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Posts Tagged ‘1970s’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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