Posts Tagged ‘1970s’

My recollection of going to the cinema as a child was that I usually had to pester my dad into taking me to anything I wanted to see, which basically consisted of films like Flash Gordon, The Black Hole, The Empire Strikes Back, and Spider-Man: The Dragon’s Challenge (which isn’t even a proper film). The only exceptions to this were when we went to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture one rainy afternoon, and another sunny day when – without, I think, giving my sister and I any clue – he took us both to see Richard Donner’s Superman. This can’t have been 1978, when the film was released; she would have been too young – but it can’t have been much later than that, either.

I suspect the reason for this is that my dad just likes Superman. Not in a serious, collect-the-comics kind of way, he just likes the idea of Superman – and, perhaps to a slightly lesser extent, Batman – probably because these are the superheroes who were in circulation when he was a lad. For him, Superman is the only such character who really matters – and maybe he has a point.

Endless TV showings and a couple of slightly iffy sequels may have made us all a bit too over-familiar with the Superman films made by the Salkind family, of which this is the first. It’s back on the big screen for its 45th anniversary (a slightly odd choice), but only about six people turned up to the only showing at the local independent, which was a bit sad, because it really does reward the big screen experience, not to mention your full attention.

The film itself opens by looking back to 1938, and the first Superman comics, in a black-and-white opening sequence which almost suggests this is going to be an exercise in juvenile nostalgia. But then the camera lifts, soaring into the night sky, as the opening phrases of John Williams’ theme burst onto the soundtrack.

And what a theme it is – one of the greatest pieces of music by one of the greatest composers of our day, with that curious double-hook which ensures that if you ask any group of people to sing the Superman theme, half of them will go ‘dah-diddly-dah, dee-dah-dah’ and the other half ‘dat-dah-dah, dah-dit-dah-dah-dahhh’. No wonder that so many other films and TV shows using Superman have stumped up the money to use this theme: there’s a very real sense in which, in live-action terms at least, Superman isn’t Superman unless he’s being soundtracked by John Williams.

Once the opening credits (slightly mystifying to those uninitiated in the dark arts of contract negotiations: Superman himself is third billed, while most of those listed only contribute cameos) conclude, we find ourselves on the planet Krypton – an austere, crystalline world, with an almost Kubrickian alienness to it. Once a bit of business with three criminals being sentenced is concluded (something that only pays off in the sequel), we are in the company of leading figure Jor-El (Marlon Brando), who is trying to convince his fellow elders that the planet is about to blow up. But no-one listens: perhaps he should have glued himself to something. (The hidebound, almost reactionary nature of Kryptonian society is neatly coded by the fact that nearly everyone has a British accent – amongst the councillors are Harry Andrews and dear old William Russell.) It’s fashionable to mock Brando’s appearance in this film, for which he was paid a stupendous sum and got top billing in exchange for very little screen-time, but I think it’s a very decent turn, verging on the moving in places. He’s certainly central to whole Krypton sequence, which is entirely credible and establishes this movie is not going to be kid’s stuff.

But, inevitably, Krypton blows up, the only survivor being Jor-El’s infant son Kal-El, who is rocketed off to Earth. All this has been happening in the Earth year 1948, apparently, and the tot’s escape craft crashlands in Kansas after a three-year trip. Here we get many vistas of rolling corn and an almost Norman Rockwell sense of benevolent Americana; Glenn Ford contributes his own very effective cameo as the lad’s adoptive father, whose premature death leaves a great impression on him.

Kal-El, who has been given the Earth name of Clark Kent (of course), goes off in search of his destiny and finds it at the north pole, where a handy piece of kit left in the rocket with him instantly builds a cathedral-sized replica of Krypton. He and Brando’s disembodied head go off on a sort of metaphysical trip together for twelve years or so, after which he manages to land a job at a major newspaper despite not appearing to finish High School (presumably Superman’s inviolable principles still permit the odd bit of CV-padding).

Here the tone of the film shifts again, with the same skill and confidence that it has displayed throughout so far. The Salkinds and their writers seem to have figured out how to make a Superman movie that works for a mainstream audience – which doesn’t mean taking the character wholly seriously. One can understand why they apparently spent months in meetings with DC Comics executives discussing ‘the integrity of the character’. Superman himself is never spoofed or mocked in this film, but this next section is essentially written and played as light comedy, which is a brilliant choice. Superman is, in the best possible way, an absurd character, and the film kind of toys with this fact while never losing sight of the fact that he is also a wonderful creation.

So we get to see Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve, of course, of course – in many ways still the only Superman who really matters) arriving in Metropolis to start his new job (Metropolis looks almost exactly like New York City), meet Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) and everyone else, and then soar into action as Superman – rescuing first Lois from a helicopter crash (‘I hope this little incident hasn’t put you off flying,’ deadpans Reeve), then the President from a plane crash, and still finds time to get a cat down out of a tree. It is all so magnificently perfect you want to track down Bryan Singer and Zach Snyder and hit them with bits of wood.

Practically the only misstep the film makes through these opening three movements, to my mind, is the rather unimpressive spoken-word musical item performed by Kidder during her sweepingly romantic flight with the Man of Steel. This is, one suspects, not Leslie Bricusse’s finest hour as a lyricist, and it always makes my teeth itch (not that it doesn’t contain the occasional good line, of course).

But, of course, the film needs to find a moment of real challenge and jeopardy for Superman, and this comes in the final movement of the film, as diabolical genius Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman, really having some fun) sets about a property scam that involves using nuclear missiles to topple half of California into the sea. He also gets his hands on some kryptonite, which only cemented my dad’s belief that Superman, for all his merits, is a flawed creation as you have to keep using kryptonite on him; he has no other weaknesses or limitations. (Which personally I would argue with, but I digress.)

The question, really, is whether the end of Superman lets the movie down – it’s certainly hard to claim it’s one of the strongest parts of the film. Superman stops a flood, prevents a train crash, props up the San Andreas fault from somewhere within the Earth’s crust, and so on, but fails to save Lois’ life. Holding her body in his arms, he screams his loss (a moment strikingly similar to one in the climax of the original Incredible Hulk TV movie, from the previous year), then flies off to…

Well, it’s not entirely clear – either he is flying faster than light and going back in time to change what happened, or somehow rewinding all of history so it never happened in the first place. It’s not entirely a cheat, as in the books Superman was able to travel in time under his own power for quite a while (other weird and obscure powers included having the ability to shoot miniature clones of himself out of his hands and rearrange his own face), and the moment has been foreshadowed throughout the movie, but narratively it begs all sorts of questions, about time paradoxes and more. Beyond that, it may be making an important statement about Superman’s love for Lois, but it’s also clearly implying that Superman is virtually omnipotent and can’t meaningfully be challenged.

Personally, I think the film gets away with it, because two hours of getting virtually everything right means it has generated an enormous reserve of goodwill that a slightly wobbly climax can’t entirely dispel. We live in a world where, obviously, you can barely move for superhero films sometimes, but there is still something special about this one. Perhaps it is because both Superman and the film burst into a world where they are something unique and surprising – the movie is very grounded in reality, apart from the fantasy figure of Superman himself. And yet the film isn’t afraid to treat the Superman story in mythic terms – the story of ‘a perfect man, who came from the sky and did only good’ (and this is before we even get onto the fact that there’s a father somewhere in the heavens who sends his only son to use his miraculous powers to be an example to the human race). It does all of these things and gets them right. It’s tempting to say that this is a template for a different way to do superhero movies, but then it may just be that Superman is special. Whatever the truth, watching this film is a joyous experience even today. DC Comics would kill to make a movie half this good today.

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I can still remember the morning when my junior school teacher sat the whole class down, got us to open our books, and announced we were going to write a story. We could write whatever we wanted, as long as we stuck to the title The Haunted House (for boys) or The Fairy Garden (for girls – oh, those pre-woke days). I couldn’t believe this was actually school work – I remember the sense of almost delirious joy and possibility at, after years of copying stuff out, being able to write anything I wanted to. I stayed in at lunchtime (normally a punishment) to write more. Some would say I have never quite stopped writing in the forty-plus years since.

All I can remember about that first exercise in fiction was the end (my best friend came up with a really good idea, which I promptly ripped off), and a bit halfway through when my best friend (who was heavily involved in those early efforts, both as a source of ideas and a character) was wandering around the titular structure when he was attacked by ‘Zoltan, the hound of Dracula’ who I seem to recall left him ‘half-dead’. It was probably a bit optimistic of me to expect the casual reader to know who ‘Zoltan, the hound of Dracula’ actually was, given I didn’t actually explain it, but this small detail reveals two important nuggets of information – firstly, as a small child I was clearly paying far too much information to the horror movie listings in the Radio Times – the TV premiere of the movie Zoltan… Hound of Dracula had clearly left a big impression on me – and secondly, my first ever work of fiction is, in retrospect, possibly the world’s only piece of Zoltan… Hound of Dracula fan fiction. Any serious prospect of a proper writing career was clearly doomed from the outset.

The movie which played such a seminal role in my young life was directed by Albert Band and released in 1977. In the States it was lumbered with the rather less evocative title of Dracula’s Dog, but on the other hand this probably does give you a better sense of what to expect from the film. That said, it does get off to a belting start, with Red Army troops blasting their way into a tomb complex somewhere in Romania. This turns out to be a family crypt of the Dracula dynasty and thus probably not to be messed with. Perhaps inevitably, one man is left on guard while everyone else clears off.

That night, there is subsidence in the tomb, or possibly an earthquake, and two coffins are thrown clear of the vault. The sentry, being an idiot, opens one of them and finds something covered in a blanket with a wooden stake sticking out of it. Because he is a real idiot, he pulls out the stake and then seems to be genuinely surprised when something springs out of the coffin at him. Well, to be fair, he probably wasn’t expecting a dobermann to be in a coffin, but even so. Yes, it is the star of the movie, Zoltan himself, and he makes short work of the idiot guard before managing to open the other coffin and yanking out the stake with his teeth.

In the other coffin is Veidt Smit (Reggie Nalder), a servitor of the Dracula family who is described as a ‘fractional lamia’, whatever that means. Smit is immortal, doesn’t need to drink blood, and seems to have some sort of psychic powers, but is bound to the will of the Draculas (in this movie ‘Dracula’ and ‘vampire’ are used more-or-less interchangeably). But there aren’t any Draculas left, the last of the line having upped stakes and moved to California years ago. Clearly it is up to Smit and Zoltan to visit this man and remind him of his family legacy…

(There’s also a bit where we see Zoltan looking at the tombstone of ‘Igor Dracula’, at which point we are treated to a flashback sequence which serves as his origin story: we see Dracula, thwarted in his attempt to chow down on the lovely daughter of Smit, who was previously an innkeeper – she screams and he runs away, which seems a bit out of character – settling for second best and attacking the innkeeper’s dog Zoltan instead. Dracula does this in bat form, presumably because it would be a bit weird for a grown man to be seen sucking a dobermann. He then recruits Smit as well, on a sort of two-for-one deal, although while Zoltan is apparently a full vampire, or at least a full a vampire as it is possible for a dog to be, Smit is stuck being a ‘fractional lamia’. It does look like Smit is the brains of this team, though, relatively speaking.

When all this happened is not clear – Wikipedia has a stab at 1670, which predates the development of the dobermann as a breed, while ChatGPT is predictably useless and suggests the film is a horror comedy starring Eddie Redmayne as Dracula and Jack Black as his dog. It probably doesn’t really matter. Also obscure is exactly what it means to be a vampire dog – does Zoltan have supercanine strength and speed? If, as per Stoker, Dracula can turn into a dog, does this mean Zoltan can turn into a human being? As this would require the film-makers to display some genuine imagination, it doesn’t happen, of course.)

Anyway, on the trail of Zoltan and Smit is one Inspector Branco (Jose Ferrer, by his own admission solely here for the money), who has got the facts of the situation from the officer commanding the troops at the tomb. She is played by Arlene Martel, who portrayed Spock’s fiancee in the original version of Star Trek, but sadly she only has this one scene. This movie is actually good fodder for our Trekkie cousins – Nalder played the Andorian ambassador in one episode, which the last of the Draculas is played by Michael Pataki, who was a Klingon in the episode with the tribbles.

Pataki plays one Michael Drake, a psychiatrist with a lovely family and a curious selection of family heirlooms he should probably have paid more attention to. He also has a couple of German Shepherds which prove to be significant to the plot. As luck and budget limitations would have it, Drake and his brood, together with the dogs, are about to go off for a short break in their camper, thus allowing the rest of the film to be filmed off in the woods somewhere where it’s less expensive.

As you are perhaps sensing, Zoltan… Hound of Dracula is not a particularly great, or even good, or even (if we’re honest) mediocre movie, overall, and one of the things that make it so poor is the fact it is so glacially paced. Every time anyone gets in their car or RV and drives somewhere, we get a lengthy sequence of them driving along while cheery music plays on the soundtrack, whether this is appropriate or not. You start to anticipate these sequences, but this doesn’t make them any less annoying while they’re in progress.

Zoltan and Smit eventually start to come across as just a bit incompetent, as they spend most of the second half of the movie lurking in the undergrowth near the Drakes’ camper without ever seeming likely to actually make a move on Drake himself. The Drake family dogs start acting weirdly, and other local campers are in serious peril, but that’s all. The film’s most bizarre and provocative moment comes when Zoltan slakes his unholy thirst by drinking the blood of a cute little German Shepherd puppy, which the Drakes bury with all due reverence and sadness. But, of course, the puppy rises from the dead as a vampire, digging itself out of the ground and scampering blithely away while no-one’s looking. The twist at the end of the film is that the vampire German Shepherd puppy is still on the loose somewhere, an idea that screams… well, maybe it just screams.

After a while you get a strong and accurate sense that nothing very exciting or scary is ever going to happen in this movie, despite the best efforts of the dog trainers. Branco turns up (having traded in his homburg for a beret that makes him look like an aging beatnik) and tells Drake what’s happening. Drake, rather improbably, believes him, and the stage is set for… more of the same, really.

In the end it is what it is: a super-low-budget cash-in on the Dracula name, which never really finds something interesting to do with the area of vampire-canine intersection which it has proudly claimed for itself. You could probably do a reasonably interesting film about vampire dogs if you thought about it imaginatively. But no-one here did. Zoltan… Hound of Dracula starts off with glimmers of promise but quickly turns into a heavily-padded piece of unintentional low camp. Seven year old me might have been more generous about it, but – for good or ill – that kid is long gone. Zoltan… Hound of Dracula is still marking his territory on various video-sharing websites, however. Maybe there’s a message there for us all. Or maybe not.

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It’s never a bad idea to have a goal in life, no matter how quixotic, and by the early 1970s it seemed that producer-director Dan Curtis’s aim was to bring a particular flavour of horror to the Great American Viewing Public. By this point he had already been in charge of the gothic horror soap melodrama Dark Shadows for two years, overseen its two big-screen spin-offs, and produced the immensely popular horror TV movie The Night Stalker (this eventually led to the Kolchak TV show, something Curtis was not involved with). In retrospect, the next step must have seemed obvious – another gothic horror TV movie, this one concerning the original night stalker.

The result was Bram Stoker’s Dracula, originally intended for an October 1973 broadcast but eventually arriving in February the following year. Ever since the release of Francis Ford Coppola’s own Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the rights to that name have belonged elsewhere; these days when Curtis’ film shows up it’s usually simply as Dracula (which is not the most distinctive title for a horror movie, I will grant you).

It wasn’t a coincidence that Curtis and Coppola chose the same name – the selling point of both productions was that, supposedly, each was the most faithful adaptation of the novel made up to that point. To oversee the script, Curtis hired Richard Matheson, who’d written the two Kolchak TV movies as part of a long and immensely distinguished career in the horror and SF genres. Is it a ripped-from-the-page take on Stoker’s novel? Well, no, but it gets closer than most (for my money the most faithful Dracula remains the BBC version with Louis Jourdan, which came out a few years after this movie was made).

Virtually everyone knows the premise of Dracula by now; most people probably have a vague idea of the plot. Well-mannered estate agent Jonathan Harker (Murray Brown) is packed off to Hungary to assist a local nobleman in the purchase of some property in England, much to the concern of the peasants he meets on the way. (Yes, deviation #1: in this movie it is repeatedly suggested that Dracula is Hungarian, not Romanian!) But the Count himself (Jack Palance) is a gracious enough host, even if the women of his household seem to be taking a permanent walk on the wild side. Dracula takes a special interest in Harker’s photos from home, especially those of his fiancee Mina (Penelope Horner) – ‘Mina’ is pronounced to rhyme with ‘winner’ by all concerned, which doesn’t seem right to me, but so it goes.

Dracula heads off to the new house he’s bought in Blighty (deviation #2: Carfax is somewhere in the north, not in London – though no-one ever gets this right), leaving Jonathan to try and survive in Castle Dracula unassisted. Soon enough Mina’s friend Lucy is suffering from a mysterious neck wound and an inexplicable wasting illness. Lucy’s fiance Arthur Holmwood (Simon Ward) is worried enough to call in his acquaintance Dr Van Helsing (Nigel Davenport), who quickly figures out that there’s something nasty on the loose near Whitby. Pass the garlic!

If we’re going to be technical about this, I reckon this is about 70% faithful to Bram Stoker, with many of the changes imposed for budgetary reasons – whichever way you cut it, there are quite a few dead wood characters in Dracula, which is why Dr Seward and Quincey usually get the chop, as happens here. Mounting scenes in Victorian London, especially after dark, was clearly also beyond Curtis’ resources, though we get a decent look at the aftermath of the wreck of the Demeter (we see the dead helmsman lashed to the wheel, with a moody-looking Dracula standing on the beach in the background).

Of the remainder, I reckon about 20% comes straight from the first Hammer Dracula – particularly the central partnership of Van Helsing and Arthur Holmwood, and also the climax (never mind curtains, the Count needs to get his windows bricked up). The last 10% brings quite a different flavour with it, for it seems to me to be a holdover from The Night Stalker itself – Robert Cobert’s score is virtually identical in many places, for one thing, while this is (I think) one of the very first instances of Dracula being presented as a borderline-supervillain, with superhuman strength and indifference to bullets – again, very much in the same vein as Night Stalker, where the villain strolls through hails of gunfire and throws policemen around like ragdolls. (On the topic of Dracula-as-supervillain: ironically, the Marvel Comics version of Dracula looked rather like Jack Palance for many years, even though that comic book started before this film was made.)

On the other hand, Curtis’ Dracula doesn’t have any of the funky swagger or urgency of The Night Stalker. It’s the kind of film where respect for the source material is in danger of turning into over-reverence. Normally I like my adaptations to be pretty faithful to the original text, but the world is not short on Draculas and it would be nice to have seen a freer take on it from Matheson (writer, let’s not forget, of the seminal I Am Legend). On the other hand, Hammer’s Dracula spent the first half of the 1970s molesting Carnaby Street hippies, hanging out in Millbank Tower, and appearing in kung fu movies, so I suppose that at this point doing a relatively ‘straight’ adaptation was in its way quite radical. Curtis’ movie could certainly be seen as the point at which the pendulum starting swinging back towards the more faithful Draculas of the end of the decade (Werner Herzog’s and John Badham’s, as well as the BBC version).

Nevertheless, there’s a thin line between straight and stiff, and this is a pretty stiff version of the story whichever way you cut it. I think a lot of this is down to the casting – Jack Palance isn’t a terrible Dracula, but he seems grumpy more than actually evil, and he’s a long way from being the charismatic ladykiller of the popular imagination (that said, this conception of the character has little to do with the Stoker text, so it’s not necessarily a problem). Filming in England means a few familiar faces pop up – Sarah Douglas is a bride of Dracula, while John Challis (Herman Boyce in various sitcoms) also gets a walk-on. But Simon Ward makes hardly any impression as Arthur and Nigel Davenport’s Van Helsing is more like some bluff old cove you’ve met down the golf club than a dedicated seeker into dark mysteries and vampire lore.

The 1970s were a boom period for vampire and Dracula movies – there were at least six ‘proper’ Dracula films I can think of without racking my memory, and that’s before we consider things like Count Iorga Vampire and the Blacula films, let alone things like Zoltan, Hound of Dracula. Even if it wasn’t a TV movie, it wouldn’t be entirely surprising if the Curtis Dracula got lost in the crowd a bit. It’s not the greatest version of the story, but it’s a worthy one that tries to take it seriously and do it justice. I wish I could find nicer things to say about it, but… it’s just a little bit lacking in fun.

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We are in a bleak desert under a clear sky; there are ruins, and what appears to be some scaffolding. Faintly ominous music, with twanging electric guitars, rises; the camera roams around the ruins. The tempo increases as the appearance of a plume of dust heralds the arrival of a battered second-hand bus. People whom we can not unjustifiably describe as a bunch of hippies pile off the bus and start unloading costumes and props, almost instinctively separating into different cliques as they do so; one member of the group (Carl Anderson) watches all of this with mounting unease, eventually walking away from the others entirely. Finally, one man (Ted Neeley) is apparently singled out for the adoration of the others, and dressed in a white robe. The music rises, the overture finishes, and we are watching Norman Jewison’s 1973 adaptation of Lloyd-Webber and Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar.

I must confess to having a long and somewhat peculiar association with this particular show and the movie based on it. I have what you might call a faith-based background, which in my youth extended to amateur theatre, especially at Easter. For some reasons the songs from this particular film were judged especially suitable for incorporation into my local church productions, which is why some of the songs inevitably summon up images in my mind of performances by school caretakers and retired electricians in glued-on beards.

Nevertheless, we still had the soundtrack album in the house and the film itself turned up on TV most years; initially I was rather thrilled by its daring non-naturalism (we shall come back to this), but as the years went by I learned to appreciate the qualities of the songs and the performances. Nowadays it is without a doubt my favourite religiously-themed film, and the only film about the Easter story that I have any real affection for.

Usually I would say that we don’t need to worry too much about doing a synopsis for the story on this occasion… but then again perhaps we do. My understanding is that, while looking around for a new project, Rice and Lloyd-Webber hit upon the idea of doing a show called Judas Iscariot, an attempt to rehabilitate a Biblical figure with something of an image problem. They moved on from this fairly quickly, but you can see the vestiges of the concept in the way the film is structured. Judas (Anderson) gets the opening and closing numbers, after all, and it is these which set out the film’s rules of engagement.

Jesus Christ Superstar is not wholly a religious film, although if you are a person of faith you can certainly view it in that way. Instead, it is much more preoccupied with the personal and the political, as Judas makes clear in the film’s first big song, ‘Heaven On Their Minds’: he is a social activist, a fiercely angry man. He is filled with deep disquiet at the cult of personality he sees springing up around his friend Jesus, concerned at the possibility of reprisals from the local and imperial authorities. But Jesus doesn’t see it quite the same way, to Judas’ frustration and resentment.

If one takes Judas’ worldly perspective and discounts the possibility of Jesus actually being a supernatural figure, then Judas becomes a much more sympathetic figure than is usually the case; he is given a personality and motivations largely missing from Biblical accounts. (Indeed, the film has much in common with the apocryphal Gnostic Gospel according to Judas, which also attempts to set the story straight.) The great success of Jesus Christ Superstar lies in the way it succeeds in bringing to life characters who tend to be rather one-dimensional in most tellings of this story – mainly Jesus and Judas, but to a lesser extent also Mary Magdalene (Yvonne Elliman) and Pontius Pilate (Barry Dennen) – it was Dennen who first interested Jewison in doing a film of this show, after giving him a copy of the original album while they were working together on Fiddler on the Roof.

It’s a very interesting take on the material which synergises extremely well with the non-naturalistic telling of the story. The device of the play-within-the-film is more or less adhered to (although there’s a sequence in which Judas is pursued across the desert by the tanks of the Israeli army, who didn’t appear to be on the bus at the start), and there’s a hip sort of anachronism going on – Roman soldiers wear shiny chrome helmets and carry Uzis, the merchants at the temple are selling cannabis. Then again, the general sensibility of the film is very much of the Age of Aquarius, the songs showing influences ranging from heavy metal to comic ragtime pastiche.

The most important thing with a musical, of course, is whether the songs are any good. Well, I think Jesus Christ Superstar has more than its share of bangers, which is all the more impressive considering it is sung-through and the songs have to do most of the storytelling. Carl Anderson is without a doubt the funkiest Iscariot in cinema history, delivering killer performances of his two big numbers, while I think Ted Neeley is just as good as Jesus – I know some people consider him the worst Jesus in cinema history, but I can’t imagine why: his big solo song is probably ‘Gethsemane’, which he absolutely nails. Elsewhere there are songs like ‘Could We Start Again, Please?’, as lovely an expression of regret as one could hope to hear, and ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’, which has a melody so beautiful it travelled back in time from Lloyd-Webber’s mind and ended up in a Mendelsohn concerto.

You might consider all of this a bit irreverent, possibly even inappropriately so. (There’s certainly a line about the Prophet Mohammed in one of the songs it would take a brave man to write nowadays.) Some Christian groups have accused the film of verging on the heretical, given its readiness to challenge the way these characters are traditionally presented, and its ambiguous approach to the more supernatural elements of the story. The film depicts the crucifixion but not the resurrection, and ends with a curiously obscure coda: the cast, back in their original clothing, board the bus to depart – only Dennen, Elliman and Anderson noticing that Neeley has seemingly disappeared. But if nothing else this is true to the apparent conception of the film, which was to make something which, while not an explicitly Christian film, is certainly a sympathetic one. Certainly it has moments which are genuinely poignant and moving, unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a standard Biblical epic.

(Of course, if we’re talking about 1973 films about what is essentially a religious sacrifice, with a strong musical element, then we’re obliged to mention Jesus Christ Superstar in the same breath as The Wicker Man. This really is a sacriligious idea, of course – and yet I don’t think it’s as much of a stretch as it sounds. There’s the music, the ambiguous – or at least unresolved – ending, and a strangely similar moment in which the protagonist receives their role and is garbed as such by the rest of the cast. Of course it could just be me.)

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It is true that, occasionally, I have been a bit dismissive of Sean Connery – or at least some of the movies he made later in his career. Looking at the filmography, I realise that most of the really duff stuff came along in the 1990s. These all tended to be very slick star vehicles for the big man, which is probably why I have made comments along the lines of ‘another promising movie slaughtered on the altar of Connery’s vanity’. His performance in these films – and it really is usually exactly the same performance – mostly consists of rugged twinkling

I realise now that things were not always thus, and some of the films in earlier decades showed Connery had a real desire to push himself as an actor and break out of the persona that the circumstances of his rise to stardom left him constricted by. Part of the deal for his initial return as Bond for Diamonds are Forever included the stipulation that he’d be allowed to make two modestly-budgeted films of his own choice – no-one seems to be quite sure what the second of these was, but the first, The Offence, is a substantial movie that is about as far away from a Bond caper as one can get.

The movie is directed by Sidney Lumet, who was a fairly regular collaborator with Connery at this point. The setting is contemporary; somewhere drab and grimy in the north of England. A young girl is missing, presumed kidnapped; involved in the search is Johnson (Connery), a long-serving detective-sergeant with, shall we say, a no-messing-about approach to dealing with suspects. Johnson is the one who comes across the girl, who has been sexually assaulted, and accompanies her to hospital. No real leads are forthcoming.

A man named Baxter (Ian Bannen) is picked up for acting suspiciously – he matches the very vague description they have of the attacker, but then so do many men. He refuses a solicitor and they don’t have grounds to formally charge him, so it’s a question of whether they can extract a confession in the short period of time available before they are obliged to relase him. He is uncooperative, until Johnson takes his turn, questioning Baxter alone.

Johnson beats Baxter to death. (This is not a spoiler: the film has a complex, achronological structure, and the revelation of Johnson’s attack on the suspect comes at the very beginning of the film.) He is relieved of duty and sent home as the procedures that must accompany such an incident are put into motion. But what has actually happened? Is there a kind of justice in what Johnson has done, or is it a case of a rogue policeman going off the rails with lethal results?

No-one would mistake The Offence for anything other than a Sean Connery movie: once the camera finds him, it stays with him for almost all the rest of the film, apart from a few brief scenes, and he is at the heart of everything that happens in it. But, as noted, it has an uncommon seriousness and gravity to it which is really surprising. Connery was noted, long into his life, for what a tremendously virile figure he cut – voted, let us not forget, the sexiest man of the 20th century. He got his start as an actor in the chorus of a production of South Pacific after the producers recruited out of the local body-builders gym, apparently because most musical theatre actors of the time were not convincingly masculine enough. As James Bond he was the embodiment of a certain kind of aggressive masculinity (no doubt a toxic variety these days). It runs through most of his career like a seam of ore.

This is one of the rare films in which Connery undercuts his own image and looks at the dark, squirming things that come to light if you lift up the rock of masculinity. Decades of exposure to the most repulsive and sordid expressions of human nature have taken their toll on Johnson, who is frustrated at his apparent inability to make a difference – and his inability to express this to his wife (Vivien Merchant) has led to the collapse of their relationship, resulting in another sort of frustration. As a consequence, Johnson becomes a tragic and frightening figure, silently raging within, lacking in any healthy means of expressing himself.

It’s a very powerful performance; one of Connery’s best, probably. He dominates the film, which is no mean feat considering the strength of the supporting case – many of these are best-known as TV actors, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less capable. Trevor Howard plays the senior officer brought in to investigate; Johnson’s colleagues are played by Peter Bowles, Derek Newark, Ronald Radd and John Hallam. It’s a very male-dominated film, apart from Merchant’s contribution (which is also of a high standard). Perhaps the other most notable performance is from Ian Bannen, who has a very challenging task – Baxter’s guilt or innocence is deliberately left completely ambiguous, which means he has to appear by turns sympathetically weak and yet convincingly repulsive. He manages this with great aplomb.

It’s a good film, if not an easy watch – but somehow it doesn’t quite qualify as one of the highlights of Connery’s career in the way you might expect it to. This is because the film never quite manages to transcend its origins, which were as a stage play entitled Something Like the Truth. Despite some clever directorial touches and considerable use of location filming, there remains something extremely stagey about The Offence – all the key scenes revolve around two characters in an office or living room somewhere. A lot of the dialogue even sounds very theatrical, especially the way Connery delivers it. It doesn’t sound like natural speech, but people declaiming monologues at each other, exposing their souls and personal circumstances in unlikely depth. It doesn’t really mesh with the gritty naturalism of the story and setting.

It’s a definite flaw but not a terminal one. The subject matter means this is unlikely to be a film someone sits down to watch purely to be entertained, but it deals with important topics – in some ways I suspect it may seem even more timely now than it did fifty years ago. And it’s an important exhibit to support the case that Sean Connery wasn’t just a great movie star but a pretty good actor too. Worth watching.

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The desert, somewhere in the American south-west; a figure on horseback materialises out of the heat-haze, apparently travelling with purpose as the credits slowly appear and disappear. We are watching High Plains Drifter, starring and directed by Clint Eastwood (his second film as director and his first western in charge, although some would argue that the issue of the film’s genre is open to question), screenplay by Ernest Tidyman (if not quite hot in Hollywood after the success of Shaft, then certainly agreeably warm to the touch). The music, by Dee Barton, is rather mournful and eerie.

It soon becomes very obvious that Eastwood is not in the business of tearing up the form book as far as the western genre is concerned – although, as we will see, he is certainly not averse to playing with it a bit, in a mordant sort of way. The Stranger (for we never really learn his name, although on-the-ball viewers will certainly have an idea or two in this direction by the end of the film) rides into a small town named Lago, a desolate little place on the edge of a lake. The local tough boys are not pleased to see him; they follow him from the saloon to the barber shop, where Eastwood gets his retribution in first by gunning all three of them down in short order.

So far, so very much in the spirit of A Fistful of Dollars, with Eastwood as the enigmatic, ruthless antihero. He seems intent on pushing the archetype here as far as he can go, however: a woman from the town (Mariana Hill) is rather snooty towards the Stranger, not long after the shooting. He decides she needs a lesson in ‘manners’ and proceeds to drag her into a stable, where he rapes her.

It’s fair to say that this is still a shocking moment, almost unparallelled in Eastwood’s movie career – it’s still deeply uncomfortable to watch today, perhaps more than it was when the film came out in 1973. All kinds of nasty tropes swirl around it, not the least being the implication that after putting up some resistance, Hill’s character yields and finds herself actually rather enjoying it. Later on she tries to kill Eastwood (though not especially hard) and the jokey suggestion is that this is simply because he didn’t come back for a second helping. The fact that the Stranger is still the closest thing the film has to a hero is also a problem, while the eventual revelation that Hill bears some moral responsibility for nasty things herself hardly excuses what Eastwood’s character does to her: virtually everyone in Lago is guilty (with the possible exception of the town dwarf), but it’s only the attractive women that the Stranger gives his special attention to.

Anyway, the story rolls on: everyone in town has other reasons for concern, as it is revealed that three proper villains are due to be released from prison, and are sure to be heading this way in search for revenge (they were arrested in town, though it’s implied there’s something more going on, too). Who will save the town from evil? Who is that good with a gun? The cogs of archetype tick and click and the town elders approach the Stranger – will he accept the job of defending the town? Naturally, he demurs at first, but eventually agrees to take the gig, provided everyone does what he says. Black comedy ensues as the various worthies realise just what they’ve done by effectively giving Eastwood absolute power as the Tyrant of Lago: he appoints the dwarf (Billy Curtis) as mayor and sheriff, gives everyone a free drink at the saloon owner’s expense, clears out the general store getting materials for defence, and so on. Very soon the blanched townfolk are wondering if the sickness wouldn’t be preferable to the cure…

As westerns go this is a sour one and a dark one: the classic western, the western of John Ford, is a tale of self-realisation and individualism, out amongst the wide open spaces of a new land bursting with promise. High Plains Drifter isn’t anything like that, as befits a film made by someone who rose to stardom in Sergio Leone movies (Leone’s name apparently appears on a headstone in the cemetery at the end of the film) – it’s a cynical tale of darkly moral retribution, set in a wasteland. It’s a western for the Nixon generation, not Eisenhower’s. And this was noted at the time – John Wayne wrote to Eastwood complaining that the film misrepresented the West and the people who lived there. (Other films that Wayne took exception to included 1941 – not only did he turn down a part in it, he asked Spielberg not to make it at all.)

This is the kind of Clint Eastwood western where, come the closing credits, the whole town is either in ruins or actually on fire, and most of the major characters have been shot, usually by Eastwood himself. It’s a story pattern which resonates throughout his career in the genre, from the very beginning to the very end. High Plains Drifter is perhaps its most harsh and uncompromising treatment; though it is playful too, in its way. One thing it is not is tremendously subtle, compared to the other films it resembles.

One of the criticisms made of Eastwood’s 1985 film Pale Rider is that it is essentially a remake of High Plains Drifter, or at least High Plains Drifter mashed up with Alan Ladd’s Shane. And both of these assertions are substantially true. Pale Rider is probably a better film – or at least a more comfortable one – but it certainly has the same central conceit, concerning the identity of the main character. The Stranger, in his quieter moments, has visions – or perhaps memories? – of the town’s former marshal being whipped to death by the three villains he’s been hired to kill. The marshal (played by Eastwood’s own regular double, Buddy Van Horn) was buried in an unmarked grave somewhere outside the town. ‘The dead don’t rest without a marker of some kind,’ says one of the townswomen, ominously. Gradually the truth emerges that the marshal discovered the town’s prosperity derives from an illegal gold mine on government land, and that rather than face the consequences the people of Lago arranged to have him killed, and then had the assassins sent to prison to avoid paying them off. In short, the Lagoites have it coming to them, and the Stranger is… well, Eastwood has played an exterminating angel of justice often enough over the years – on this occasion he may literally be a spectre of vengeance.

It’s a great premise for a film and Eastwood handles it confidently and competently (this was still very early days for him as a director, after all). Drama, black comedy, and action are deftly interwoven, and there is always Eastwood’s potent charisma at the heart of the film. But for all that, I find it to be a tough film to really warm to – it’s not a patch on Unforgiven or The Outlaw Josey Wales, certainly. There’s a cold, formal element to it, almost as if the allegorical aspects of the story are resting just a little too close to the skin of the thing. Pale Rider buries them more successful, and is more successful as a film as a result. But you still couldn’t call High Plains Drifter a member of that select club, of which membership is limited to bad Clint Eastwood films. At the end of the film the Stranger rides out into the desert, and – the opening in reverse – appears to simply fade out of existence. Maybe it’s the heat-haze. Maybe it isn’t. But a harsh kind of justice has been done, a circle has been closed – and if it’s been an ambiguous experience for the viewer, perhaps there’s a kind of truth in that, too.

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Joseph Stefano, screenwriter of Psycho and producer of much of The Outer Limits, had a rule for most of his tenure on the latter: every episode had to have a ‘bear’ – i.e., a big scary creature, which would preferably show up just before the mid-episode ad break (round about the same time as the first Hulk-out in an episode of The Incredible Hulk). I suppose it’s sound enough as a principle, though it sounds quite creatively limiting to me.

The whole issue of ‘when you show the bear’ is fairly important when you’re doing a monster movie, and the consensus seems to be ‘not too early, not too late’ – too early, and you run the risk of running out of things to do with it, not to mention you have less time to build suspense; too late, and the audience will get bored. (Although Hal Chester, who was involved in the making of Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Night of the Demon, ensured that the monster got wheeled on very early in both of those, albeit only for a sort of appetising cameo.) Just after the mid-point seems to be the sweet spot, structurally speaking, though of course this isn’t necessarily a good thing if your monster is no good. I think it was Jeff Morrow, star of The Giant Claw, who observed that acting in a monster movie is a bit like going on a blind date: you’re relying on the special effects department to come up with a co-star that isn’t going to make you look stupid.

The movies and TV we’ve been discussing so far all date back to the 1950s and early-to-mid 60s, but some truths are eternal, as the makers of Prophecy discovered in 1979. This was the year that the big studios all bet heavily on horror and monster movies – it was the year of Alien, Nightwing, John Badham’s Dracula, and The Amityville Horror, to name but a few of the more prominent releases, and Prophecy was amongst them. (If you ask me, the most successful films from that year came from elsewhere – let’s not forget this was also the year of Herzog’s Dracula, and the one in which Dawn of the Dead got its American release.)

Everyone’s heard of Alien and Dracula, and some of the other names are vaguely familiar, but Prophecy (like Nightwing) seems to have vanished into movie obscurity, mentioned only as a joke or as a camp cult movie. I don’t recall ever coming across it on British TV – in fact, I’m not sure I’d ever heard of it until I read Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, in which he writes affectionately about it at some length. Looking at that book again recently, it seemed to me that there was an obvious gap in my knowledge of cinema – and all sorts of old movies are now available on t’interweb if you know where to look.

Prophecy is directed by John Frankenheimer, who also did The Manchurian Candidate, and is clearly not a low-budget movie. We open off in a forest somewhere (we later learn this is Maine) where some search-and-rescue types are being dragged along by their dogs. Something has got the dogs so riled up they run literally off the edge of a cliff, and have to be lowered down into the ravine below. When the actual search-and-rescue guys go down into the ravine as well, there is some roaring, some screaming and then an ominous silence. Here the film shows the first sign of wanting to be more than just schlock: arty shots of the corpses of the search team strewn around, or in one case still hanging from their harness, are accompanied by light classical music, in a slightly obvious but still decent attempt at juxtaposition.

The light classical music turns out to be coming from an orchestra which includes Maggie (Talia Shire), a nice lady who lives in Washington DC. Her main problem is that she would like to have a baby – and indeed is in the early stages of having a baby – but her husband is oblivious to this, and opposed to overpopulating the planet any further. He is Dr Rob Verne (Robert Foxworth, with hair and beard that make him look like Christ after a perm and some highlights). Verne is the epitome of the scientist as envoy of Apollo – Foxworth is doing principled stoicism non-stop for most of the movie – driven to despair by the awful living conditions of so many in the city. Someone offers him a change of scene and a job which may end up making an actual difference – the Environmental Protection Agency has been called in to mediate in a dispute between a paper mill and the local Native Americans up in Maine. Go for two weeks! Make a holiday of it! Take the wife!

So they go, collected by the representative of the paper company (Richard Dysart), who is initially very agreeable. Here we get the film’s first major misstep – an unforgivably laborious bit of exposition where someone starts talking about something called Katahdin, the legendary supernatural protector of the forest (according to the Indians anyway), not long after Dysart has let Verne know that people have started disappearing in the woods. We also meet the fiercely proud leader of the Indians (played by Armand Assante, who is every bit as Native American as his name suggests), and there is a symbolic axe-vs-chainsaw fight between the paper mill people and the locals, who are blocking access to the forest.

Soon enough Dr Rob is discovering signs that not all is well in the forest – the locals are acting like they’re drunk even when they’re not, showing reduced sensitivity to pain, and there is some freakishly big wildlife too – fish the size of canoes and a tadpole the size of a small dog. An argument with his wife about having a child gets interrupted when he is attacked by a demented raccoon. It takes a committed performance to sell a savage raccoon attack to the audience, and Foxworth… well, maybe he was saving himself for the climax of the movie.

Anyway, the signs are clear – the paper company, who are on the payroll of the more Dionysian branch of science, have been dumping mercury in the water, causing genetic damage throughout the local ecology. As Maggie and Rob have just enjoyed a fish supper from the local lake, there is a real possibility they may not just be taking their work home with them, but keeping it in the family for generations to come. The discovery of squawking, deformed creatures like half-melted bear cubs is an unpleasant indication of what may be to come (Stephen King found the mutant cubs more effective and unsettling than I did).

Well, Dr Rob calls in the authorities, thinking that the mutant cubs are pretty good evidence of environmental wrongdoing, but in the middle of a dramatic confrontation between all the concerned parties, the cubs’ mother (or father) turns up, looking just as messed up as they do. Dr Rob, Maggie, and some sympathetic Native Americans are faced with the problem of how to get back to civilisation before Katahdin the half-melted mutant bear catches up with them and mauls them to death…

So when do they decide to (literally) show the bear in Prophecy? At about the usual point, halfway through – some townie campers are set upon in the woods and quickly despatched. An alternative answer would be ‘much too soon’, however. Most of Prophecy is a B-movie creature feature, an update from the 1950s with the atom age paranoia sifted out and some environmentalist concerns mixed in – this sort of thing is seldom great art, even with someone like Jack Arnold in charge, but it can be effective enough in its slightly naive way. The thing that destroys the movie, totally and utterly, is the monster, which is one of the most absurd things I’ve ever seen put on screen. Every scene with the creature is reduced to unintentional farce by the sheer low quality of the monster suit and the desperate tricks Frankenheimer is obliged to use to try and hide this fact. It’s hilarious. The fact that everyone else is still trying hard to sell the beastie as a terrifying menace just makes it funnier and funnier. (Talia Shire, then having a career spike off the back of Rocky – she is top-billed here – must have felt she was reliving her American-International Pictures apprenticeship, when she appeared in films like The Dunwich Horror.)

Set against how bad most of the special effects are, most of the other problems with Prophecy – the slightly corny presentation of the Native Americans, the weak climax, the fact that there’s a reproductive rights angle to the story which never seems to get fully developed – melt away. Unfortunately, those elements of the film which show promise also vanish like mist when the sun comes out. It’s an interesting companion piece to Nightwing, even sharing a cast member (George Clutesi plays a semi-unhinged Indian elder in both). Prophecy is a worse film, but also more entertaining, too – Nightwing‘s just stuck in a middleground of being stolid, with some duff effects, while Prophecy shows real signs of being genuinely nuts, terrible effects or not.

I can see why Prophecy has become a sort of cult favourite, for the same reasons it has vanished into obscurity. It’s really, even by 1979 standards, a very old fashioned monster movie, driven along by that brand of technophobia which closely resembles the nature-in-revolt horror film. There are plenty of monster movies these days which are just as bad, but there’s often a knowingness to them. Prophecy is never less than very serious-minded and earnest. You have to admire it for that even as it makes the film even more ridiculous. Hardly even a Good Bad Movie, but nevertheless oddly cherishable in its way.

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Today’s topic for discussion: historical accuracy – worth bothering with or not? Cripes, that’s a big question for a fairly trivial blog mostly concerning itself with fairly trivial movies. It probably depends on the history involved – is it recent or not, and is the movie involved actually about the history or just using it as a convenient backdrop? I seem to recall being quite trenchant about films like Bombshell, which proposed to make a serious comment about real-world events while cheerily mixing historical figures with entirely made-up characters. She Said, which caused me to emit such a wail of nihilistic angst recently, largely gets away with it, but then again its real people are playing themselves in some cases.

At the other end of the scale is a film like Don Chaffey’s Creatures the World Forgot, which is… how can I put it…? …inherently and irredeemably trivial. It does occur to me that talking about historical accuracy in connection with a film like this is to start heading up a gum tree, for it’s not as if this is a historical movie; it’s a prehistorical one, the last (and, many would have you believe) least of the Hammer cycle of prehistoric pictures. The previous entries were One Million Years BC (which is the one with Raquel Welch), Prehistoric Women (with Martine Beswick), and When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (with Victoria Vetri). This, in case you were wondering, is the one with Julie Ege; the fact these films are most easily differentiated in terms of their female lead may be significant.

What’s the plot like, you may be wondering. Well, it’s a Hammer caveman movie, what do you think the plot is like? The cave folk in this one even seem to be a more degenerate bunch, compared to the ones in the other movies – not only have they not invented language yet, they don’t seem to have even invented names – while some places will tell you the characters in this film have got names like Rool and Noo and Mak, the credits at the end of the film just go with descriptions like ‘The Fair One’ and ‘The Mute Girl’ and so on.

Basically, the cave people – this is actually a bit of a misnomer as they don’t spend much time in caves – wander about in the desert grunting at each other a lot, dying in hunting-related incidents, and so on. At one point there is a fairly substantial volcanic eruption, although to my eye this looks suspiciously like re-used footage from one or other of the previous films (different film stock and more voluminous furs on display). They wander about a bit more, going across a desert, where there is a fight to the death over an egg-shell full of water. An encounter with another tribe results in a sort of prehistoric wedding, the most memorable feature of which – the most memorable feature of the film, perhaps – is a bit where some young women get flogged across the breasts (kinky stuff, this). Twin sons turn up, one with very dark hair who is a rum character, and one with absurd peroxide blonde hair who is obviously a bit more heroic. There is strife between the brothers, mainly concerning who gets access rights to Julie Ege’s character (we are geological ages before #MeToo at this point, so nobody thinks of asking Ege what her thoughts on the topic are – though given what we see in the rest of the movie, her answer would probably be ‘Grungh’.) There is a spot of fraternal death-struggling and a hint of ancient magic, and then the film stops (probably occasioning a sigh of relief from all but the least-demanding of viewers).

Your kind of amateur-level reviewer of this sort of tosh would have you believe that this is the Hammer caveman movie distinguished by the fact that they made it on the cheap and didn’t bother to put any animated dinosaurs or other prehistoric creatures in it. Well, there aren’t any dinosaurs in Prehistoric Women, either, if we’re going to be precise about this, but then the whole point of that film is that it’s a bargain-basement cash-in. Certainly it looks like a reasonable amount of cash has been spent at various points in the making of Creatures the World Forgot, so perhaps the absence of dinosaurs (etc) is a bit more noticeable. The nickname the film has acquired – Creatures the Producers Forgot to Have Animated – is a fun and appropriate one.

As a result the film feels a bit like that apocryphal Korean edit of The Sound of Music in which, to keep the thing to a more manageable length, they dispensed with all the songs, or possibly a pornographic film reedited for a PG rating and entire bereft of naughtiness as a result. The bits without dinosaurs in a Hammer caveman movie are mainly there to fill time and extend the film out to a respectable length (if anything about this genre is particularly respectable). There’s a case to be made that a Hammer prehistoric movie without any prehistoric monsters is, quite literally and precisely, pointless.

In the absence of the monsters, the film is obliged to rely much more heavily on the other big attraction of this kind of film, which is women in scanty chamois-leather outfits. By 1971 moral standards in society had collapsed to the point where unashamed T&A had become much more a part of the Hammer repertoire, and there are indeed a great many prehistoric knockers on display throughout the film, flogged and unflogged. But it almost seems like Chaffey is trying not to be too salacious, as he doesn’t really dwell on this fact – Val Guest somehow managed to ensure that Victoria Vetri’s nude scenes in When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth packed a significant erotic wallop (or so it seemed to my febrile teenaged self), but here? Not so much. It’s a bit like one of those documentaries about nudism or semi-nudism – a lot less fun and exciting than it sounds.

On the other hand, the scenery and cinematography on the film is really quite good – locations were filmed in Namibia and South Africa, and are the best thing in the movie. The whole thing only really functions on a visual level anyway, and so this is more of a bonus than it might be in a conventional movie. But even so, the story is dull, lurching from one mildly exploitative moment to another, never managing to transcend its own absurdity, or the painful absence of dinosaurs, ahistorical or otherwise. I doubt anyone could make a genuinely good caveman movie – the closest you could probably find is the opening movement of 2001, and that’s a very different beast – and while this one has a sort of vague visual appeal, in every other respect it is completely forgettable, and probably not worth watching in the first place.

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There are two reasons why the horror movie briefly became a respectable genre and the subject of ‘quality’ studio releases for a while in the late seventies; the first of these is The Exorcist and the second is Jaws. Most of the films I am thinking of stick pretty close to the template of one or the other – either Satanic forces are at work in the present day (see Gregory Peck in The Omen) or wild animals have grown unhappy with their lot in life and are staging an uprising (see Grizzly, Orca, Tentacles, etc). I suppose there is also a small but robust subgenre of paranoid suspense thrillers based on Ira Levin novels which are also horror-adjacent, too.

As ever, Hollywood studios love a formula and the more respectable cash-ins feature many of the more striking features of whichever film they are knocking off. Then again some of them are more original. Which category Arthur Hiller’s Nightwing falls into isn’t immediately apparent.

On the one hand, it opens with some rather striking landscapes of the American Southwest, depicting the Grand Canyon, what looks very like Montezuma’s Castle, Monument Valley, and so on. (I enjoyed a coach tour of this region a few years ago and this montage brought back some very pleasant memories, which may have predisposed me to like the film – to begin with anyway.) It’s all very atmospheric. Then we find ourselves in the company of police officer Youngman Duran (Nick Mancuso), a member of the Maski tribe (my extensive research – Googling and Wikipedia – indicates that the Maski may be a fictionalised version of the real-life Hopi people, but the evdiecne is oddly inconclusive on the topic). Duran is called to the scene of a dead cow, which is not usually police business except for the fact that the creature is covered in strange, inexplicable wounds and stinks of ammonia. (It is also quite obviously stuffed, a fact which started my opinion of Nightwing on a slow but irreversible decline.)

The plot kind of ambles around for a while after this not-unpromising opening, the most pertinent point being that one of Duran’s friends, a mad old shaman named Abner (George Clutesi), says he has grown sick of the corruption of the modern world and has basically cast a spell to bring about the apocalypse. Not long after he is found dead with his body drained of blood, which starts fewer alarm bells ringing than you might reasonably expect. Meanwhile the local tribal council leader, whose only character trait is sliminess, reveals he is selling mineral rights on sacred land and wants all strange events kept hushed up to avoid a backlash in the media. Duran also bumps into the obligatory British scientist, Philip Payne (the great David Warner, displaying his usual ability to be better than the movie around him), who has something of a mania for exterminating vampire bats. Payne is convinced that a swarm of vampire bats has moved into a cave somewhere in the region – and the news gets even better, for he believes the bats to be carrying plague, as well!

With all this suddenly kicking off, it is of course very unfortunate that a young doctor with whom Juran has a bit of a thing going on (she is played by Kathryn Harrold) is off in the desert with a group of missionaries (presumably they’re on holiday). Everyone is sitting around the campfire having a chat when one of the missionaries says words to the effect of, ‘Wait, did you hear that?’ as something flutters by in the darkness. Right on cue, a cloud of winged pests appear out of nowhere and commence sucking on the evangelical posse.

Up to this point the film has been essentially stolid, nothing very special, but not without points of interest. As soon as the bats turn up on screen, however… well, chief fake bat wrangler was the noted Italian technician Carlo Rambaldi, who is celebrated by those who know about special effects, mainly because he designed the animatronics for both Alien and E.T. the Extra-terrestrial. I should also point out that he did some decent monsters for bad films like the original version of Dune, and not-great monsters for films that only I seem to like (the 1976 version of King Kong being the obvious example). This, on the oher hand, is Rambaldi doing really bad monsters for a film which has largely been lost to history. It’s not just the bat puppets which kill the film, though – the whole array of techniques that Hiller wheels on to try and make this sequence work fall completely flat and render it comical rather than remotely scary. The back-projection is risible, the use of speeded-up film is obvious, and the actors understandably struggle to look convincingly frightened.

It may indeed have been the case that they edited one set-piece bat attack together, took one look at it, and then attempted to restructure their killer bat movie so the actual killer bats have the minimal possible time on screen. It makes you realise how lucky Spielberg was to be making a film about a shark – you can film a shark attack without actually putting the fish on screen, it just stays under the water and you get the actor to splash about and scream. This is not an option with an attack by a swarm of killer bats. You either leave the whole thing to the imagination and just show the aftermath, or it’s rubber bat time.

Certainly, the bats are used sparingly throughout the rest of the film. Juran shakes off the venal tribal leader and teams up with Warner’s character and his girlfriend to track down the bats and wipe them out. This is fairly pedestrian stuff, with set pieces that don’t quite pop – at one point the three of them are stuck in a chickenwire cage with the bats trying to gnaw their way in, while Warner tries to shoot a dart with a tracking device in it at a tiny little bat. Warner’s performance is one of the more memorable elements of the film, mainly because of the monomaniacal hatred he constantly displays towards desmodus rotundus: ‘they’re the quintessence of evil… the destruction of vampire bats is what I live for.’ I know that Jaws has drawn criticism for giving sharks a bad name, but Nightwing arguably misrepresents vampire bats (small, inoffensive, surprisingly altruistic creatures) even more severely.

The other mildly distinctive thing about Nightwing, within its subgenre at least, is the mystical angle, though this is left carefully ambiguous: have the bats been whistled up by the shaman’s curse, or is it just a coincidence? The question is left open. Juran does keep seeing the spirit of the dead man during the closing stages of the film, but as he is full of hallucinogenic roots by this point, this hardly constitutes a definitive answer to the question.

Nightwing hangs together as a narrative, and clearly has potential to be a competent movie, but commits the cardinal sin of being quite boring most of the way through. It’s a horror movie about nature in revolt where they barely show any revolting nature, and all the characters are stock figures whom the actors struggle to bring to life. The bats drag this down to the level of being a bad movie, but even without that crushing drawback it would still be an extremely tough film to recommend.

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Jack Cardiff’s The Mutations (released in 1974) is not a film which appears to be overly concerned by the attention span of its audience, which in our age of hyperactive, attention-grabbing gimmickry l actually find rather refreshing. It opens with a series of very long, slow, static takes of plants sprouting and developing (courtesy of the magic of time-lapse photography), over which the credits play. Grab-you-by-the-throat stuff this is not. Even when the credits conclude and we are off into the story proper, it doesn’t exactly burst into life, for we are at a scientific lecture delivered by university boffin Professor Nolter (Donald Pleasence, who indicates that Nolter is a mad scientist by doing an ever-so-slightly Germanic accent). His talk is on the development of life, and in particular the key role played by mutants. He also seems very keen on talking about carnivorous plants (that old staple of the dodgy low-budget horror movie), and proceeds to do so in some detail.

Watching all this are a bunch of they’re-a-bit-too-old-to-be-students, amongst their number Scott Antony, Olga Anthony, Jill Haworth, and Julie Ege (who had already done at least one Hammer movie by this point and had another one either lined up or just finished). They all watch fairly attentively as Nolter lays in the plot and themes of the movie, culminating in his belief that induced mutation could be used to bring about the next step in human evolution – specifically, a plant-human hybrid – an idea he seems to have nicked off Michael Gough in Konga. (Yes, so we’re already cutting the movie some slack, for it absolutely beggars belief that any credible university would keep someone on the payroll who is so clearly as mad as a mongoose – not that British horror movies don’t have form in this department, of course.)

The students depart the lecture and head off into mid-70s London, where the movie is set. However, something alarming befalls Olga Anthony, as she finds herself pursued across a park by – what’s the term we’re supposed to use these days? Dwarves? Midgets? Persons of restricted growth? Anyway, there are a few of them in The Mutations. Anthony manages to outrun them, as you might expect, but is grabbed by a looming figure anyway. This is Lynch, the hideously deformed man the short people are employed by; when not kidnapping young starlets he runs a freak show. The most notable thing about Lynch is probably that he is played by Tom Baker in one of his last pre-Dr Who roles; possibly this was the film that led Baker to temporarily pack in acting and work on a building site until destiny came calling – you could certainly understand why.

Anyway, it turns out that Lynch has done a deal with Nolter – he kidnaps young starlets and drags them off to Nolter’s lab, where Nolter performs his fiendish experiments and transforms them into hybrid mutants. Once Nolter has perfected the science he will fix Lynch’s face for him, and possibly help out the other members of the freak show too. In the meantime he transforms Anthony into a half-alligator hybrid mutant (don’t get excited, we barely see this particular monster).

It takes a while for the other mature students to notice their friend has gone missing, but perhaps they are distracted by the arrival of visiting American scientist Brian Redford (Brad Harris) – in the finest traditions of this kind of movie, the imported foreign star is enormously wooden and playing the least interesting character in the film anyway. Quite by chance, while showing him the sights of London, they end up taking him to Lynch’s freak show (maybe Trafalgar Square was full or something). They’re not allowed in to see the alligator girl, but they do get the regular freak show – which features people with genuine anatomical and genetic anomalies, and as a result is distinctly uncomfortable to watch.

The odd thing about The Mutations is that while there’s always something going on, it doesn’t really feel like a movie with an actual plot – it just seems to go from one lurid and provocative set-piece to another, strung together by some rather pedestrian connective tissue. Nolter goes on with his experiments, Lynch torments and is tormented by the side-show performers (when not out kidnapping), and Julie Ege wonders why her friends keep dropping out of sight. You know where it’s going; the pleasure (if that’s the right word for it) comes from the incidental horrors of the movie.

Or, to put it slightly differently: Donald Pleasence plays a mad scientist who hires a deformed freak-show owner to kidnap young people and transform them into monsters for largely spurious pseudo-scientific reasons. It’s not the most outlandish premise for a horror movie, I suppose, but it’s getting there.

Or, to be even more reductive – it’s The Island of Doctor Moreau meets Freaks, set in mid-1970s London. You know, when you put it like that it actually sounds like this might be an interesting and even fun movie. But I have to report that the finished product, though possessed of a sort of grim capacity to fascinate, is actually quite hard work.

Mind you, the same could obviously be said of the original Freaks, which I have already written about. The link between the two films is obvious, and openly acknowledged – there’s a scene reprising the famous ‘we accept you – one of us’ sequence from the Todd Browning film, although Tom Baker is less than delighted to be accepted into the side-show fraternity. The curiosity of seeing one of these early Baker performances is possibly one reason for watching The Mutations, though I must insert a strong caveat here – not only does the heavy make-up he’s under render the great man almost unrecognisable, it also severely impairs his performance (he can barely open his mouth). Nevertheless, power and presence shine through, and he easily holds his own against Pleasence.

At the time Pleasence was in the process of carving out the horror niche that would eventually lead to his being cast in Halloween – he did this movie, Deathline, and Tales That Witness Madness in the space of a few years. This is actually a lot like Deathline, to be honest – it has the same nondescript group of youths in peril, takes place in a down-at-heel, seedy version of modern London, and seems to be trying harder to be disturbing rather than genuinely scary. This is the sillier film by some way – by the time Nolter’s half-man half-Venus fly trap creation starts rising from the Thames and bothering tramps, it’s quite quite clear that this is just exploitative schlock.

It’s an ignoble end to Jack Cardiff’s directorial career, and while it does exert a strange hold, this is mainly because it’s so determinedly grotesque and repulsive. To a modern viewer it looks unpleasant and exploitative on a dozen different levels, to say nothing of cheap and tacky. And yet in the 1970s you commonly found actors of note appearing in this sort of thing. The Mutations is not alone in this – but few low-budget horrors even of the 70s have such a sense of tawdriness about them.

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