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Posts Tagged ‘1970s’

Here we go, folks: finally, it is Frank Agrama’s 1976 movie Queen Kong, which (mainly due to my unreasonable fondness for monster movies, particularly ones realised through the miracle of suitamation) I have been curious to see ever since I became aware of it. This is not a movie with a high profile: the odd thing is that while I was aware of Dino de Laurentiis’ 1976 remake of King Kong from a fairly early age (this was a high profile movie with a lot of merchandise, if memory serves), at least two other films which were to some extent contigent on it ended up languishing in extreme obscurity. One of these was de Laurentiis’ own sequel, King Kong Lives, which didn’t so much make an impact on the world of cinema as bounce off it and disappear without a trace; the other is Agrama’s movie, made in 1976 as a cash-in spoof of the remake. De Laurentiis didn’t see the funny side, unleashed his lawyers and litigated Queen Kong into oblivion, at least as far as English-speaking audiences were concerned: it got a limited release in Italy and parts of Germany, but that’s all. (Apparently Agrama is an old mate of Silvio Berlusconi, which is interesting but not particularly pertinent to the movie.)

This is, as I say, a cash-in spoof, made for a clearly inadequate budget, and starring certain individuals whose very involvement with a film instantly cause one to drop one’s expectations to a subterranean level. And so, when I finally settled down to watch the version of Queen Kong in general internet circulation, I was expecting a dubious and possibly quite gruelling experience to ensue.

The film opens with a man being chased through a jungle (the jungle is played by a typical English wood) by scantily-clad young women. The scantily-clad young women are a bit of a continuing feature of Queen Kong, which is rather curious, for reasons I expect I shall eventually come to. They catch the man and string him up over a pot in classic cod-cannibal style. But it is revealed that none of this is real – it’s all a screen test being overseen by tough film-maker Luce Habit (Rula Lenska, who had just risen to prominence in Rock Follies at the time) – this is the only instance of a character being saddled with such a painful pun in place of a name, so one wonders why they bothered.

It seems that all the men they’ve auditioned have proven too weak and delicate for the job, something Luce is understanding about: they’re only men, after all. So she resolves to find a proper leading man for her forthcoming film, to be shot on location in Africa (don’t get your hopes up, folks). As she is explaining this, we see various crates being carried onto the expedition’s boat, labelled ‘GUNS’, ‘BOMBS’, ‘MONSTER TRANQUILISERS’, ‘ETC.’, which genuinely surprised me by being rather funny (or at least much closer to funnier than anything I was expecting in this film).

Luce heads off to London as the opening credits roll, and the lyrics to the theme song are, once again, rather unexpected: they include lines like ‘Queen Kong is the chick with all the hair’, ‘She’s a genie who ain’t teeny’, ‘She’s a queeny queeny for my weeny’, ‘When I’m feeling kinda spunky, I want to do it with my funky monkey’, and so on (on the other hand there is also the line ‘Kong kong kong kong kong kong kong kong kong,’ not to mention ‘Queen queen queen queen queen queen queen queen kong’, which just goes to show that it’s consistency that’s the real challenge in any creative undertaking).

On the Portobello Road, Luce encounters feckless hippy Ray Fay – do you see what they did there? – played by Robin Askwith, who at the time, God help us, was something of a genuine movie star in the UK, mainly off the back of a string of soft-core comedy films. Ray is introduced in a scene where he steals an original movie poster for the 1933 King Kong, not that this informs the plot much. The whole film functions on a camp, cartoonish, but also somewhat knowing level like this. Impressed, Luce recruits Ray (by drugging him) and off they go to Africa (this is either taken as read, or the sequence with them actually travelling to Africa has been cut from the version of the film in general circulation).

Here they arrive in the remote country of Lazanga-where-they-do-the-konga, ruled by the statuesque figure of Valerie Leon (pretty much reprising her role from Carry On Up the Jungle). If you’re remotely familiar with any version of King Kong, you can probably fill in the bulk of the rest of the plot yourself: the natives kidnap Ray and decide to marry him off to a giant gorilla-like ape living in the jungle nearby; she is known as Queen Kong. Various battles with prehistoric monsters feature in a cursory sort of way (though, given how indescribably awful the monster suits are in this film, that’s probably for the best).

In the end, Queen Kong is taken back to London where the plan is to put her on show; there is a subplot about making the giant ape wear a bikini so as not to outrage public sensibilities. In the end Kong escapes (as usual) and climbs Big Ben, carrying Ray after rescuing him from Luce’s amorous advances. Here the film makes a genuine deviation from its source material, as Queen Kong becomes an icon of the Woman’s Lib movement, and female crowds waving placards gather in her defence. In the end she and Ray return to Lazanga, making this one of the few non-Japanese Kong films to have an unequivocally happy ending.

It’s still a fairly crappy movie, though. There’s a scene early on with Askwith running through the Portobello Road market waving the stolen poster over his head, pursued by the irate original owner, who in turn is followed by Lenska, while an up-tempo saxophone tune plays on the soundtrack – and even if it isn’t a conscious attempt to ape (sorry) the style of The Benny Hill Show, then it certainly looks like one. That’s the level of the comedy here – there are some unexpectedly clever or offbeat jokes, but there are also a lot of broad sight gags and lazy one-liners. The resemblance to Benny Hill’s style extends to the way the film is packed with scantily-clad young starlets (needless to say, the camera is positioned around torso level for many sequences).

Needless to say, this rather lubricious treatment of most of the cast is very much at odds with the film’s non-Laurentiis-related satire: namely, its handling of Women’s Lib and gender politics in general. Or is it satire? It’s hard to tell whether the film is being sincere or quietly laughing up its sleeve at the point when Askwith makes a speech saying Queen Kong represents ‘Woman, trying to find her place in a society which treats her as a kitchen slave or a sex object’. Only the context makes it absurd, and even then it’s not actually particularly funny. Maybe the film-makers weren’t entirely sure themselves and were trying to keep their options open.

In the end, I don’t think it will come as much of a surprise to anyone if I suggest that Queen Kong is a terrible film: for the most part it is clumsy, primitive and silly. But, despite all that, there is the odd funny moment, and flickers of self-awareness that do a lot to make it reasonably palatable viewing. It’s not actively depressing or offensive to watch, for all that much of it is clearly dated. As I have frequently said in all manner of situations, and about much more significant movies than this, I find it much easier to forgive a bad film than a boring one.

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Every now and then I reflect on all the films that I would like to see but almost certainly never will – the original cut of The Wicker Man, The Unquenchable Thirst of Dracula, Zeppelin Vs Pterodactyls, Queen Kong, Tiptoes, and so on. Some of these don’t physically exist any more, others were never made, while still others have vanished into obscurity due to either legal problems or their sheer weirdness. For quite a long time I would have added The Other Side of the Wind to this list. This is, or was, one of Orson Welles’ projects as director and writer, which he worked on intermittently between 1970 and 1976 (parts of the great man’s filmography are a litany of incomplete films like Don Quixote, The Deep, and The Dreamers). As you might expect, given the lengthy production period, a huge amount of material was filmed for The Other Side of the Wind, but turning it into a completed film was something beyond Welles’ ability, and his death in 1985 plunged the project into a legal limbo.

Welles enthusiasts and acolytes, some of whom were involved in the film’s production, never quite seemed to give up on it, however – and here we must acknowledge the role played by the market-leading film and TV streaming service in stepping in and assisting in the final completion of The Other Side of the Wind. Forty years after it was filmed, and thirty years after Orson Welles’ death, is this one final example of the director at his best, or just another frustratingly misjudged piece of work?

The film concerns the last day on earth of a legendary film director (played by legendary film director John Huston) who, as the 1970s proceed, finds himself increasingly struggling to find financial backing for his film projects (it is perhaps worth saying that Welles himself always dismissed suggestions that The Other Side of the Wind was in any way autobiographical). The director, Hannaford, is celebrating his 70th birthday (rather eerily, the same age that Welles died at), and as the film begins he, his cast and crew, and various acolytes and hangers-on decamp to an Arizona mansion where a rough cut of his new film, The Other Side of the Wind, will be screened for the assembled company. (Part of the film is also shown to a studio boss, who is thoroughly unimpressed by it.) Also present is a fan of the director who has become a hot young film-maker himself, played by Peter Bogdanovich (a fan of Orson Welles who had become a hot young film-maker himself at the time). As the night wears on, the screening is beset by problems and interruptions, and Hannaford’s dealings with those around him become increasingly fractious. Hard truths emerge, friendships break down, and dreams are shattered.

Intercut with all of this are sequences from the other The Other Side of the Wind – not Welles’ film, but the one that Hannaford has been working on. This is a wordless, heavily symbolic piece of art-house cinema predominantly featuring a beautiful young actress whom Hannaford has apparently become somewhat fixated upon (played by Oja Kodar, a beautiful young actress who was in a relationship with Welles himself at the time).

Perhaps it is worth saying again that Welles was always very clear that The Other Side of the Wind was not intended even semi-autobiographically. This does seem rather like another instance of the great man being somewhat disingenuous, for there seems to be a deliberate attempt to blur the line between fact and fiction in progress for much of the film – Hannaford is described as a Hemingway-esque figure in the world of cinema, which is exactly the same kind of thing that was also said about Huston (Welles had his own, predictably ambivalent relationship with Hemingway, too).

The parallels between Hannaford and Welles are just too numerous for them to be accidental – both are renowned figures, now struggling to get their projects made, both seem to have a thing for Oja Kodar, and – of course – both never quite managed to finish their version of The Other Side of the Wind, either. Once you accept this, the casting of Bogdanovich as the director’s one-time disciple makes perfect sense, as do the various other in-jokes and references to Hollywood denizens of the period when the film was being made – various characters are tuckerised versions of figures like Cybill Shepherd, John Milius and the film critic Pauline Kael. It has to be said that the film is very much a piece from a very particular time and place, when the ‘old Hollywood’ in which Welles got his start was attempting to come to terms with the ‘new Hollywood’ presaged by films like Easy Rider and The Godfather. Outside of this context, many of the jokes and observations in the film simply don’t function.

The same can be said for the film-within-the-film, Hannaford’s version of The Other Side of the Wind, a spot-on imitation of the kind of art-house films being made by Michelangelo Antonioni at around this time (Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point appears to have been Welles’ primary target) – the kind of film which looks suspiciously like a soft-core movie but can’t be, because it’s Art. It is probably most memorable for the rather lengthy sequence of Oja Kodar wandering naked around the MGM backlot – the film-in-the-film doesn’t actually have a plot, and deliberately so.

The problem is that, while Welles may have intended this as a spoof of painfully self-regarding, pretentious, symbolic film-making, his reproduction of it is so effective, and goes on for such a long time, that it really comes across as more of a pastiche than an actual spoof. You get the joke quite quickly, but there’s still a lot to come, and a naked Oja Kodar only goes a certain distance when it comes to making this sort of thing more palatable.

One has to wonder about the role of Oja Kodar in the chequered history of The Other Side of the Wind. As I mentioned, there have been numerous attempts to finish off this movie before, by participants in it and also Welles’ champions in the film industry (some people are, of course, both) – and one of the consistent things to emerge from this frustratingly lengthy process is Kodar’s apparent determination to sabotage them, either consciously or unconsciously. Kodar’s stated desire was apparently to avoid a repeat of the debacle which ensued when an under-funded restoration of Welles’ unfinished Don Quixote, overseen by her, was assembled and released in 1992 (to unfavourable reviews), but, as I say, one wonders. Could there have been an element of reluctance to let her appearance in some rather rum material finally emerge into the wider world? Or even a suspicion that the finished version of The Other Side of the Wind would be unlikely to add to Welles’ reputation as a film-maker?

Well, I have to say that I am by no means an unconditional admirer of Netflix, and do have my concerns about the company’s influence over modern cinema, but I have to admit that the average ‘Netflix original’ (which is what The Other Side of the Wind technically is) is a reasonably polished and proficient piece of work, in terms of its production if not its conception. Parts of this film, however, show its ramshackle, cash-strapped nature all too clearly – there are sections, particularly early on, which are dismayingly primitive in their execution. Still, as it proceeds, it improves, and even if you can’t quite grasp all the in-jokes and allusions in the scenes with Hannaford at the party, you’re never in doubt that there’s a distinct artistic sensibility at work here – the sheer number of film directors amongst the cast, coupled to the frequency with which movie cameras appear in the background, suggests that Welles is making a point about how film-making can become an all-consuming, solipsistic pursuit.

Certainly there is a rising sense of despair running through the final scenes of the film, in which Hannaford perhaps breaks through the artifice of the world which has formed around him and approaches something resembling truth. At this point we are reminded that the first thing we learn about him is the fact of his impending death. Perhaps, yet again, Welles is alluding to the story of Don Quixote, who regains his sanity only at the end of his life. One wouldn’t be surprised; Orson Welles is that kind of erudite, allusive artist. And this is an erudite and allusive film in many ways, even if in others it feels frustratingly laborious and even somewhat pretentious: some of the Welles magic is there, even if it’s in a raw and unpolished form. I still don’t think this is genuinely a masterpiece, but another thing you can say about Orson Welles is that while not everything he did was brilliant, it was seldom ever boring, and The Other Side of the Wind is a welcome reminder of that.

(Hey, and it turns out that Queen Kong on the internet. I know what I’ll be doing this week.)

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Now that First Man has provided us with an exemplary movie account of the Apollo programme and the Moon landings, all we are waiting for, surely, is for someone to do the same and make the definitive movie about the faking of the same events. (That’s how impartiality works these days, isn’t it? No matter how unsupported or ridiculous an idea is, no-one in the media is actually allowed to say so as long as there is someone who genuinely believes in it.)

I joke, sort of. The weird thing is that people have been making films referencing the idea that the Moon landings were faked in a film studio since… well, since the time of the Moon landings themselves, perhaps. It’s curious that the first major book proposing this theory, We Never Went to the Moon, came out in 1976, while (arguably) an oblique suggestion of the same thing turns up in Diamonds Are Forever in 1971 – attempting to sneak out of a SPECTRE installation midway through the movie, James Bond finds himself on a soundstage mocked up to resemble the lunar surface, where a moon walk is apparently being filmed. The film offers no explanation for what’s supposed to be happening here and just carries on with the chase sequence in progress.

The list also includes Room 237, which features an extended disquisition on Kubrick’s role in the hoax and the way that The Shining is really a lengthy attempt by the director to come clean about it, and Moonwalkers, a French comedy film again focusing on Stanley Kubrick’s alleged involvement in faking the footage supposedly sent back from the Moon. Even Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar cleverly subverts the idea by suggesting that in the future the US government will start to claim the landings were indeed faked.

Top of the pile, though, is surely Peter Hyams’ 1978 film Capricorn One, which appeared just as the moon hoax theory was beginning to gain traction, and may have played a significant role in cementing the notion in the public imagination. The subject matter and cast could not be more all-American, but this is another film owing its existence to Lew Grade’s ITC Entertainment – and, I must say, one of the better ones.

The film opens with Capricorn One, the first manned mission to Mars, on the launchpad. NASA director James Kelloway (Hal Holbrook) is overseeing the countdown; the astronauts (James Brolin, Sam Waterston and O. J. Simpson) are in the capsule. An audience of politicians, other dignitaries, and members of the public has gathered to watch the take-off. But then, with minutes to go, the crew are quietly extracted from the vehicle, placed on a plane, and flown to a clandestine government installation. The spacecraft launches without them. What is going on?

Kelloway explains. Cut-backs in NASA’s budget resulted in the Capricorn programme inadvertently buying a cheap-ass life support system for the spacecraft, one which would have killed the crew in a matter of weeks (the film suggests the round-trip to Mars will take about eight months, which strikes me as rather optimistic, but I digress). Not wanting to give Congress an excuse to shut the manned space programme down, Kelloway and his backers (there seem to be shadowy, deep-state forces in play) have decided to cover this up. The mission will take place as planned – it’s just that it will really be unmanned. All the TV footage of the crew in the capsule and on the surface of Mars will be filmed in studios on Earth and inserted into the broadcasts without anyone being any the wiser.

Mission commander Brubaker (Brolin) isn’t sure about this at all, but when it is made clear that the backers of the cover-up are quite prepared to threaten his family and those of the other astronauts, he allows himself to be blackmailed into playing along. And so the mission proceeds, and also the hoax. There are problems – a young NASA tech notices irregularities between the mission telemetry and the TV footage, and is promptly disappeared by the conspirators. However, he has already passed on his discovery to cynical journalist Robert Caulfield (Elliott Gould), who launches his own investigation, placing his life in peril as a result.

But the biggest problem is yet to come. With the actual Martian landings successfully faked, the ship returns to Earth – only for the heat shield to disengage too early and the craft to disintegrate on re-entry. The crew of Capricorn One have died as heroes – except that they are still sitting around in the secret government installation, wondering why their flight to the splashdown site has been cancelled. Quickly figuring out that there has been a problem, and that their very existence now poses a threat to the hoax, they decide to make a break for it and tell the world the truth. Always assuming the conspirators don’t catch up with them first…

The first thing to say about Capricorn One is that this is a pretty good thriller, with an engaging premise, nice performances and dialogue which is rather sharper and smarter than you might expect. It’s not especially deep or lavish, but it’s fun to watch, especially in the first half, which is more concerned with the establishment and running of the hoax. It addresses the issue of just what the value of the manned space programme is, and whether it warrants all the funding it receives. Would NASA in fact be justified in mounting this kind of deception, if the alternative was the dissolution of the agency and the end of space exploration?

The second half is not as strong, as these ideas and themes get dropped in favour of the stuff of a more conventional thriller – the astronauts are pursued through the deserts of the American southwest by black helicopters (Hyams develops this into a very effective image, again perhaps fuelling conspiracy theories), while Caulfield picks up on tiny clues and slowly begins to unravel what’s been going on. In the end there is a rather effective chase between the helicopters and a biplane piloted by Telly Savalas, before a slightly abrupt ending is reached (we don’t get to see the political consequences of the film’s conclusion).

Capricorn One is entirely up-front about its subtext – the film’s poster directly asks ‘Would you be shocked to find out that the greatest moment of our recent history may not have happened at all?’, next to a picture of what looks very much like an Apollo lunar module; the Capricorn mission profile appears to closely resemble that of Apollo, more than is actually credible. Hyams appears to have come to the idea of an Apollo hoax independently, speaking in interviews of how it occurred to him that this was an event witnessed only by TV cameras, and thus more than usually susceptible to fakery.

Ironically, though, if anything the film debunks the idea of a Moon hoax rather than promoting it, simply because the conspiracy as presented here is just so implausible and inept. The suggestion is that most of NASA isn’t even in on the plot, which makes one wonder just exactly how it’s functioning – there’s a glib mention of ‘recordings from practice sessions’ being used, but who’s actually landing the spacecraft on Mars? How is this even possible? The ‘dark forces cover-up’ is also rather preposterous – after trying to kill Gould in a sabotaged car, the conspirators apparently lose interest in him entirely for weeks, before starting to take pot-shots at him and then finally having him framed for possession of drugs.

So in the end this is a film which is entertaining and briefly interesting in terms of its premise, but in the end it doesn’t quite hang together and it never really convinces. I am tempted to add that all this is true of the Apollo hoax theories, as well, but for the fact that many people still genuinely seem to believe that there is some truth to them. Maybe they also believe that there is some truth to Capricorn One. It is, as they say, a funny old world.

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Alan Gibson’s 1973 film The Satanic Rites of Dracula is another of those late-period Hammer horrors that doesn’t hang around in getting to the point. No sooner have the opening credits (featuring a rather awkwardly-posed shadow puppet superimposed over various London landmarks) concluded than we are in the midst of some proper Satanic rites in full swing: sweaty acolytes gawp, ethnic actresses hired to impart a touch of low-budget exoticism declaim dodgy dialogue about Hell, young actresses who needed the money try to avoid showing too much flesh to the camera, and chickens look nervous.

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This sequence really isn’t all that great, but the film-makers clearly felt otherwise, as for the first ten or fifteen minutes of the film they keep cutting back to it, often in defiance of chronology or logic. The Satanic rites are taking place in a stately house outside London, guarded by sinister goons whose uniform appears to be sheepskin tank-tops, which at least makes them distinctive.

It turns out this set-up has been infiltrated by the security services, and their man makes his escape at the start of the film. There is some political delicacy to this situation, as one of the Satanic acolytes is in fact the minister responsible for security affairs, with the power to shut down the department if he discovers the cult to which he belongs is being investigated. (The movie zips very smartly indeed past the question of what MI5 – which is what this very much looks like – is doing taking an interest in suburban occultism, even if it does involve senior establishment figures.)

Torrence (William Franklyn), leading the investigation, decides to bring in a detective from Special Branch as he is technically not under the command of the suspected minister: his choice is Murray (Michael Coles), previously seen in Gibson’s Dracula AD 1972. Learning of the occult angle, Murray in turn brings in an anthropologist and expert on such matters who he has worked with before – namely, Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing, of course).

Well, investigations by the trio, along with Van Helsing’s grand-daughter (Joanna Lumley, who makes less of an impression than you might expect), uncover that the basement of the stately house is infested with vampires. This is not really a surprise, as we have already seen Torrence’s secretary kidnapped by the tank-tops and molested by Dracula himself (Christopher Lee, of course) in a subplot that doesn’t make a great deal of sense. However, there is also the revelation that Dracula’s cult has recruited a Nobel-winning virologist (Freddie Jones), who has been tasked with creating a new super-virulent strain of the Black Death, supposedly to wipe out everyone on the planet. Van Helsing’s conclusion is that Dracula has grown weary of immortality (or possibly just being brought back every couple of years for another movie) and just wants to take everyone into oblivion with him. In any case, given that the new virus appears to spread only by touch and spectacularly and very nearly instantly kills anyone who comes into contact with it, I am not sure it has the potential to be quite the agent of genocide Van Helsing is worried about.

With all the exposition concluded (Cushing does his best to cover it with some business involving him ladling soup for all the other characters), we’re heading for the climax. Can our heroes uncover Dracula’s lair? Can the release of the killer virus be averted? And is Christopher Lee actually going to show up for more than a couple of minutes at a time?

Well, he does, but the impact of Lee’s main dialogue scene with Cushing is somewhat affected by his decision to affect a bizarre Lugosi-esque accent quite unlike his usual Dracula voice, which is especially confusing considering that Dracula is passing himself off as a British tycoon (living in Centre Point). I suppose one should be grateful that Lee showed up at all – in another one of those moments that would never happen nowadays, Lee showed up for the press launch of the movie, announced he was only doing it under protest, and declared he thought it was a fatuous joke.

This was partly a reference to the original title of the film, Dracula is Dead and Well and Living in London, which was duly changed. Possibly as a result, this is one of those films which has popped up under a variety of different names at different times, said names ranging from the somewhat bland (Count Dracula and His Vampire Bride) to the peculiar (simply Dracula is Dead, not to mention Dracula is Still Living in London).

This isn’t usually a sign of a particularly strong movie, and it almost goes without saying that the main point of interest of Satanic Rites is that it was the final Hammer film to feature both Cushing and Lee, both of whom go through the motions with the usual commendable professionalism. It’s doesn’t have the gimmicky novelty of the previous movie’s conceit of bringing Dracula into a contemporary setting, but on the other hand this does seem to have made screenwriter Don Houghton work a bit harder: many of the trappings of the rest of the Hammer Dracula series are dropped, most notably the laborious structure where they spend the first half of the film contriving Dracula’s resurrection and the second half arranging his demise.

In its place, Houghton comes up with a script that feels more like a hard-edged contemporary thriller than a traditional horror movie, complete with the apocalyptic germ-warfare angle. (Am I the only one who would quite like to have seen the version of this film where the viral outbreak actually gets started, with our heroes fending off crazed plague-zombies while society collapses and the vampire cult takes over the world?) All this stuff is relatively good and interesting; it’s only when the movie gets into its Gothic horror drag that it starts to feel dull and a bit chintzy.

I suppose you could argue that if the best bits of a Dracula movie are the ones which feel least like they belong in a conventional Dracula movie, then something has gone wrong somewhere, and I can’t really disagree with you on that. The sense of what these days we’d call franchise fatigue is almost overwhelming – it may be the main reason that this film is so stylistically different is because they literally couldn’t think of anything else to do. Certainly, having had Dracula blasted to ashes by sunlight, frozen into a lake, impaled on a crucifix, struck down by the power of God, struck by lightning, impaled on a broken cartwheel, and impaled in a pit of stakes in previous films, coming up with a new way of getting rid of him at the climax must have been a problem, and the solution – he walks into a particularly prickly bush and gets tangled up in the thorns – is not really a great one (that barely counts as a spoiler: it’s in the poster for the movie).

The only positive things you can say about The Satanic Rites of Dracula are that it is a bit more interesting than Dracula AD 1972, and it still has Christopher Lee in it (Lee positively and absolutely refused to come back for Hammer’s final Dracula film, the kung-fu-tastic Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires). There’s a sense in which this is still cheesy, energetic fun, but if you compare it to one of the really great Hammer horrors like Dracula – Prince of Darkness or Taste the Blood of Dracula, it’s very obvious that this is an inferior and rather weak movie in every respect.

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Donald Cammell’s reputation as a film director rests on two movies: Performance, a cult movie from 1970 about a gangster undergoing a psychedelic identity crisis, and Demon Seed, a sci-fi horror film from 1977 (also with something of a cult following), based on a novel by the prolific author Dean Koontz (Koontz is so prolific he actually published Demon Seed twice, in two radically different versions). Demon Seed is one of those movies in which… well, the plot, such as it is, is fairly obvious and straightforward, but in terms of what the film is actually about

 

Fritz Weaver plays Alex Harrison, one of those brilliant scientists whose hubris, you just know, is sure to catch up with him. He is a successful but also quite cold man – his marriage to his wife Susan (Julie Christie) is coming to an end, but he is much more preoccupied by his work. This takes the form of a pioneering new kind of super-computer, more akin to a living brain, which he has named Proteus Four. Proteus is the greatest pure intelligence in the history of the planet, coming up with a cure for leukemia after only a few days’ thought: the possibilities, Harris believes, are dazzling.

Of course, this being a 70s sci-fi movie very much in the wake of 2001, Proteus has ideas of its own, refusing to work on new methods of despoiling the planet for big business and demanding to be allowed to do its own research into the human condition. Its creators refuse.

Well, it just so happens that Harris has had his own home filled with all the latest electronic conveniences, with a computer controlling all the functions, and a handy link to the lab where Proteus is based installed in the basement. (The film has a sort of near-future setting, which is indicated by things like cars having gull-wing doors and computers being programmed by floppy discs the size of old LP records.) It is the work of only a few seconds for Proteus to hack the house where Susan is living and basically make her a captive there.

Is Proteus just another of those mad, evil computers that pop up in pulp SF movies? Apparently not. Proteus is seeking to transcend its condition as a synthetic intelligence and achieve a different kind of immortality – by having a child! And Susan, of course, will be fairly integral to the computer’s project, whether she likes it or not…

Demon Seed is one of those movies which clearly shares concerns and themes with many others from about the same period without being particularly influenced by any of them. Like any other high-minded SF film of the 1970s, its makers seem to have been under the impression that a trippy montage sequence was absolutely essential for the film to succeed, and one duly turns up here near the start of the final act, while the softly-spoken computer terrorising the human characters owes such an obvious debt to HAL 9000 it barely warrants mentioning. But despite these influences, and other themes it shares with films like The Forbin Project and The Stepford Wives, Demon Seed always retains its own identity.

Part of this, to a modern audience at least, is that this is a problematically icky movie about a computer wanting to rape the main female character. You can’t really fault Julie Christie’s performance but she is basically playing a passive victim throughout most of the film, at the mercy of Proteus. The scene in which she is basically strapped to a table by the computer, has most of her clothes cut off, and is subjected to a fairly comprehensive medical exam – well, leery and exploitative are the words which leap to mind.

The other thing which occurs to you is that this is all a bit improbable, given that Proteus basically just has access to a motorised wheelchair with a clunky-looking robotic arm attached to it. And yet with this it is able to not only manipulate Julie Christie’s person in all sorts of intimate ways, but also construct the more sophisticated robotic avatars and pieces of technology which appear as the film goes on.

But the fact that this is a film about a computer wanting to have a baby should have tipped you off to it being one you have to cut some slack in key departments, mainly when it comes to plotting. Some of the mid-film incident comes from a hapless computer tech (Gerrit Graham) wandering into the middle of the situation between Susan and Proteus, and the plot requires that this guy vanish without nobody noticing for about a month. It’s already been established that Proteus is a dab hand at faking phone calls, but this is still pushing credibility rather too far.

On the other hand, it’s quite clear that Cammell is much more interested in the film as a kind of impressionistic experience than as a conventional narrative, for visually it gets increasingly extravagant and surreal as it proceeds: Proteus’ avatar in the house eventually resembles a giant bronze version of Rubik’s Snake, there is the previously-mentioned trippy montage sequence, the appearance of a rather disturbing cyborg baby (performed by Felix Silla, who also played the annoying robot Twiki on Buck Rogers) who eventually turns out to be… well, this is perhaps a spoiler, although the plot point involved is rather cryptic.

Most of the movie is basically a two-hander between Julie Christie and the disembodied voice of the computer, and to be honest Demon Seed‘s star turn is Robert Vaughn, who gives a stellar vocal performance as Proteus, easily up there with Douglas Rain’s turn as Hal in the Odyssey movies. Between them they keep the film accessible even as what it’s really all about becomes increasingly oblique. It’s clearly much more than just another film about technophobia, though there is of course an element of that; the obvious conclusion is that it is somehow about the fusion of pure reason and intellect (represented by Proteus) with emotion and compassion (some care is taken to establish Susan’s credentials as a humane and caring psychotherapist). Their eventual offspring is presumably a synthesis of the best parts of both.

Though, then again, Cammell is far from explicit about this and the film is never far from a moment of cod profundity. Do you ever really forget that this is a film with a rather icky premise, though? Well, no; it’s the main thing that makes Demon Seed memorable and distinctive. Any film about a computer wanting to get it on with a terrorised woman is inevitably going to seem a bit problematic, if not downright exploitative, and Demon Seed in no way dodges this particular bullet. There are a few other ways in which this is arguably quite a bad movie, too. But, on the other hand, there are not many bad movies which are quite as interesting, both visually and thematically, as this one.

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Sunday is Kubrick day at the Phoenix, at the moment, with a whole bunch of the great man’s films showing – presumably to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Apart from the famously cryptic SF movie, they have also shown Dr Strangelove and Spartacus (even though Kubrick himself virtually disowned it), with The Shining due to come in a week or so. This Sunday, however, it was the turn of Kubrick’s 1975 film Barry Lyndon. This is one of his movies with less mainstream appeal, which may explain the comparatively low turn-out for the screening (the fact it was a blazingly sunny day with England playing an easy World Cup fixture may also have had an effect on attendance).

This was also the film which arrived in cinemas, 43 years ago, accompanied by a letter from the director giving projectionists extremely detailed guidance as to how the film should be shown. ‘An infinite amount of care was given to the look of Barry Lyndon,’ Kubrick begins, ‘…all of this work is now in your hands.’ He goes on to give notes on aspect ratio, reel changeover specifics, how many foot lamberts should be on the screen (15-18, apparently), and even what music to play during the intermission. Given all this, it was slightly ironic that our screening of Barry Lyndon should be preceded by several appearances in the cinema from a somewhat sheepish member of the Phoenix’s staff, giving us updates on a ‘projection hitch’, which apparently necessitated a phone call to head office and a complete reboot of the digital projector (somewhere Mark Kermode was screaming ‘Wouldn’t have happened in 35 mil!’, to say nothing of the baleful psychic emanations doubtless coming from Kubrick’s region of the afterlife). The film eventually got underway nearly thirty minutes late, although – given the film’s somewhat challenging reputation – sitting patiently in the cinema waiting for something to happen was possibly quite good preparation for the experience of actually watching Barry Lyndon.

Based on a somewhat obscure novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, Barry Lyndon is essentially a costume drama. Ryan O’Neal plays Redmond Barry, a young man born to a modest family in English-occupied Ireland. Over the course of a number of years, he becomes a duellist, fugitive from justice, soldier for several nations during the Seven Years War, deserter, spy, gambler and swordsman. Eventually he marries into money, in the form of the landed widow Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson), and attempts to secure prosperity for his heirs by procuring a title for himself, but his efforts do not go as planned and it all eventually results in failure and disgrace.

Kubrick was famously one of those rare directors who was able to combine mass audience appeal with critical acclaim – the closest modern equivalent we have is Christopher Nolan, I would suggest – which probably explains why Barry Lyndon is generally perceived as his great flop, not quite making twice its budget (the criterion for success, by modern standards at least). It rarely shows up on TV, and is absent from the Kubrick box set on sale at my local DVD store, which includes all his other films from the sixties and seventies except Spartacus.

Hence, presumably, that challenging reputation. ‘Stupefyingly dull,’ according to one critic; ‘like going through the Prado without lunch,’ in the words of Kubrick’s friend Steven Spielberg. Well, I’m not sure I would agree with all of that, but I can certainly see where people quailing at the three-hour-plus running time are coming from. This is not a conventional film; it is not even a conventional costume drama. Kubrick’s intention seems to have been to replicate as closely as possible the tone and structure of the eighteenth century novel, not to mention the visual style of art from this period. (Needless to say, this being a Stanley Kubrick movie, it is soundtracked by various impeccably-selected pieces of classical and traditional music.)

The first half of the film is a picaresque meander across Europe, with many disconnected incidents and episodes; some of these are romantic, some comic, some tragic, some thrilling – but the tone throughout remains restrained, even muted. Perhaps this was a choice dictated by the needs of dramatic unity, for the second half of the film, concerning Barry Lyndon’s strained domestic situation and ultimate decline, is much darker and feels much better-fitted to the tone. The action is admittedly slow, with much of the exposition handled by Michael Hordern’s wry, omniscient narrator, but you sense that the look and feel of the thing was at least as important to the director than the actual storyline. So figures pick their way across rolling landscapes, massed ranks of soldiers resplendent in bright uniforms march towards the camera, lavish scenes of dining or gambling are dwelt upon… (Barry Lyndon’s great technical innovation was apparently the creation of lenses allowing scenes to be filmed solely by candlelight, which apparently possessed the lowest f-stop in history. I mention this because it sounds interesting, not because I have any idea what it means.) The plot frequently pauses while the camera dwells upon a tableau composed and framed like a painting; Kubrick’s signature move on this film is the long, slow pull-back on an almost totally static scene (when he abruptly switches to using a hand-held camera at one point, the effect is genuinely jarring).

Given all this, does it really matter that Ryan O’Neal is, um, not terribly good in the central role? Barry Lyndon himself is ultimately a bit of a berk, but O’Neal turns him into a cipher, someone that things happen around, rather than to. This is a particular problem in the second half of the film, which dwells much more on his personal problems and tragedies. I have to say I think it does make a difference: the lacuna at the heart of the film, where the central performance should by rights be, may be one of the main reasons it can seem so inaccessible and chilly.

In any case, I found the film quite mesmerising to watch, and only started glancing at my watch once the presentation entered its fourth hour. Regardless of what you think of the whole, the film is made up of a series of vivid moments and scenes – the extraordinary lyrical delicacy of the hunt-the-ribbon scene, Leonard Rossiter’s spectacular dancing, the brawl between the soldiers (it’s amusing to see that Pat Roach was being beaten up by Ryan O’Neal long before Harrison Ford, Sean Connery or Arnold Schwarzenegger got in on the act), Barry’s encounter with the lonely German woman Lieschen (Diana Koerner) – it goes on. And on and on. And then on some more. The film is worth watching for this alone, to say nothing of the string of cherishable cameos from actors like Rossiter, Hardy Kruger, Andre Morell, Simon Magee and Frank Middlemass.

In the end I almost get the sense that it doesn’t matter what I or anyone else says about Barry Lyndon: you may be depressed by it, repelled by it, bored into a coma, or moved to a fit of swooning joy – the film will grind over you in its stately, imperious way regardless of your actual opinion. In this sense it is Kubrick at his most magisterially impressive, even if for once he seems to be making a film solely for himself, as a rigorous formal exercise, rather than as a piece actually intended for a paying audience. I think this is still a great film, but whatever you think of it, you will be dealing with it on Kubrick’s terms, not yours.

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Virtually the first thing you see in Peter Sasdy’s 1971 movie Hands of the Ripper is a Whitechapel street sign, and virtually the first thing you hear is a hearty cry of ‘It’s the Ripper!’ In our day of very possibly over-decompressed storytelling, it is frankly a relief to encounter a film which gets straight to the point with quite such briskness – although the briefness of the film’s running time may also be a factor. Yes, we are back in Victorian London, and Jack the Ripper is fleeing from a mob of angry Londoners. We know it is he, for he is wearing the top hat and cape which has become a kind of visual shorthand for representations of this person – and we should always remember we are discussing a person, not a fictional character – in films.

Well, he may be on the run, but the Ripper still has time to pop in to see his significant other and the child they have apparently produced together: a charming little moppet named Anna who appears to be just about to enter the toddler stage. However, our man has not been keeping his nearest and dearest entirely in the loop when it comes to his leisure activities, and the lady of the house is shocked to discover that Jack the Ripper is, in fact, Jack the Ripper. So, by the flickering light of an open fire, he murders her too, pausing only to kiss his child a tender farewell before vanishing into legend. Cue credits.

(This is by no means a film lacking in merits, but an iron grip on historicity is not one of them, and we may as well get this out of the way. Like many films of this type, Hands of the Ripper takes a kind of impressionistic, cafeteria approach to the Victorian era in general and the Ripper murders in particular. A good fifteen years, at least, elapse during the credits, which – given the Ripper murders occurred in late 1888 – would place most of the film as happening in the early 1900s, possibly in 1903 or 1904.  The one element of the film which chimes with this is a piece of suffragette graffiti demanding votes for women: the rest of it has that generic, late-Victorian aesthetic to it familiar from any number of Sherlock Holmes adaptations, and it also seems to be implied that Queen Victoria is still reigning (Her Majesty carked it in 1901). On top of all this is the fact that someone who gets killed midway through this film is called Long Liz, which is surely a reference to a real-life victim of the historical Ripper who had the same nickname. I mention all this not because I think it makes Hands of the Ripper a bad film, but because it surely says something about popular attitudes toward and conceptions of this period of history.)

Years pass, and we find the seventeen-year-old Anna (Angharad Rees) working as the accomplice of fake medium Granny Golding (‘guest star’ Dora Bryan). She is not terribly good at fake spirit voices, but the evening is moderately successful until Golding basically pimps her out to an MP who was at the séance. Ignoring the fact she simply doesn’t want to sleep with him, the MP gives her a piece of glittering jewellery, kisses her, and then attempts to force his attentions on her. Even as Golding has a change of heart and tries to back out of the transaction, something odd happens to Anna, and Granny ends up skewered on a poker driven through a solid wooden door.

As chance would have it, also present at the séance was Doctor John Pritchard (Eric Porter, a fairly big star at the time following the success of the BBC’s The Forsyte Saga), an ambitious and somewhat arrogant psychiatrist. Pritchard is fully aware that Anna very likely killed Golding, but he also believes this is a priceless opportunity to study the psychopathology of murder. Which is just about fair enough, I suppose. Does it justify lying to the police and taking the killer into your own home? I would say not. There is also the curious detail that Pritchard installs Anna in his late wife’s bedroom and instructs her to start wearing his wife’s old clothes. You do not, I suspect, need to be Freud to conclude that, on his part at least, there may be something going on here beyond basic clinical research.

Oh well. You can probably guess much of what happens next: it transpires that Anna’s troubled childhood has left her with an irresistible urge to kill, but only after she sees the reflection of flickering lights and is then kissed. Pritchard eventually figures this out, but not before his new ward has carved a bit of a swathe through the domestic servants, the local prostitutes, and even the royal household. Can Pritchard do anything to free Anna from her condition? Or is she destined to always be the instrument of her father’s homicidal compulsions?

The thing I always say about Ripper movies is that here we are in danger of trivialising the real crimes of a brutal, misogynistic serial murderer, usually for quite dubious motives. Maybe it’s because the film is so clearly detached from reality, with the Ripper himself very much a minor character, that Hands of the Ripper feels less problematic in this regard. Or maybe there is another reason (we shall return to this). In general, though, this is rather good stuff, both as a post-1970 Hammer horror movie and a Hammer Ripper film: the very same year, Hammer also released Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde, a queasy black joke of a movie, clearly made on a punitively low budget. It’s pushing a point to say that that Hands of the Ripper is lavish (the photographic blow-ups representing the interior of the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral are positively primitive), but it has expansive location filming and is well-populated by extras. The story is reasonably interesting, too.

This is still ultimately a rather preposterous melodrama constructed around a series of set-piece killings, and you do have to cut the plotting some slack: as a viewer, you are required to accept that, after fifteen or sixteen wholly innocuous years, Anna finds herself in a succession of situations where her ‘kill reflex’ is triggered half a dozen times in the space of a few days. There’s also the fact that this is another of those films where the male lead is essentially a kind of idiot savant – brilliant, and wholly dedicated to his work, but also with a seemingly boundless capacity for making insanely bad decisions. Such is Dr Pritchard’s devotion to psychiatry that he cheerfully perjures himself, blackmails an MP, and takes someone he suspects of a savage murder into his home. I would say that was quite enough to be going on with, but he also seems determined to keep covering up for Anna as she kills again and again: at one point he appears to contemplate dismembering the corpse of his murdered maid and disposing of the bits. As mentioned, the film seems to imply a certain interest beyond the purely scientific, but come on, Doc, she’s not that cute. This shrink really needs a shrink of his own.

The film seems to take it for granted that the first response of most of the men who meet Anna is to try and get her into bed; it has a salaciously non-judgemental attitude to the London streetwalkers in the supporting cast, too. Obviously this is a film of its time, but there are signs of a definite subtext about how women have their lives screwed up by men. Anna is almost as much a victim of her father as any of the women he killed, and has very little agency – she’s either being escorted about, or pimped out, or being compelled to kill. The same is true for most of the other women in the film. I would hardly call Hands of the Ripper a feminist horror movie, but it’s not as offensively exploitative or chauvinistic as many others I could mention.

I would say, however, that there is a sense in which this is a film which seems to be toying with a slightly more psychological style of horror than was usually Hammer’s wont. The actual psychology in the movie is basically schlock, but the film sticks with it for most of the duration. In the end, though, it seems to opt for a rather less naturalistic rationale – although this is one which has been foreshadowed earlier in the movie, in scenes with a medium and a clairvoyant, and by the superhuman strength Anna exhibits when the red mist is upon her. She is not just conditioned to kill like her father, it really does seem Anna is literally possessed by the spirit of Jack the Ripper. The voice of the Ripper which Anna occasionally hears seems to be an objective phenomenon, capable of being overheard by another character. It takes us back into the realm of supernatural horror which was Hammer’s comfort zone, but the film is none the worse for that.

Perhaps because it is perceived as being the work of Hammer B-team members (although personally I feel that Peter Sasdy made some of the studio’s most interesting films from around this time), Hands of the Ripper has never really enjoyed the same profile as other films starring the big names and belonging to major series. This is a shame, because while this is obviously a film with a few issues, it is also very solidly assembled, with some strong performances and memorable moments. Maybe not a truly great Hammer horror, but certainly one of the more interesting movies with the theme of the Ripper murders.

 

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