are almost exhausted. He will soon be departing from London for Egypt, where he will lead an archaeological dig to the hidden temple.

Well, Dr Phibes steals the map back, killing Biederbeck’s servant in the process (lest you think the film has adopted too quotidian a tone, he does so using a basketful of clockwork snakes and a trick telephone), and everyone departs for the valley of the Nile (which is played by southern Spain), with Phibes and Vulnavia leaving a trail of bizarre killings behind them. The police eventually cotton on to the fact that Dr Phibes is back in action, and top detectives/idiots Waverly (John Cater) and Trout (Peter Jeffrey) are dispatched in pursuit.

You could argue with some merit that many of these early-seventies Vincent Price movies are basically just strings of set pieces held together by rather basic plots – watching The Abominable Dr Phibes or Theatre of Blood, it quickly becomes apparent that these movies are about Price having a hit list of victims, which he is going to work his way down in his inimitably outlandish style. Dr Phibes Rises Again does depart from this formula, but only to the extent that Price has another agenda, and just ends up killing people who get in his way. (New characters are written in solely to facilitate the set pieces – John Thaw turns up, gets savaged to death by Phibes’ pet eagle, and is barely mentioned again after the one sequence he appears in.) It is, I suppose, a little more plot-driven, but that would give the impression that the plot, or indeed the film, actually makes sense as a conventional, naturalistic narrative. It does not – and lest that sound like a criticism, I think it was never really intended to, nor is this particularly a problem.

Unlike the first film, the sequel does appear to include a genuine element of mysticism or the supernatural, in that Biederbeck does seem to have achieved a degree of immortality, but even without this, nothing about this film is remotely credible. It’s almost like a rather gory cartoon in which the laws of physics themselves have been suspended for the duration: not only is Phibes able to booby-trap the dashboard of someone’s car so they are sandblasted to a skeleton while driving along, he manages to do so in about five minutes flat. It would be ridiculous if it weren’t all so knowing and tongue-in-cheek: the Price horror movies of this period come closer than most to managing to be funny and scary at exactly the same moment.

That said, while Price and the returning cast members all seem to be in on the joke, some of the others aren’t, which can be problematic. Peter Cushing turns up for one scene (he is credited as a ‘guest star’), which he plays entirely straight; the part isn’t really worthy of him. Interesting to imagine what would have happened if he’d played Biederbeck instead – Robert Quarry had recently appeared in the bad-but-influential Count Yorga movies and was apparently being groomed as a new horror star by AIP, but isn’t remotely in Vincent Price’s league. (Legend has it the two had an acrimonious relationship – when Price came upon Quarry singing in his dressing room, Quarry said ‘You didn’t know I could sing, did you?’, to which Price replied ‘Well, I knew you couldn’t act.’) About the best thing you can say about Quarry’s performance in this film is that he is not actively bad.

Biederbeck is written as such an odd character, and performed so flatly, that it’s hard to tell if he’s genuinely meant to be the hero of the movie or not. As it is, you end up – well, not quite rooting for Phibes, but certainly wanting to see more of him and the ridiculous costumes and death-traps and other gadgets that invariably surround him. There’s a sort of cheery amorality about every aspect of this story, certainly no sense of moral outrage – every death is there to be enjoyed. The ending, with Phibes seemingly triumphant, Biederbeck defeated, and Price giving us a technically anachronistic rendition of ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ as he vanishes into shadow, doesn’t feel downbeat or a case of evil ascendant. But then this movie is not much concerned with good or evil, just with its own peculiar style. Perhaps it’s better to consider this film as a collection of individual moments, intended to amuse and distract, rather than as any kind of plausible story. As such, Dr Phibes Rises Again is rather entertaining, always assuming you are on its wavelength.

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The business of proper big-screen revivals of classic movies can be a funny old thing sometimes. It’s quite normal for the two slightly art-housey cinemas in my area to regularly show something like The Graduate or West Side Story of a Sunday afternoon, the main selection criterion seeming to be that the film is just old and good. In terms of an old movie getting a more general showing, well, having a major anniversary certainly seems to help. Even so, things are often not quite as one would expect: if you’d asked me which blockbuster Hugo-nominated fantasy film would be getting a spruced-up revival for its fortieth birthday in 2017, my first guess would not have been Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

(Then again – and I hope you will forgive the digression – there is always something slightly nostalgic about a revival, and I get the impression that nostalgia is only allowed near the stellar conflict franchise nowadays under strictly controlled conditions. To do otherwise might end up suggesting that there was something genuinely magical and innovative about those first couple of films, while the current sequence are just machine-tooled product. Other opinions are, of course, available.)

Close Encounters, directed and (in theory – many hands were involved) written by Steven Spielberg, is one of those movies which has shifted into the cultural background somewhat over the years, no doubt as a result of its ideas, themes, and images being so extensively reworked in other venues. Long before seeing the actual movie, I remember watching the parody of it on The Goodies (Bill Oddie, in a Superman costume, playing a trombone duet with an alien spacecraft), and not being at all confused by the various references. Hard to imagine The X-Files without Close Encounters; impossible to imagine E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial at all, for obvious reasons.

The film opens on a black screen, over which an unsettling wail of white noise rises, before a smash cut to the heart of a sandstorm. One group of the film’s protagonists emerges from this: Lacombe (Francois Truffaut), a French scientist, who meets a group of American colleagues. Together they make a disturbing discovery: a flight of torpedo-bombers has been deposited in the Mexican desert. The planes seem to be a squadron that disappeared off the coast of Florida in 1945, but they appear to be brand new, as though thirty years has not happened. A witness speaks of the sun rising in the middle of the night and singing.

More strange phenomena occur over Indiana: strange lights in the sky are reported by airline pilots. A blackout spreads across the countryside. Electrical engineer Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) leaves the domestic chaos of his home in an attempt to track down the source of the power cut – he is an ordinary guy, a little harassed, but generally happy in his life. Then something happens to him on a lonely country road in the middle of the night that changes everything. He encounters a UFO, which wreaks havoc with his truck and gives him severe sunburn before heading off. Neary goes in pursuit, encountering others who have had similar experiences. Amongst these are Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon) and her infant son, who were visited in their home by an unseen presence. A flight of several UFOs swoops by, hotly pursued by the cops. Neary’s world has been transformed.

From here the movie follows both Lacombe and Neary. Lacombe is a scientist, following a trail of evidence: long-since-disappeared ships return, in rather improbable locations. From India there come reports of strange noises from the sky. Signals are received from deep space, providing map co-ordinates. Government preparations are made. Something is coming to Earth.

Meanwhile, Roy and the other eye-witnesses are struggling to make sense of their own experiences. They find themselves compelled to draw or sculpt a particular mountain. A particular five-note sequence of music has mysteriously lodged itself in their brains. Roy’s newfound obsessions cost him his job, and eventually drive his family away. He is irresistibly drawn to the mountain from his dream – as Lacombe observes, Roy has been invited to a very special occasion…

Close Encounters is part of that sequence of early movies which established Spielberg as probably the most famous and financially successful director in the world – Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T.. (Rather more obscure is his 1979 knockabout comedy film 1941, which was less successful but which I find very hard to dislike. Apparently the experience burned Spielberg when it came to doing pure comedy, which is a shame, as legend has it his next project was going to be, almost unbelievably, a big-screen blockbuster movie version of The Goodies. Strange how all these things link up together in different combinations.) Of all of them, Close Encounters is the one which has slipped furthest from the public consciousness, perhaps in part because it hasn’t been sequelised or exploited to death, and also because it has to some extent been eclipsed by E.T..

The similarities between the two are obvious – the relationship between Neary and Lacombe clearly parallels that of Elliot and Keys in the latter film, which had its earliest origins as a Close Encounters follow-up – but it seems to me that Close Encounters is a rather subtler and more thoughtful film, in addition to being less sentimental and cutesy. It feels much more of a piece with other films being made in America in the mid-to-late 1970s, when the country was still trying to process the tarnishing of the government in the Watergate affair and the implications of the conclusion of the Vietnam War. People were looking for something that would allow them a chance to escape, and perhaps even give them something to believe in, and it seems significant to me that so many of these late 70s and early 80s films conclude with an explicit act of faith on the part of the protagonist – switching off a targeting computer and relying on instinct, or averting their eyes from the wrath of God. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is perhaps the fullest realisation of this theme of all of these films, for it is surely primarily about the finding and following of faith.

I find it now a little ironic that my parents are fond of declaring that E.T. is actually some form of Christian allegory (they said the same about the first stellar conflict movie for a while, if memory serves) – for one thing, Spielberg is not exactly noted for his Christian background. But Close Encounters does have that spine-tingling sense of human beings coming into contact with the deeper mysteries of the universe, and so often the imagery used is religious: there are signs and portents in the sky. A ship appears, ark-like, in the middle of dry land. When John Williams’ famous five-note motif first appears, it is as a mantra, endlessly chanted by what appears to be a choir of Indian mystics. At one point Roy Neary demands of the sky what all of this means.

Neary’s story itself practically qualifies as a conversion narrative: he’s an Everyman, transformed into a true believer by a chance encounter. From this moment on he finds he has no other choice than to follow his new faith, despite the efforts of friends and the authorities to dissuade or convince him otherwise. He loses his job, and his wife and family leave him too (the movie is perhaps a little hard on Neary’s wife, played by Teri Garr). But he presses on, makes his pilgrimage, and in the end it appears to be him, the true believer, who is chosen ahead of all the government-approved candidates to be taken up into the heavens by otherworldly forces. (The sensation is presumably one of pure rapture.) Spielberg has said that he now finds it unimaginable that Neary could abandon his children and go off into space, but in the context of the movie, and given its theme, it would feel very strange if he didn’t: the movie is about shedding those kinds of Earthly connections in favour of the spiritual kind.

That said, it’s not a cosy or sentimental spirituality: Close Encounters‘ aliens may be otherworldly, but they are also enigmatic and strange, and often frightening as a result – the visitation of alien forces on Jillian in her home is a genuinely frightening sequence, rather at odds with the rest of the movie. (Almost enough to make one regret the fact that Spielberg hasn’t really directed a horror movie since Jaws; one imagines it would be utterly terrifying.) There is a real sense of the unknown and perhaps unknowable touching life on Earth.

Perhaps this is rather odd material for an SF movie, then: but then I suppose this is a case of a film being declared SF simply because it isn’t obviously anything else, and besides, it has aliens in it. (It’s noteworthy how rare in-the-flesh aliens are in ‘serious’ SF movies prior to 1977, also this movie’s role in creating the assumption of friendly alien life which would persist until Independence Day once again inverted the stereotype.) Science fiction and ufology are distant cousins, I suppose, but no more than that, simply because ufology is only marginally science (it’s still more respectable than Bermuda Triangle lore, which is also touched on in this movie). While there’s obviously something going on with the UFO phenomenon, I doubt it admits to a single, simple solution, and not the one suggested by Spielberg here – but as I’ve suggested, the UFO element of the story is simply a metaphor that allows Spielberg to talk about something else. (Slightly ironic, then, that the 40th anniversary showing I attended was followed by a serious talk by a couple of university professors about the prospects of intelligent life in the universe and our chances of communicating with it.)

Spielberg’s casual mastery of cinema is already well-developed in this movie, which includes several of his most memorable bits of legerdemain – the moment where the lights in Neary’s rear-view reveal themselves to be not headlights, but something rather more exotic, for one, and the one where a TV set in the foreground flashes up an image replicating the vast sculpture dominating the room behind it, for another. He also manages to keep a film which could easily have become a bit airy and earnest grounded and accessible, inserting many bits of humour and action. Not that he gets everything completely right – quite apart from the handling of Mrs Neary, one is struck by the sheer number of people (virtually all men) at the Devil’s Tower arena who seem to have nothing to do but stand around looking on in awe: spectacle trumps logic here, I suppose. Fairly prominent in the crowd is a young Lance Henriksen – there’s a guy with an interesting CV – and also J Allen Hynek, the formulator of the ‘close encounters’ scale (which never gets elaborated upon in the actual movie, oddly enough).

The late 1970s and early 1980s have left us with a lot of significant SF and fantasy movies, not all of which get the attention they deserve. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is probably the least action-adventure oriented of all of them, and the least escapist (as escapism is generally understood, anyway). It’s also much more obviously a film about personal themes, but one which handles them in a very accessible way. That it manages all this while still looking very much like a modern special-effects blockbuster is by no means the least of its achievements. Probably not Steven Spielberg’s best film, perhaps not even the best of his early films – but still a significant one, and worth remembering. Good to see it back on the big screen.

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If we’re going to head off the beaten track, cinematically speaking, it occurs to me that Bollywood movies and the like are really just a first step. There are lots of much weirder, more startling films out there in the world, as I discovered at quite a young age – you can imagine the astonishment which resulted when I first encountered masked Mexican wrestling horror movies, for instance. The problem, such as it is, is that some of these foreign treasures are just a bit too strange to be really accessible to a western viewer. Striking some kind of balance between being recognisable and having the sheer utter capacity to smack gobs is the twilight world of Turksploitation movies.

You what? is a perfectly reasonable response. I speak of the charming Turkish habit, in years gone by, of taking popular American blockbusters and doing a local remake, without bothering with trivial little things like the legal rights to characters and stories. Needless to say, these films were often cobbled together on tiny budgets, using performers highly unlikely to ever get the call from Hollywood. And yet they sometimes have an exuberant charm of their own, as well as a entertainment value born of their sheer crudeness.

As a case in point, let us consider Süpermen Dönüyor (aka The Return of Superman), a fairly representative Turksploitation movie, made in 1979 by (stop sniggering at the back) Kunt Tulgar. I suppose the closest thing to this kind of film being made today are the ‘mockbusters’ plopped out by The Asylum, the crucial difference being that Asylum movies are carefully tweaked to avoid lawsuits – I speak here of the likes of Snakes on a Train, Transmorphers, and Sunday School Musical – whereas the Turkish films just totally ignore the dubious legalities involved.

We open in deep space, which is realised using a selection of Christmas tree ornaments on a black blanket, while a voice-over fills us in the history of planet Krypton (which closely resembles one of those shiny bauble thingies). The title card with the Superman S-shield on it appears (apparently painted by an eight-year-old), while John Williams’ famous fanfare plays. Then abruptly the music changes to something with more of the flavour of the souk about it while the rest of the credits roll.

With all this out of the way, we meet Tayfun (Tayfun Demir), a young man in a pair of Elton John’s old specs, who is just about to start making his way in the world when he receives a shocking revelation from his parents – he is adopted! Apparently they found a ‘rocket-like machine’ in the garden one day, with him inside, along with a sort of greeny-grey rock. Tayfun takes this extraordinary news with superhuman stoicism (either that or he’s a terrible actor – hmm…) and sets off to follow his destiny. This turns out to be to go into a cave, where he is confronted by the ghost of his father, Superman, leader of the planet Krypton, a world of supremely advanced science in all areas but dentistry (judging from the state of Superman’s mouth, anyway). Tayfun is to carry on the legacy of Krypton by being the new Superman of Earth, using his special superhuman powers in a surprisingly low-key and cost-effective manner.

Having learned all this, and adopted the traditional red-and-blue uniform (possibly the most impressive and expensive-looking thing in the movie), Superman flies off in search of adventure, and also to get a job. The scenes of our hero in flight are realised by – well, not to put to fine a point on it, sticking a doll in front of back-projected helicopter shots of famous Turkish landmarks. The results are breathtaking, one way or another.

Tayfun lands a job at what seems to be an extremely small Turkish newspaper (there only appear to be three other people on the staff), just in time for the plot proper to kick in – The Return of Superman is a (some would say blessedly) brief 68 minutes long, so there’s less of the hanging about you get in the Richard Donner version. Scientists have discovered the mystical ‘Krypton stone’, which will either provide an unlimited supply of cheap, clean energy (seriously, given this is a maguffin in so many superhero movies nowadays, The Return of Superman is way ahead of the curve here), or allow unscrupulous types to transform base substances into gold and get rich quick.

Any tiny remnants of credulity left in the audience will be cruelly squished when it turns out that that the professor in charge of investigating the Krypton stone is the father of Alev (Gungor Bayrak), Tayfun’s co-worker and love interest. Cue many opportunities for Alev to be menaced and repeatedly kidnapped by the mob as they attempt to get their hands on the Krypton stone, and for Superman to race to her rescue in his understated Turkish way (faced with a runaway truck, for instance, Turkish Superman does not plant himself in its path or grab it and bring it to a halt, he climbs in through the cab door and steps on the brakes – not exactly spectacular, but it saves on special effects).

In the end the villains are defeated, Tayfun has revealed his secret identity to the smitten Alev, and everyone asks if Superman will stick around to fight for truth, justice, and the Turkish way. No, he announces: he’s off to look for Krypton, which he lost ‘seven light years ago’ (according to the English subtitled version, anyway).  The End – and it certainly feels like it.

As an unauthorised foreign language rip-off, I expect it goes without saying that The Return of Superman is a terrible, terrible movie by any rational standard – the acting is awful, the subtitled dialogue is awful, the direction and editing are awful, and the special effects are awful. Normally I might even have some strong words to say about the dubious ethicality of this kind of undertaking, but given that DC Comics’ own treatment of Superman’s creators was hardly exemplary, I’m inclined to give them a pass. But seriously – is there any reason to spend an hour of your life actually watching this?

Well, for the first few minutes at least, the sheer primitive incompetence of The Return of Superman makes it utterly hilarious to watch, but one becomes habituated to this with surprising speed, and only particularly striking moments really register: for instance, Superman’s suggestion to the professor upon rescuing him is ‘There’s a car outside – run away with it!’ There’s also a wholly tonally wrong sequence in which Tayfun uses his x-ray vision to check out a passing woman’s underwear – although I should say that, on the whole, this movie’s depiction of Superman is at least as authentic as that of the average Zach Snyder movie – while Superman does appear to kill a guy at one point, the actor reappears five minutes later, but this may just be down to the awful continuity. It’s not like he goes around wantonly snapping necks or allowing himself to be manipulated into picking stupid fights with people, anyway.

Probably the most fun to be had while watching The Return of Superman comes from playing Name that Tune. The makers of this movie clearly realised the importance of music to a proper cinematic experience, but couldn’t afford an original soundtrack for their film. So (and you may be ahead of me here) they went away and nicked bits from various popular American and British films and TV series. Quite apart from the 1978 Superman (of course), unwitting donors to this movie’s (un)original soundtrack include From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, You Only Live Twice, Westworld, and Space: 1999.

It is frequently laughable, especially when the music is slapped on randomly over a wholly inappropriate moment (one of John Williams’ more up-tempo action cues accompanies a bafflingly long and entirely dialogue-free scene depicting Tayfun packing his suitcase). But in other places you are reminded of just how important a good soundtrack can be to the success of a movie – moments which should be absurd actually acquire a vestige of emotional or dramatic value when the film-makers get their act together and dub the right piece of music over the top of their tosh.

For this reason, if no other, I find it a little hard to dismiss The Return of Superman quite as comprehensively as it probably deserves: the people who made it may have been an underfunded bunch of pirates, but they do appear to have had a genuine affection for and understanding of both Superman and cinema, and that makes up for a lot. Not enough to make this film any more than a bizarre and deservedly obscure oddity (it’s currently available to view on YouTube, if you really must), but if it teaches us anything, it’s that sometimes you just have to make do with what you’ve got.

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Well, let’s boldly launch ourselves into a new occasional feature which I have decided to entitle Flaunt Your Ignorance, in which I go rather off the beaten track of new films of all kinds and old (mostly) genre movies, and plunge into areas of cinema with which I am not nearly as familiar as I occasionally affect to be. I can speak at quite nauseating length about the defining characteristics and charms of the British portmanteau horror movie, as we saw just the other day, but there are great swathes of the cinematic landscape with which I am only very vaguely familiar. Continental European cinema, for instance, is a bit of a closed book to me; as are most Asian films not concerned with martial arts, samurai, or towering monsters. The best I can do is drop the names of directors like Fellini, Yasujiro Ozu, and Satyajit Ray in an attempt to obscure my own lack of knowledge.

I am pretty sure this is just not acceptable. However, with the Phoenix in Oxford being closed for renovation yet again (fingers crossed they finally get the rake in Screen Two right), I have been looking slightly further afield than usual for movies to watch on a weekend afternoon, and it turned out the rather-optimistically-named Ultimate Picture Palace was showing a revival of Ray’s The Chess Players (original title: Shatranj Ke Khilari), from 1977. Now, all I could definitely have told you about Ray’s work prior to this is that he made some films about someone called Apu (perhaps buried somewhere in my subconscious was the fact he claimed E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was ripped-off from one of his unmade scripts), but I did know he is acclaimed as one of the world masters of cinema. So along I went.

The film is set in India in 1856. The Muslim state of Oudh (also known as Awadh) has managed to hang onto its independence, despite the dominance in sub-continental affairs of the British East India Company (at this point in history the British government were effectively sub-contracting the running of much of their empire). However, this is about to change, with the local Resident, General Outram (Richard Attenborough), affecting to be so unimpressed by the devout yet hedonistic king of Oudh, Wajid Ali Shah (Amjad Khan), that he concludes the only responsible thing to do is for the Company to take over the running of the state. Cue much power-politics and many barely-disguised threats of the might of the British army.

Running parallel to all this, on the other hand, is the story of Mir (Saeed Jaffrey) and Mirza (Sanjeev Kumar), two well-off gents who have allowed themselves to become obsessed with playing each other at chess (strictly speaking, shatranj, an ancestral form of the game native to India). The two men play each other all day long, oblivious to everything else around them – Mirza’s wife feels so neglected she hides his chess pieces, while Mir’s spouse encourages his fixation, as it allows her to play about with another man. Neither of them notices the looming political crisis until it is much too late…

Well, here’s the thing: Anglo-Indian relations have left a profound mark on British culture, which is reflected in the fact that we can’t seem to stop making films about the country. Even now, multiplex cinemas are clogged up with Victoria and Abdul, a heartwarming tale of something-or-other which looks from the trailer to be rather like Downton Abbey with added turbans, while earlier this year there was Viceroy’s House, an equally soft-centred take on the partition of India. In recent years there have also been the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films, and of course Slumdog Millionaire. I would suggest that only the last of these offers anything resembling a genuinely Indian perspective, and it’s obviously a very contemporary film. So it’s interesting, to say the least, to see a film from an Indian director about the British occupation of his country.

The first thing to say about watching The Chess Players on the big screen is that allowances had to be made: the film is forty years old, it seemed rather like the print we were watching hailed from the late 1970s, too: it was grainy and scratched, with weirdly tinted sections and a slightly crackly soundtrack. It was rather curious to watch a film made in the old Academy aspect ratio, too. The danger, of course, is that all this stuff just gets in the way of the film.

However, this does not quite happen. This is quite a leisurely and thoughtful film, by modern standards anyway, but never too dry or heavy to be watchable. Ray balances the two elements of the storyline well, so that any contrasts of tone are minimal – the story of Mir and Mirza is often played as a gentle comedy, to begin with at least, while the storyline about Oudram and the King is much more serious, and even somewhat tragic. Richard Attenborough, who you might expect to be at least a little out of his comfort zone, is quite as good as you might expect as one of the British imperialists who seems to genuinely believe in the morality of taking over other countries for their own good. Some of the king’s scenes, in which he bewails his lot and (almost literally) beats his breast about his misfortunes, go on a bit, but there is also some singing and dancing here, and no-one does a musical interlude quite like Indian film-makers do.

It’s also notable that the political storyline features a British officer who has learned to speak fluent Urdu and is clearly well-versed in local arts and poetry – it’s also implied he is considered a little suspect for being rather too fond of the local culture, and not loyal enough to the Company. The Chess Players is not soft on the British, being quite clear about the unprincipled avarice which led to imperial dominance in India, but it reserves most of its criticism for the local nobility who sat back and let it happen. This is the central metaphor and irony of the film – Mir and Mirza aspire to be great generals and tacticians, but are so consumed by this that they end up being worse than useless in the actual political struggle going on around them. British control of India, the film seems to suggest, was to at least some extent a shameful self-inflicted wound. (The film concludes symbolically, with Mir and Mirza abandoning shatranj in favour of traditional European chess, in which – of course – the queen is dominant.)

It’s hard to imagine a film by a British director based around such a message, but then it’s almost impossible to imagine a British director making a film about the circumstances in which we ended up running India: it’s one of those things that mainstream culture in the UK is almost too ashamed to talk about. This is an interesting and quietly entertaining take on the topic, and one I’m glad I saw, even if it isn’t your stereotypical Bollywood movie. Hmm: I should think about seeing one of those as well, I suppose…

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So, just recently I was writing about the vital contribution to my education which was made by the main commercial channel’s tendency to show endless old genre movies in the middle of the night, back when I was a teenager. Doesn’t happen these days, of course: even old movies are now too expensive, given there are a dozen other channels in the market for content, so the wee small hours are the domain of rip-off phone-in competitions and ultra-cheap home-grown repeats. And, as it happens, just the other day I was writing about the fractured dream-logic of a certain kind of horror movie. There is something oddly satisfying about the way these two themes combine in Freddie Francis’ 1972 film Tales from the Crypt.

Or should that be Milton Subotsky’s Tales from the Crypt? Subotsky is one of the (largely) unsung heroes of low-budget British genre movie-making of the 1960s and 1970s, most frequently through his company Amicus. Amongst other things, Subotsky oversaw the two 1960s movie adaptations of a famous BBC fantasy series the name of which I will not utter here, and the first few Trampas movies (the last one, Warlords of Atlantis, was the work of other hands). But if Subotsky left an indelible mark on the fabric of cinema, it is in the form of the portmanteau horror movies which he oversaw both at Amicus and elsewhere. He was not the first to make this kind of movie – I suspect that credit goes to Dead of Night, made in 1945, and widely credited as the best of the subgenre – but if you stumble across one of these, the chances are it’s one of Milton’s.

Subotsky was not the kind of man to mess with a successful formula, and it must be said that most of these films are rather samey, to the point where they all start to merge together in one’s head after a while. When an Amicus portmanteau comes on the TV, I have to take a moment to work out if this is the one with Fluff Freeman fighting the carnivorous vine, or Tom Baker misusing his voodoo paintbrush, or David Warner contending with a haunted mirror.

Tales from the Crypt is not any of these, in case you were wondering (oh, what delights remain as yet unconsidered by this blog). This one opens in classy style with a bit of Bach’s toccata and fugue on the organ and some shots of a cemetery. Geoffrey Bayldon, soon to appear as a homicidal psychiatrist in the next Amicus portmanteau, Asylum, plays a guide showing a group round the cemetery catacombs. Five of them get separated from the rest, and find themselves in, well, a crypt, with a robed and hooded figure (Ralph Richardson).

One thing about the moribund state of the British film industry in the 1970s, you got some heavyweight actors appearing in slightly suspect material. This is, as the title would indicate to the in-the-know, a fairly low-budget movie based on some disreputable American horror comics – a proper slab of schlock, not to put too fine a point on it. And yet it has Ralph Richardson, an actor from the same bracket as Laurence Olivier, Alec Guinness, and John Gielgud, and apparently taking it quite seriously. And he is not the only big name to appear.

Well, anyway, each of the five characters appears in their own short tale, revealed to them by the enigmatic Crypt Keeper. But is he showing them their future or their past?

First up is And All Through the House, featuring Joan Collins as an avaricious housewife who is unkind enough as to bash in her husband’s head on Christmas Eve, solely for his life insurance. (Best not to worry too much about finer details of character and motivation, to be perfectly honest.) However, no sooner is the deed done than the news is reporting that a homicidal lunatic has escaped from the local asylum and is on the loose, dressed in a Santa Claus outfit (well, of course). Sure enough, the psycho Santa is soon lurking in Joan’s garden, leaving her with the awkward problem of what to do – she can hardly call the police with her husband’s corpse still on the lounge floor…

Some effective jump scares in this one, I suppose, and it’s an especially camp segment of what’s a rather camp overall. The contrived plotting and particularly fake-looking fake blood (all the Kensington gore in this film is completely the wrong shade of red) just add to the fun, but it’s just as well this is the hors d’oeuvre in this particular collection.

Along next is Reflection of Death, an unusually short segment starring Ian Hendry as a man leaving his wife and children to be with his mistress (this is a sufficiently heinous crime to make you a marked man, and put you in line for spectacularly cruel and unusual punishment, in the odd cosmology of the Amicus portmanteaus). Well, they are driving off to their new life together when there is a car crash, and…

Well, the thing is that this one is so short and so insubstantial that it barely stands up to even a cursory review. If it were any longer it probably wouldn’t work at all – as it is, some slightly gimmicky direction and the re-employment of the ‘endless nightmare’ idea from Dead of Night just about keeps it afloat. You might wish for Ian Hendry to get some more substantial material, but you take what you’re given in this particular genre.

On next is Poetic Justice, in which a grasping, good-for-nothing, rich Tory bastard (Robin Phillips) schemes to ruin the life of a sweet old widowed bin-man (the legend that is Peter Cushing), having his numerous pet dogs taken away by court order, and spreading malicious rumours that, um, he’s a paedophile. What can I say, it was the 1970s, tastes were a bit different back then. Cushing is finally driven to suicide by a load of vindictive Valentine’s cards (the Tory bastard seems to have put an awful lot of effort into writing all the insulting doggerel involved), but his tormentors have failed to realise he has mystical connections beyond the grave. Or something. This is not really made very clear, but suffice to say, one year later, Cushing comes back…

Another textbook example of Peter Cushing deploying his powers to their full extent to lift some rather dubious material. There’s also the added poignancy of the recently-widowed Cushing taking on this role – I couldn’t help noticing that his character’s dead wife has the same name as Cushing’s own partner, and I’d be prepared to bet this wasn’t a coincidence. Sometimes you think you understand just how much this loss defined the last two decades of Peter Cushing’s life, and then sometimes you suspect it’s impossible to fully appreciate that.

Oh well. Onto Wish You Were Here, in which another ruthless Tory type (Richard Greene) finds himself financially embarrassed and on the verge of serious debt, at which point his wife discovers that a mysterious statuette they bought in the Far East has the power to grant three wishes. Any self-respecting viewer will at this point groan ‘Oh, no, not The Monkey’s Paw AGAIN,’ but the movie earns a degree of respect for having the characters also be aware of WW Jacobs’ famous cautionary tale and actively try to avoid making the same mistakes as their counterparts in the story. It doesn’t help them, of course, and the film earns bonus points to go with the respect, for finding inventive ways for their ill-considered wishes to screw them over.

And finally, Blind Alleys, in which yet another callous and greedy Tory type (I’ll say one thing for Tales from the Crypt, it may be campy schlock, but ideologically it’s completely sound) takes on the job of superintendent of an institution for the blind. As our man (played by Nigel Patrick) does not run the place in the most compassionate manner, resentment builds up amongst his charges, led by Patrick Magee (someone else who appears in Asylum). Suffice to say the assembled blind men prove unexpectedly good at DIY and a sticky end is on the cards for someone…

So, the guilty all get punished in suitably outlandish style, and all that remains is for the twist of the frame story to be revealed. I say ‘twist’, because another of the defining features of the Amicus portmanteaus is that the final twist is almost always the same, and hardly difficult to guess if you pay any attention whatsoever to what’s been going on in the film.

I really don’t know about Tales from the Crypt: by any objective standard, it’s really quite a bad movie, with silly stories, obvious twists, and unconvincing fake blood, lifted only a bit by the presence of some properly talented actors. The same could really be said for most of the other, similar films produced by Milton Subotsky. And yet it also manages to be quite marvellously entertaining. If 1970s British horror movies are not your thing, you should probably give it a very wide berth, but if they are – well, you probably already know what to expect. Hardly a great film, but – for some of us – great fun.

 

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And now for a little unfinished business. As frequent visitors may have noticed, I spent a few weeks earlier this year watching and writing about the BBC TV show Doomwatch, which ran on BBC1 from 1970 to 1972. It has never been repeated, despite its enormous success and popularity at the time, and received only a very limited VHS release in the 1990s. As someone interested in TV science fiction and fantasy, though, I was always vaguely aware of the Doomwatch name, enough to make a point of taping and watching the movie based on the show when it turned up on TV – I’m not sure when this actually happened, at some time in the late 1980s I suppose – the main UK commercial network had just gone 24-hour, turning the wee small hours of the night into a treasure trove of obscure genre movies rolled out just to fill holes in the schedule. (What bliss it was, etc.) In any case, the big-screen version of Doomwatch was my first point of contact with the series.

Peter Sasdy’s film was released in March 1972, during the gap between the second and third series of the TV show – it features the second-series line-up of characters (Ridge is still a member of Doomwatch at this point, as is Chantry), although features is the operative word – the main actors of the TV show are billed as ‘also starring’, with the lead roles taken by Ian Bannen (a very capable character actor) and Judy Geeson (a quietly prolific actress whose most memorable big-screen role was perhaps her gob-smacking appearance in Inseminoid).

Bannen plays Dr Del Shaw, a member of Doomwatch’s big-screen-only division, who at the start of the film is packed off by Quist to the remote island of Balfe. The exact location of Balfe is left obscure, but, as we shall see, the temptation to assume it is somewhere off the Scottish coast becomes almost irresistible given how the film plays out. There has been an oil-tanker spill in the region and Doomwatch is checking out what effect this has had on the local ecology (the opening credits indicate that Doomwatch exists mainly as an anti-pollution agency, which is a bit of a simplification of the rationale given on TV, but I suppose it would work to bring new audiences up to speed).

Arriving on Balfe, Shaw sets about obtaining his biological samples, but soon comes to suspect that not all is well on the island – most outsiders are unwelcome and resented, almost violently (although, for plot reasons, this does not extend to their schoolteacher, who is played by Geeson). Shaw finds himself shadowed by a gun-toting islander throughout his sample-collecting excursions. Many of the islanders have a short fuse, to say the least, if not an actual tendency towards savage brutality. Shaw comes across a body in a shallow grave, but when he returns it has mysteriously vanished. What is going on on Balfe, and has it got anything to do with the oil spill he has been sent to investigate?

Peter Sasdy is probably best known as a director of genre and especially horror films – he did a couple of rather good movies for Hammer, Taste the Blood of Dracula and Countess Dracula – although his career effectively ended when he won a Razzie for a more conventional drama, The Lonely Lady. In a similar vein, the big-screen Doomwatch was made by Tigon, a production company best-known these days for making two classic folk-horror films, Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan’s Claw. So perhaps it’s not entirely surprising that, in some ways, Doomwatch’s big-screen incarnation feels like more of a horror movie than the TV version usually did (the US title of this movie was Island of the Ghouls, which is punchy if not especially accurate).

What is perhaps a bit unexpected is the way in which Doomwatch anticipates or mirrors another classic folk-horror film. Look at it this way – an outsider arrives on a remote island, intent on investigating. The locals clearly have a secret which they are very reluctant to share with him. The local schoolteacher provides some intriguing clues. The body of a child disappears in mysterious circumstances. Now, all this happens in the early part of the film, and it’s not as if Ian Bannen is seized by the locals in order to be sacrificed as a way of lifting the curse on the community, but there is a sense in which Doomwatch feels like a weird pre-echo of many elements of The Wicker Man (I should mention that this film was released six months before The Wicker Man went into production, not that I’ve ever seen any suggestion it was an influence on Robin Hardy or Anthony Shaffer). And you could equally well argue that the premise of the movie – something in the sea near a remote coastal community is causing deformities which lead to many members of the community being hidden from outsiders – has something of the atmosphere and tone of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth.

Sasdy conjures up a reasonably effective atmosphere of mystery and menace during this opening movement of the film, culminating in an attack on Shaw by one of the island’s more brutish and deformed inhabitants. However, at this point the story turns into a science-procedural thriller of a kind which would be quite familiar to viewers of the Doomwatch TV show. There’s a rational scientific explanation for everything Shaw and the others encounter, and the only evil involved is that of greedy people trying to cut corners and disregard the danger to the environment. At least Quist and Ridge get more to do in this part of the film, including some scenes with George Sanders (listed, as was common in low-budget British films of this period, as a ‘guest star’).

(I do wonder what 1972 audiences would have made of a movie based on TV’s Doomwatch in which the actual stars of the TV show play such very peripheral roles. I imagine I would have felt a bit cheated. It is a slightly odd creative choice, and an unexpected one given the storyline for the film came from Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, creators of the TV show. Perhaps it was simply the case that the stars of the TV show were busy actually making the TV show when the movie was in production; I don’t know.)

In the end, the least you can say is that big-screen Doomwatch is recognisably the same beast as small-screen Doomwatch, with all the positives and negatives that this implies. It’s a fairly intelligent film that clearly cares about the issues with which it is dealing (primarily, damage to the environment from big business) – one might expect no less from a script by Clive Exton, a very capable screen-writer. And many of the themes of the movie are reminiscent of ones touched on in the TV show – the effects of pollution on communities being the main one. On the other hand, there is a problem when what starts off looking like a certain type of horror movie ends up as something rather different – you’re braced for a particular kind of climax, which never really comes. Ultimately, this is more of a drama than anything else – and a somewhat peculiar one, if you’re unaware of the conventions of the TV show which spawned it. But the Doomwatch film stands up well as an adjunct to the TV show, even if not as a movie in its own right.

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