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Posts Tagged ‘1970s’

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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Gary Sherman’s 1972 debut Death Line (known in the US as Raw Meat) could almost get lost in the crowd of British horror movies that were released in the early seventies: Hammer, Amicus and Tigon were all still going concerns at the time, on top of which there were assorted independent productions usually knocking off the style of one of the foregoing. The fact that it features two very distinguished actors – Donald Pleasence and Christopher Lee – somehow only serves to make it more anonymous, because if there’s one thing that unites low-budget British horror movies as a subgenre, it’s the quality of their casts.

First on screen during the opening credits is James Cossins, a capable character actor who made a lot of appearances as slightly pompous authority figures. Here he plays a bowler-hatted establishment chap embarked upon a nocturnal tour of the seedier spots of London’s nightlife. The image slides in and out of focus as the credits appear, a brash piece of radiophonic-sounding music plays, somehow both jaunty and ominous; your expectations start to creep up. The credits conclude with Cossins on the platform at Russell Square underground station in central London, soliciting a passing woman (yes, he’s that big a sleaze). She declines his understated advances and he becomes aware that he is, perhaps, being watched.

Shortly afterwards, a couple of students (imported American David Ladd and obscure Brit Sharon Gurney) get off the last train of the night and find Cossins’ character sprawled on the platform steps, not at all in a good way. Ladd’s character, Alex, doesn’t want to get involved with what he assumes is just a drunk sleeping it off, but his girlfriend Pat is more compassionate and help is duly fetched… but in the meantime the body has mysteriously vanished.

Alex is inclined to forget the whole incident, but the police are now involved and procedures have to be followed. Assigned to the case is Calhoun (Pleasence), an abrasive and sardonic working-class police detective, who is initially inclined just to do the minimal work and forget all about it. But it turns out that the man Alex and Pat found really has gone missing, and was a significant government figure. Calhoun’s initial investigations also turn up the curious fact that there have been a string of missing persons cases, all connected to the Russell Square tube station. Is something fishy actually going on?

Calhoun’s research into the station reveals something of a tragic history: construction of a new station in 1892 was halted by the collapse of the tunnels in the area, and the loss of many of the workers who were working at the time. However, he is warned off the case by an MI5 operative (Lee), at least until two more dead bodies turn up at the station… and forensic results indicate they were killed by someone rather unusual…

What, you may be wondering, are Alex and Pat up to all this time? Well, not much. They fall out. She comes back to him though. They help Calhoun and his assistant (Norman Rossington) with some follow-up enquiries. Basically they just sort of tick over as characters until the third act of the movie, where Pat gets properly menaced by the thing in the tunnels and Alex has to try and rescue her. This is probably just as well as David Ladd isn’t a particularly good actor (he eventually quit the profession and became a producer like his half-brother Alan – who was involved in the making of this film, too).

Much of the movie is concerned with another character, anyway. Death Line would probably be much better known – as a full-blown cult movie rather than an obscure oddity – if the initial casting choice had worked out. The character in question is the killer lurking in the underground, who is an insane, inbred, plague-ridden, cannibalistic descendant of the workers who were trapped eighty years earlier (he’s basically a sort of morlock but without the technical nous). In the final movie this character (credited as The Man) is played by Hugh Armstrong, but the initial choice for the part – and this particular little trivia factoid is so utterly bizarre I simply didn’t believe it when I first heard it – was Marlon Brando, who had to drop out due to a family crisis. (It would have been interesting to see how a devotee of the Method approached this kind of role.)

As all the cannibal does in the movie is moan and gibber, shout ‘Mind the doors!’ (a phrase which echoes through the underworld of the tube lines many times a day), and molest people, you might be inclined to wonder what the hell Brando was thinking of. However, it’s telling that this is not exactly the kind of horror movie where the killer is a barely-glimpsed lurking shadow for much of the running time (vide Creep, a 2004 movie with Franka Potente which likewise deals with something horrid in the catacombs under London). This sort of resembles a slasher movie in a very loose way, there’s also obviously a suggestion of cannibalism, and even a touch of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in the horrors of the cannibals’ lair – but there’s no real attempt to conceal the nature of the killer. There are long, arty shots drifting around the lair and the tunnels around it, with the situation of the Man and his partner (billed as, you guessed it, The Woman) depicted in some detail. You can see why the challenge of this role might have appeared to a ‘serious’ actor – he isn’t a joke shop monster by any means. The cannibals come across as pitiable unfortunates as much as objects of fear, and Sherman generates considerable pathos in his depiction of them. A little-known actor like Hugh Armstrong finds depth in this part: someone of Brando’s calibre might have done something really extraordinary with it.

As it is, though, most of the heavy lifting in the acting department is done by Donald Pleasence – Christopher Lee only appears in one scene, alas, and the odd thing about this is that he and Pleasence are barely on screen at the same time. (Lee did the movie because he wanted to work with Pleasence, but the foot-plus height difference between the two apparently made a conventional medium- or two-shot impossible.) Perhaps sensing that this is really quite a bleak, dour film, Pleasence goes into quirk overdrive to inject a bit of life into it – he’s too good an actor to ham it up, but there’s none of the quiet intensity he brings to some of his other famous horror roles. It’s an interesting performance, and certainly the best one in the film, but also slightly at odds with the general tenor of the thing.

In the end there is some jeopardy and running about and screaming, but very little sense of catharsis or relief that the world has somehow been made a better or safer please. The story almost fades out inconclusively. There is the odd shock, but the film is atmospheric rather than actually scary. In the end it’s a grim old tale, but interestingly different if you like these old horror movies, and certainly worth at least one watch.

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There was a lot of fuss in Oxford a couple of days ago, as the city prepared to go into level 2 virus control. This started one second after midnight on the 31st, which just made me happy, in the end, that I’d decided to make my weekly cinema trip on the evening of the 30th. This all turned out to be worrying and fretting over nothing, as the whole country is effectively going back into lockdown in a few days anyway – which, amongst other things, will mean the remaining cinemas shutting their doors again. Have I said ‘stuck in a moment we can’t get out of’ here before? I can’t remember.

Normally I would have had a go at the Odeon for questionable scheduling, as October 30th is obviously not the right day for a special revival of John Carpenter’s Halloween. Not that I would necessarily have expected the Odeon staff to have clocked that, as most of them were standing around in the lobby discussing which film they were actually about to show, trying to work out if it was the 2018 version, the 2007 remake, and so on. One of them was wearing a Halloween III: Season of the Witch T-shirt and I found myself compelled to wonder aloud if he knew that this was the only film in the series to have a different premise to the original. (Apparently he did, and defended his choice of apparel by saying it’s the best of the sequels. Being a Nigel Kneale fan myself, I could hardly demur.)

There was a pleasingly big turn-out for the movie, made up mostly of younger people who gave the impression of having turned up for a bit of undemanding camp fun – which just meant they got a bit restive during the ‘special introduction’ to the film, what looked like a slightly cheesy DVD extra made in 2015, in which Carpenter himself discussed the origins of the film. Oh well – soon enough the lights went down and – oh, is that someone’s phone going off very loudly? It sounds like a ringtone. Tut. Hang on a minute – sorry, it’s a John Carpenter score (and probably his best).

Carpenter opens with a lengthy, bravura sequence in which an unseen assailant stabs a young woman to death in her home. The camera sees through the killer’s eyes throughout, up until the moment at which his mask is torn off – and we see it is a six-year-old child. Flanked by his incomprehending parents, the child stares vacantly into space as the camera pulls back and up in a crane shot, a magisterial choice from Carpenter. We eventually learn the boy’s name is Michael Myers – nothing to do with the Wayne’s World dude, but named in honour of the British film distributor who helped make Assault on Precinct 13 such a big success.

Nearly fifteen years pass, and we meet Dr Sam Loomis, who has been Michael Myers’ psychiatrist all this time. Carpenter wanted Peter Cushing for Loomis, but couldn’t afford him; Christopher Lee later said that turning the same role down was the biggest mistake of his career. Anyway, Carpenter ended up with Donald Pleasence, apparently because his daughter was a fan of Carpenter’s music, but also because he had an alimony payment due, and I think this bit of serendipity is one of the things that makes the movie so effective – Pleasence may not quite have Cushing’s sheer technical virtuosity, or Lee’s monumental presence, but he brings the part a fantastic nervous intensity.

Loomis has become convinced that Michael Myers is irredeemable, pure evil, and has devoted himself to ensuring he is kept safely locked up. Suffice to say this does not come to pass, and the evening before Halloween 1978, Michael Myers escapes, steals Loomis’ car, and disappears into the night. This is the first big scare sequence of the film – and it’s a long time before the next – but it’s already clear that Carpenter knows his business, deploying camera and music with surgical precision. The moment when the ghost-like figure of Michael Myers scuttles across the rear window of Loomis’ car and onto the roof never fails to give me a start.

Michael Myers heads back to Haddonfield, naturally, pausing to kill a mechanic and steal his overalls on the way. (The point at which he acquires the iconic William Shatner mask he wears for the bulk of the movie is one of a couple of points which the film appears to fudge just a tiny bit.) Here he becomes fixated with sensible, bookish high-school student Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis in her movie debut), apparently simply because she’s the first person he see up close.

Laurie is baby-sitting for Halloween, which mainly involves letting small children watch classic sci-fi movies (one of them is the 1951 version of The Thing, more evidence of Carpenter’s fondness for Howard Hawks films, as well as being an unintended in-joke given his later career). Her friends Lynda (Pamela Soles) and Annie (Nancy Loomis, who was also in Precinct 13) have slightly more adventurous plans for Halloween night, mostly involving their boyfriends. However, Michael Myers’ plans for the evening involve all of them, although ‘adventurous’ may not be quite the word to use in his case…

Slasher movies aren’t really my speciality, but I believe that students of the genre agree that the Golden Age of the Slasher Film ran from 1978 to 1984, inaugurated by this film. Halloween wasn’t the first slasher film – that honour goes to either Psycho or Black Christmas – but it is the film which codified many of the conventions of the genre – a maniac with a mask, young and unsuspecting teenage victims, and so on. The most memorable things about Halloween have all been repeated ad nauseum or parodied to death, to the point where it’s almost difficult to take the movie seriously as a film in its own right.

Certainly, as is often the case with these classic old horror movies, parts of it seemed more likely to draw laughter rather than fear from a contemporary audience. Bits of it could seem a bit melodramatic or even campy by modern standards. That said, as the film got going, there was notably less amusement, and even the occasional yelp of what sounded like genuine alarm and fear. (I imagine there would have been people in the audience even back in 1978, who tutted at the way Jamie Lee Curtis doesn’t bother to make sure her attacker is dead, on not one but two occasions.)

The enduring effectiveness of the movie comes mainly from the remarkable patience and confidence shown by Carpenter: after the opening couple of scenes, there is considerably more stalk than slash for a long time – lots of lurking about by Michael Myers, but very little actual mayhem. It’s also worth noting that this is a much more restrained movie than many of its successors: there is relatively little in the way of explicit gore, and only five murders (one of which is essentially a flashback, while another occurs off-screen). This is hardly a splatter movie, more an exercise in suspense.

Of course, underpinning this is the suggestion that Michael Myers isn’t just a homicidal maniac with a knife, but something much worse – a vessel of pure evil, as Loomis has come to believe. Certainly the film plays up the idea of Michael Myers as something less than human – Nick Castle, who mostly plays him, is billed as ‘Shape’ – he never speaks, wears that blank mask for most of the film, and is generally just a cypher, or – as the film suggests – the bogeyman given substance. Again, it’s a potentially slightly corny idea, but the movie sells it, mostly thanks to Pleasence’s performance.

Pleasence does all the heavy lifting in terms of the acting in this movie, lending it gravitas but also the odd moment of leavening humour (the doctor seems gleefully pleased after scaring small children away from the old Myers house). Jamie Lee Curtis is stuck in an almost wholly reactive role for most of the movie, but still manages to bring presence to what could have been another cypher.

In the end, though, it’s Carpenter’s movie, as writer, director, and composer of the music: he seems to have been paying attention to Jaws in particular, as the score for this movie acts as a cue for the audience in the same way that John Williams’ music fills in for the absence of shark. It’s entirely understandable that film executives who saw a rough cut of Halloween before the score was added dismissed the film as nonsense. Even with the music added, it’s still not what you’d call a film of particular depth: Halloween is simply a machine for scaring audiences, no more and no less. But it does this one thing superbly well.

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As we have observed many times in the past, a successful formula gets noticed, and this is no less true in the movie business than anywhere else. Whatever else you want to say about the series of portmanteau horror movies produced by Milton Subotsky, usually through his company Amicus, they seem to have made money – why else would there have been half a dozen of them? And, of course, this led to other people having a go at doing the same thing.

Which brings us to Freddie Francis’ Tales That Witness Madness, a very obvious attempt at cloning the style and structure of an Amicus film, with perhaps a few odd tonal innovations. The script is credited on-screen to one Jay Fairbank – however, this was actually a pseudonym for the actress Jennifer Jayne, who actually appeared in Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, the first of the Amicus portmanteaus, so there’s a further connection. The film also features Joan Collins, who turned up in the previous year’s Asylum (which this slightly resembles), and Donald Pleasence, who would appear in From Beyond the Grave the following year. It’s a small world when you’re making low-budget British portmanteau horrors.

The frame story gets underway with one Dr Nicholas (Jack Hawkins) arriving at a modern psychiatric facility to see the chap in charge of the place, Dr Tremayne (Pleasence). These scenes are brief to the point of being perfunctory, which is a shame as Pleasence is always reliably creepy in this kind of film – but on the other hand, Hawkins had lost his larynx to cancer some years earlier (he died shortly after completing this film), and he’s fairly obviously being dubbed by an uncredited Charles Gray (so we got some Blofeld-on-Blofeld action going on here, vocally anyway).

Anyway, apparently the powers that be are concerned about Tremayne’s progress, and so Tremayne agrees to introduce Nicholas to four of his patients and explain their weird and unnatural case histories, and if that’s not a cue for a portmanteau segment to get underway, I don’t know what is.

First up is ‘Mr Tiger’, which basically resembles a big-screen adaptation of Calvin and Hobbes, as directed by Dario Argento (while suffering from a migraine). This features a ten-year-old Russell Lewis as the main character, Paul (Lewis has gone on to make a good career for himself writing various cop shows on British TV, including every episode so far of the Inspector Morse prequel). Paul seems to live in a very comfortable house, with his own private tutor, but his parents’ marriage seems to be under stress, with Paul himself being used as a playing piece in their various arguments. One of the points of contention is Paul’s devotion to his imaginary friend, Mr Tiger: Paul insists on doors and windows being left open so Mr Tiger can find his way in and out of the house, steals bones and sides of meat from the kitchen for him, and so on.

But then! (And I should say there will be spoilers aplenty coming up, here and further on.) Paul’s parents sit him down for a good talking to about how Mr Tiger isn’t real – but Mr Tiger is real (at least, judging from the prop they use, he’s a real stuffed tiger), and he turns up and mauls Paul’s parents to death.

Er, yeah, well: that’s your lot, as far as the plot of this bit is concerned. I say ‘plot’, but the so-called twist is so screechingly obvious, especially in this context – I mean, who does a horror movie about a boy whose imaginary friend turns out to be actually imaginary? It is one of the weakest segments of any portmanteau horror that I’ve seen, although to be fair Lewis is a pretty decent child actor.

Mind you, it is at least easy to work out what’s actually going on, which is more than you can say for the next bit, the oddness of which is kind of telegraphed by the title ‘Penny Farthing’. Lead character this time is Timothy (Peter McEnery), an antique shop owner who brings in the vintage bicycle in question, and also a old framed photo of his Uncle Albert. The first obvious sign that all is not quite right is that Uncle Albert’s picture keeps changing: it, or he, is clearly aware of things going on in the shop and reacting to them (this is done in the most basic way: the picture never changes in-camera). Things get appreciably weirder when he finds himself compelled to mount and ride the bicycle, finding himself transported back to (it would seem) the Edwardian era, where he romances a young woman (Suzy Kendall, who also plays his girlfriend in the present-day sequences). The horror element comes from the fact that he is also being stalked by, apparently, the rotting cadaver of Uncle Albert (this is the only example I can think of of a rotting cadaver wearing a deerstalker hat).

Well, if the plot of Mr Tiger is painfully predictable, then that of Penny Farthing goes completely the other way and is almost totally bizarre. It’s not especially well-acted or directed, either. Nevertheless, this is still probably the best story about someone cursed to ride a haunted time-travelling bike ever committed to celluloid. Needless to say, this is such a tiny niche that a story can proudly have this title and still be rubbish.

The needle swings back towards the realms of the excruciatingly predictable, in the form of ‘Mel’, a bizarre – do you see a pattern developing here? – entry in the canon of British botanical horror. Michael Jayston plays Brian, a seemingly ordinary chap who one day, while out for a walk, happens upon a fallen tree-trunk. He is so much taken with it that he drags the log back to his house and installs it in his living room, to the disgust of his wife (Joan Collins). He finds the name ‘Mel’ carved into the bark and starts calling the log by it.

Suffice to say that Bella is not as fond of Mel as Brian is, something not helped by Mel deliberately scattering leaves on the carpet just after Bella has hoovered, or sprouting thorns to impale her on (the monstrous tree costume is better than the one in Womaneater, but not by that much).  Bella becomes very jealous of the log (that’s a sentence which may never have been typed by anyone not summarising the stories in Tales That Witness Madness), and of course, it all ends very predictably: there’s an attempt at a twist which wouldn’t wrong-foot a four-year-old. On the other hand, I suppose the conclusion, which appears to depict Michael Jayston about to be physically intimate with a tree trunk in the marital bed, comes a bit out of left-field. Again, though, while it has a sort of campy appeal, it’s just too obvious to work.

Something very different rounds out the film, though; not a story you could ever imagine Milton Subotsky wanting anything to do with. This is ‘Luau’, starring – and I still find this hard to believe – Kim Novak (yes, the same Kim Novak from Vertigo), in her first film for five years. Novak plays Auriol, a slightly lost-in-her-own-world literary agent who’s planning a big party in honour of one of her clients, Kimo (Michael Petrovitch). As Kimo is from Hawaii, she decides to make it a luau. Kimo’s friend Keoki (Leon Lissek) is very helpful in assisting with this shindig.

Meanwhile Kimo is romancing Auriol’s young daughter Virginia (Mary Tamm), although his designs on her body are not of the usual kind: his mum is dying, and in order to ensure she goes to Hawaiian heaven, Kimo is planning a ritual where people assemble and eat the flesh of a virgin. Having made it look like Virginia has left to visit friends, he lures her to his room, where he has converted the shower cubicle into a shrine to his particular god. Virginia meets a sticky end and is chopped up by Keoki, prior to being cooked and served up to everyone at the luau.

And then the film concludes with… what, sorry, you were expecting more plot? Think again: the film doesn’t even have the moment where Auriol realises she’s been tucking into her daughter’s flesh – in fact, Novak’s character is very tangential to the plot throughout. Her role is to be the one who doesn’t know what’s happening around her, and the scene where the horrible truth becomes apparent to her is missing from the film. This segment doesn’t even try very hard to be frightening, as such: like most horror films about cannibalism, it just dwells on the gory details. As a result, it has a sort of queasy power, even if it’s only looking for the gag reflex rather than a more elevated form of dread.

I suppose it’s kind of impressive that it manages this despite being nearly as ridiculous as the rest of the film. Quite apart from the arguably slanderous depiction of Hawaiian culture, there’s the fact that the supposedly Hawaiian characters look like nothing of the sort: Leon Lissek spent much of his career playing eastern Europeans and would have been a decent choice as the lead in a Stanley Kubrick bio-pic. He’s one of the least Hawaiian-looking people I’ve ever seen, and Petrovitch is nearly as bad a choice. (What did Jennifer Jayne have against Hawaii? Was she once bitten by a wild ukulele?)

We’re back to the asylum for the conclusion, at which point the film reverts to its earlier mode by being predictable and slightly confusing at practically the same moment. At least it’s not the ‘and it turns out they’re all actually dead!’ twist used on numerous occasions in the Amicus films. If all of the film was like this (jerking back and forth between the predictable and the bizarrely unexpected and incomprehensible), I would find it easier to know what to say about it. The first three segments are very much like inept, substandard Amicus, but the cannibal luau… it hits a sustained note of lowest-common-denominator nastiness which the crudeness of the production does little to dispel. (I should say that, with the exception of Raw, I find films about cannibalism to be repulsive rather than scary or insightful, so maybe I’m biased.) It’s certainly the most memorable element of Tales That Witness Madness, also because it has Kim Novak in it and she is so badly underused.

If you like the Amicus portmanteau movies, then this is probably worth watching, if only to help you appreciate that while hardly any of them are consistently great, they could have been much, much worse. For everyone else – well, this is one weird film, almost like a fever-dream of whimsical strangeness with very occasional moments that are genuinely repellent. If it had been wholly innocuous I would probably have liked it more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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