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Posts Tagged ‘Burgess Meredith’

One day, I’m sure, I will have written about all the portmanteau horror anthology movies made by Milton Subotsky’s Amicus Films in the 1960s and 1970s; one day I may even have written about all the knock-offs copying the Amicus style (things like Tales that Witness Madness and The Uncanny). But not yet, obviously: it still feels like I am trapped in some kind of recurring nightmare, where my bad deeds have condemned me to endlessly revisit an eclectic range of movie stars hoist by their own petards in inventive but slightly thrifty ways…

Freddie Francis’ Torture Garden (NB.: contains very little actual torture, but no actual gardening either) was made in 1967 and thus comes very early in the lineage. Whereas some of the other films were either written by Subotsky himself (drawing quite heavily on common horror-movie tropes) and/or derived from things like American horror comics, Torture Garden is scripted by the distinguished writer of horror and crime fiction Robert Bloch (Bloch is perhaps best remembered for writing the original novel that Psycho was based on, but also contributed a few well-remembered episodes to the original run of Star Trek). Bloch wrote a few movies for Amicus; this isn’t the best, but it has its moments.

The setting for the frame story (there’s always a frame story in this kind of film) is the Torture Garden of Dr Diablo, a circus sideshow being visited by a mixed group of British and American characters (Amicus wanted to use more British actors – Christopher Lee was inevitably in the frame – but the film’s American financiers insisted on big names from the States). Overseeing events is Diablo himself, played with enormous relish by Burgess Meredith. Meredith starts off in a variation on his Penguin outfit, with top hat and cigarette holder, but soon adopts the persona of an American gangster (for some reason).

Well, after the main show, a few of the punters stick around for the ‘special tour’ (only a fiver extra) and Diablo shows them his waxwork of Atropos, Goddess of Destiny, and wielder of the Shears of Fate. (I am tempted to say that shear terror ensues, but probably best not to). Each of the five visitors – Michael Bryant, Beverly Adams, Barbara Ewing, Jack Palance and Michael Ripper – must take it in turn to gaze upon Atropos’ Shears and be given a vision of their own destiny…

And off we go. First up is the tale of an unpleasant and dissolute young man named Williams, played by Michael Bryant (a very fine actor, well-remembered for The Stone Tape and his guest role in Colditz), who visits his wealthy but sick uncle (Maurice Denham) to try and shake him down for some cash. Well, uncle doesn’t play ball, and Williams decides to bring his inheritance forward a bit. Searching the house, he discovers a coffin buried in the cellar, and inside the coffin is a rather peculiar cat. Needless to say Williams soons find himself becoming very familiar with the kitty – or perhaps that should be the other way around…

Pretty basic stuff, this one, but a strong performance from Bryant just about holds it together: at various points he has to declaim exposition to the cat, basically repeating things the cat has just telepathically informed him of. Normally this would be a recipe for the most ridiculously eggy nonsense, but Bryant manages to ensure it’s all just bad rather than disastrous. Decent direction and a very Hammer-ish score help too.

We continue with a story subtitled ‘Terror Over Hollywood’, which strikes me as overstating things a bit. Beverly Adams gets to be the first woman to lead an Amicus segment as actress Carla Hayes. How good an actress she actually is is debatable, but she quickly demonstrates an enormous aptitude for two-faced ruthlessness in pursuit of success in the movie business. One thing about this segment is that it’s arguably just a little bit over-plotted, with a lot of faffing about before we get to the heart of the matter: Carla’s co-star (Robert Hutton) is apparently killed by the mob, but whisked off to a mysterious clinic where he makes a miraculous recovery. What gives?

There’s a nice idea here, sort-of anticipating The Stepford Wives (there’s a bit of a giveaway) and with great potential as a satire of Hollywood and the superficiality of movie stars and their relentless appetite for celebrity, but the reveal comes a bit too abruptly and the story isn’t properly developed. As a result it comes across as a nice idea, not particularly well-realised, but Adams isn’t bad and there’s a cameo from Bernard Kay as an evil doctor.

Barbara Ewing is up next, playing journalist Dorothy Endicott. She meets a famous pianist (John Standing) for an interview and the two of them become romantically involved, despite the concerns of his manager that this will be a distraction from his practising and touring. He does seem very devoted to his work, especially the beautiful old grand piano his mother gave him, which he calls¬† ‘Euterpe’ (the Greek muse of music). But who will win if it comes down to a contest for his affections between Dorothy and Euterpe?

One thing about this movie is that the different segments all do have their own visual style, and this one is particularly distinctive, with a certain minimalist look to it and mostly black-and-white costumes and sets. The story itself is fairly routine stuff, though, building up to a delirious moment of kitsch nonsense where Ewing is attacked by the piano. It’s not quite up there with Fluff Freeman grappling with the killer vine, but it’s about as close as Torture Garden gets.

Following this it’s Jack Palance’s segment. Palance is in the role initially earmarked for Christopher Lee, playing a obsessive collector of Edgar Allen Poe memorabilia (given Bloch’s mentor was H. P. Lovecraft, himself an enormous admirer of Poe, one wonders if there isn’t a subtle sort of tribute going on here). Palance’s character, Wyatt, meets another collector, Lancelot Canning (the always wonderful Peter Cushing) – Canning really does seem to have every possible piece of Poe material, including some original manuscripts – even a few which are completely unheard of. Can Wyatt resist the temptation to let his envy of Canning’s collection get the better of him?

Well, once you know the background to the film, you can’t help but imagine what this bit would have been like with Lee and Cushing playing the two lead roles. As it is, Palance makes an unusual dance-partner for Cushing, but it’s still an interesting little piece with Palance not disgracing himself opposite the great man. Palance seems to have relished the chance to play more of a character role than one his usual tough guys and perhaps indulges in a bit too much business with his pipe and glasses, but this is an engaging tale with a good twist to it.

Which leaves us with Michael Ripper. Ripper is an actor who gets pigeon-holed as the chap who plays all the inn-keepers and local constables in classic Hammer Horror movies – and, to be fair, he did play a lot of these parts – but he was a performer of considerable range and ability (see, for example, 1964’s Every Day’s a Holiday, where he is required to do a song-and-dance number opposite Ron Moody and is in no way outshone). I was rather looking forward to seeing his chance to shine in this movie.

Well, suffice to say it doesn’t really happen, for we are in twist ending territory. The good thing about the twist ending of Torture Garden is that it isn’t the same one as in all the portmanteau horrors written by Subotsky himself. The bad news is that, like most of the punchlines to the stories in this film, it somehow doesn’t quite connect with the viewer as well as it might, with the result that the movie is a just a bit underwhelming.¬† Bloch is a very fine writer, but the segments here don’t have the same cartoony power and colour as the ones in Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, to name but one. If memory serves, Bloch’s script for Asylum (1972) was rather an improvement – but that’s a set of stories for another day. If you like the Amicus anthology films, this is fun, but not one of their best.

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Context is important when you write about films. Writing about a new movie is different to covering an old classic; as you may have noticed if you’ve read around this blog, when I’m writing about an older film, especially a slightly dubious genre movie, I cover the plot in much more detail and am much less bothered about spoiling the end. There’s also the issue that with an older film, there’s often some sort of consensus, which I’m either agreeing with or kicking against (not that this isn’t often the case with new films too). Hindsight can often give you a whole new perspective on a film – I imagine it would be quite interesting to go back and read the original reviews of The Fast and the Furious from 2001, given this mildly credible crime drama has since gone on to spawn a ridiculous, world-conquering action movie franchise.

Speaking of mighty franchises, I see that a sequel to Creed is on the cards – currently trading under the imaginative title of Creed II. I don’t know, Creed II just doesn’t do it for me – and if you’re going to go with the whole Roman numerals thing, just bite the bullet and call it Rocky VIII, for that is really what we’re talking about, after all.

I imagine that the original Rocky, directed by John G Avildsen, got rather favourable reviews back in 1976 – this was a movie which won the Best Picture Oscar, after all – but anyone suggesting they would still be making sequels to it 40 years later would surely have been laughed out of their job. Five or ten years later, with an increasingly ridiculous sequel appearing every few years, that might not have seemed quite so improbable, but at the same time you possibly wouldn’t have predicted that the most recent films (thinking mainly here of Creed and Rocky Balboa) would turn out to be quite as accomplished as was the case.

rocky

This is, of course, the film which is the foundation stone of Sylvester Stallone’s career, following a slightly chequered past as a walk-on and in low-budget genre films (he was in the original Death Race 2000, for instance). Stallone plays Rocky (duh), a thirty-year old journeyman boxer, living in Philadelphia, whose career in the ring has never really taken off. He is, putting it frankly, going nowhere, and has been forced to take a job as a debt-collector for a small-time local mobster just to pay the rent and feed his pet tortoises. His attempts to romance the timid sister (Talia Shire) of his boozy friend (Burt Young) are meeting with equally unimpressive results.

But everything changes for Rocky when the incumbent world heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), finds himself with a big fight scheduled but no-one willing to fight him. Mainly for the publicity (and also, if we’re honest, because the plot demands it) Creed decides to fight an unknown boxer instead, and naturally his people decide his opponent, or victim, will be Rocky.

Looking at the original Rocky again now, it’s hard not to conclude that, for all his success, Sylvester Stallone has spent most of the intervening forty years essentially slumming it, as both an actor and in other roles. Whether or not Rocky actually deserved its Best Picture win is a moot point nowadays, but it is still a well-made and engaging story, powered by a strong performance by Stallone himself – Rocky may not be too bright, and makes his living by beating people half to death, but he is essentially a nice guy and a human being whom it is possible to relate to. The fact that he created this character indicates that Stallone is a cut above people like Arnie, whose performances usually struggle to maintain one dimension, let alone anything more challenging. And yet Stallone has spent a disproportionate amount of time appearing in knuckle-dragging action movies (is it worth mentioning that Expendables 4 is due to appear before Creed II?).

I suppose that’s just where the money has been, but it’s a shame, for Rocky shows the big man can do proper drama – I suppose Rocky is technically a sports movie, but it doesn’t feel at all generic, being more of a character study, and a carefully naturalistic one at that – there are many scenes of Rocky hanging around in his rather grotty neighbourhood, a long sequence depicting his first date with Adrian, some ever-so-slightly melodramatic stuff with Burt Young and also Burgess Meredith (playing Rocky’s trainer), and so on. (One piece of trivia in wide circulation is that this film marks the screen debut of most-credited-man-in-Star Trek Michael Dorn, who plays one of Apollo Creed’s bodyguards. Not that he’s exactly easy to spot. He isn’t even wearing the prosthetic forehead.)

There isn’t actually a huge amount of your actual fisticuffs in Rocky, beyond a brief glimpse of Rocky in action right at the start of the film, and of course the climactic bout between him and Creed which makes up the third act. (There isn’t actually much Creed in the film, and the failure to establish more of a personal relationship between the two men strikes me as the film missing a trick – Carl Weathers makes the most of what he’s given, though.) I’m not quite sure why, but for me the concluding battle in the ring felt just a little bit perfunctory and underdeveloped – it felt like there should have been a few more peaks and troughs before the final bell.

Still, like I said, it isn’t really about the boxing, it’s about character (in every sense), whether that’s expressed by being a nice guy about the neighbourhood, refusing to break someone’s thumbs despite your boss telling you to, being resolute in pursuit of the girl of your dreams, running up a flight of steps a lot, or just being punched in the head two hundred and thirty times and still refusing to fall over. It may be that the reason why the Rocky series has retained the ability to keep bouncing back and producing surprisingly credible entries is simply because it started off as a straightforward, seriously-intended drama, rather than anything more brash or generic. I honestly thought Creed would mark the end of the road for this particular story, but as this original reminds us, you should never assume Rocky is out for the count.

 

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