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Posts Tagged ‘Charles Gray’

I mentioned the other day the unusually long theatrical releases enjoyed in years past by films such as The Wild Bunch (seven years or so, in one UK cinema at least) and Reservoir Dogs (not quite as long, but over a wider area). However, as chance would have it one of the ‘high number’ TV channels in my region happened to be showing a film which puts both of these in the shade, by which I mean it was originally released in 1975 and is technically still running in some cinemas today (even if only at midnight on the weekends). No ordinary film gets a 44 year theatrical run, and whatever else you want to say about it, Jim Sharman’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show is not what you’d call an ordinary film.

From a certain point of view it resembles a fairly typical film adaptation of a successful stage show, but then this is to miss the unique nature of the Rocky Horror phenomenon. Rocky Horror is, of course, synonymous with its creator, Richard O’Brien, who is something of a genial self-mythologiser (at least where the origins of the show are concerned). One version of the story has it that O’Brien was appearing in Jesus Christ Superstar in London’s West End when the creator of that show, Andrew Lloyd Webber, attended a show and was sufficiently unimpressed by O’Brien’s performance that he had him sacked on the spot – unable to get work as a result, O’Brien wrote Rocky Horror as a way of making some money (other versions are less dramatic and suggest the actor started work on the project simply to amuse himself). Richard O’Brien has also suggested that the tone of the show was a calculated choice based on the fact that the two most successful film series in British history are the Hammer horrors and the Carry On films, and that Rocky Horror is intended as a kind of mash-up of the two. This strikes me as disingenuous, to say the least – it sounds good, but the film itself doesn’t really seem to show either as a significant influence.

The film concerns the travails of (initially) wholesome young couple Brad Majors (Barry Bostwick) and Janet Weiss (Susan Sarandon); the setting feels like it should be the Fifties but there is a very deliberate choice to show the characters listening to Nixon’s resignation on the radio at one point. Anyway, having recently become engaged, Brad and Janet are travelling to visit an old friend when their car breaks down and they have to take refuge in the mansion of eccentric (to say the least) scientist Dr Frank N Furter (Tim Curry), who is hosting a gathering of like-minded friends. The occasion is to celebrate the fact that he has recently completed an extraordinary experiment, and created a man in his laboratory! Although his motives for doing so are probably best not dwelt upon…

One thing you can say about The Rocky Horror Picture Show is that it has a visual identity of its own like few other films: if you come across it while channel-surfing, it’s instantly obvious what it is, perhaps (given the remarkable cultural penetration of the show) even if you’ve never seen it before. The movie is consumed by a camp sensibility in a way matched by few others, and this extends to the costumes, the set dressing, and most of the performances. It is its own thing much more than it is a spoof of any other film or genre.

As I say, I’m dubious about O’Brien’s suggestion that Rocky Horror has much to do with the Carry Ons or Hammer (though I detect a certain commonality of approach with the Dr Phibes films). The closest real link between the House of Horror and Rocky Horror (unless you count Charles Gray’s appearance) is that the latter re-uses some old props from Revenge of Frankenstein, and was filmed on location at Hammer’s old base at Bray Studios. It doesn’t really have the relentless innuendo or slapstick (or indeed the actual sense of innocence) you usually find in a Carry On film; compare The Rocky Horror Picture Show with Carry On Screaming and you’ll see that these two films are actually quite far apart in tone and approach.

The film seems to owe at least as big a debt to American sci-fi movies of the Fifties as it does to any English influence – the litany of films invoked by O’Brien in the iconic opening number is mostly American, after all. The setting is certainly American and the plot refers to things like the UFO flap of the 1950s. The clincher, for me, is the musical score, which is stuffed with pastiche rock ‘n’ roll songs intended to recall the same period. If Rocky Horror starts anywhere, it is as a piece of fake Americana, eventually subverted by notions of campness.

Whatever it’s supposed to be, I always find The Rocky Horror Picture Show to be terrifically watchable, mainly because the songs are so good. The slow ones are generally at least pleasant and easy on the ear, while the up-tempo numbers are fun and witty (the complaint that they all sound the same seems to me to be a bit unfair, given they were all written in the same rock ‘n’ roll mode). The cast put them over well, too – I can’t honestly claim to ever have been fond of ‘Let’s Do the Time Warp Again’, but I really like ‘Science Fiction Double Feature’, ‘Damn It Janet’, and many of the others.

If there’s a problem, it’s that – viewed as a piece of conventional musical theatre – The Rocky Horror Show is all over the place. It does contain ‘I Am’ and ‘I Want’ songs, but they’re often in very peculiar places – the most obvious example of an ‘I Want’ song is ‘Touch-a Touch-a Touch Me’, but it’s nearly halfway through the film (much later than is normal). The plot of the film basically falls to bits even earlier than this, at least in terms of normal narrative progression. There’s really no point in worrying too much about the story, because it simply doesn’t make a lot of sense or follow any real logic. Well before the end, the film simply becomes a collection of (pretty good) songs – tellingly, it also becomes essentially sung-through, after the opening includes a reasonable amount of dialogue.

Devotees of the film and the show would doubtless say that Rocky Horror is about an attitude more than a narrative, and I couldn’t honestly argue with them. You could perhaps make a case that the film is about the way in which strait-laced American society in the 1950s was undermined and subverted by the permissiveness of the 1960s and early 70s, symbolised here by rock ‘n’ roll music and the film’s obsession with cross-dressing and minority sexual practices, but looking for a serious subtext to The Rocky Horror Picture Show is surely missing the point by an enormous margin.

I do wonder, though, if the show hasn’t been a victim of its own success. It’s hard to get a real sense of what society was actually like back in 1973 when the stage production opened, and it may be that it was a genuinely startling and transgressive new show at the time. These days, as I say, it has achieved a remarkably high profile and perhaps this has given it a cosiness and sense of familiarity which has to some extent pulled its teeth. I saw a revival on stage in 1994 and despite the large number of slightly puerile sight-gags it was very much a family show, with people taking their children along for a pantomime-like experience of audience participation. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, like its theatrical progenitor, was long ago absorbed into the mainstream and accommodated there, if never completely assimilated – but it remains an energetic piece of entertainment, and practically the type specimen of a cult movie.

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I’m always on the lookout for a chance to do something new and innovative on the blog, not to mention a chance to showcase my freakish ability to identify obscure actors in minor roles. And so, hot on the heels of our look at Lust for a Vampire, featuring David Healy in the small but relatively important role of Raymond Pelley (aka Angry Father of Early Victim), I thought we would move on and examine another Healy movie from 1971 – Guy Hamilton’s Diamonds are Forever, in which the actor treats us to his take on Vandenberg Launch Director (an uncredited performance). (Other movies featuring the work of Mr Healy which are reviewed on this blog include You Only Live Twice, Phase IV, and The Ninth Configuration.)

Oh, who am I kidding, it’s just a coincidence (I’m still quite proud to have spotted him though). When you’ve spent nearly seven years reviewing virtually the entire canon of Eon Bond movies, you do start to run out of ways to start them off, but as this is the very last vintage Bond to cross off my list, that’s one problem I probably won’t have to worry about much in future.

Diamonds are Forever is one where Connery came back, for an enormous fee and for one film only, after an arguably rather overconfident George Lazenby decided not to stick around in the part. Fleming’s original novel provides about a third of what happens on screen, as Bond finds himself mixed up in diamond (well, duh) smuggling in Las Vegas, taking on sundry gangsters including the gay hitmen Wint and Kidd. Fairly soon, however, it all mutates into much more standard Bond movie fare, to wit Bond Plot 2: evil mastermind has nefarious scheme involving satellite-based superweapon. Other points of interest include the scene where Q uses his talents to defraud a casino, the one where Blofeld (Charles Gray) dresses up as a woman, and the one where Natalie Wood’s kid sister gets thrown out of a hotel window in her pants.

In the past I have commented on how the addition of SPECTRE and Blofeld to films based on books in which they did not appear often resulted in the improvement of the story. I’m not sure the same can be said in this case; while the presence of Blofeld in this movie was probably inevitable given how the previous one ended, all that results is a fairly bland piece of by-the-numbers Bond – the boxes of the formula get dutifully ticked, but not much new gets added to the recipe.

You could view Diamonds are Forever as the conclusion of the first phase of Bond movies, which nearly all concern themselves with Connery’s Bond taking on SPECTRE in various ways. From being virtually ever-present in the early films, neither SPECTRE nor Blofeld would really feature again for over forty years after this point, and I have to say that while this may have been forced on the film-makers for legal reasons, making most of the Roger Moore movies standalones with new villains does give them more variety and life. I’m always much more entertained by the blaxploitation or chop-socky stylings of the early Moore films than by anything in Diamonds are Forever.

One way in which Diamonds are Forever does set a precedent for the rest of the series is that it establishes that it is perfectly acceptable for Bond to be an older gentleman. Connery was in his early 40s by this point, and the part wasn’t played by anyone younger than this until the advent of Craig (who was only a couple of years shy of 40). Fleming’s Bond is said to be 37 at one point in an early novel, so it’s not as if this is wildly at odds with the source material. Quite what one should make of Connery’s performance here is another matter – as someone pretending to be a smuggler, he certainly has the ‘smug’ part down pat. One never gets the impression that Sean Connery has a problem with a lack of self-belief, and in this film he’s practically a battering ram of entitled self-satisfaction.

This is not especially good news for a film which has an odd tonal problem – there’s some quite hard-edged violence at a couple of points (there are sequences which trouble the TV censors more than most older Bond films), but coupled to a slightly camp tone. All the Bond films are essentially masculine wish-fulfilment fantasies, but it somehow feels more obvious here than in many other cases, and in a particularly unappealing and slightly sleazy way. Connery gets the dodgy ‘collar and cuffs’ gag (to be honest, I’m not sure he or Blofeld has an interaction with a woman in this film which isn’t basically patronising, although Bond is pretty patronising to most of the men, too), and there’s the very dated and frankly dubious (if not outright offensive) material with Wint and Kidd to consider as well.

One of the dated elements of the movie which occasionally draws attention is the rather peculiar sequence in which Bond, having infiltrated the enemy base, discovers what appears to be the filming of a fake moon landing in progress. This was 1971, after all, when the Apollo programme was an ongoing thing, and it has been suggested that this is a not terribly deeply coded signal as to what was really going on at the time. Quite how Eon got wind of the lunar hoaxes and why they decided to blow the gaffe in this slightly oblique way is never really adequately explained, though.

It would be nice to find more genuinely positive things to say about Diamonds are Forever – I suppose I’ve always enjoyed Charles Gray’s performance, and the theme song is good too. In the end, though, this is Bond as an almost totally mechanical, formulaic spectacle, and entirely lacking in the lightness of touch and charm which the best films of the series possess. A bit of a disappointment however you look at it.

 

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For some people, H.P. Lovecraft’s major contribution to the horror genre (other than a massive expansion of its vocabulary) would probably be the vast pantheon-come-menagerie of Things That Should Not Be, gnawing away at the edges of reality and threatening to unravel the edifice of logic sanity is built upon. Or something.

However, it’s always seemed to me that Lovecraft’s best stories express a struggle to assimilate the various revelations of astronomy, geology and biology towards the end of the 19th century (numerous stories revolve around a character making the horrific discovery that his ancestors were apes or fish and going insane as a result). Lovecraft’s universe is vast and cold and empty and the best words to describe his work are existential and fundamentally rational.

Post-Lovecraft, horror stories have really fallen into two broad groups: ones where the story involves a disruption of the natural moral and physical order, and ones where there really is no deeper reality than the unforgiving laws of physics and no absolute morality to speak of. As an agnostic about religion and a sceptic when it comes to anything supernatural myself, I find the latter group rather more effective – I’ve always said that I think you have to be a Catholic, or at least a practicing Christian, to find The Exorcist really scary, for example (though, that said, I am on record as a fan of The Omen – perhaps more because I find the story interesting than because it’s actually frightening).

One film falling fairly and squarely into the old-school supernatural horror category is The Devil Rides Out, a 1968 Hammer movie directed by Terence Fisher and starring Christopher Lee and Charles Gray. Based on the – according to the credits – ‘classic’ novel by Dennis Wheatley, this is a movie I’ve wanted to write about for a couple of months now and, er, here goes.

The film takes place a little out of Hammer’s comfort zone, in that it’s set in 1930s England rather than some fabricated 19th-century mittel-European fairyland. It’s a bit difficult to tell who the main character’s meant to be, but certainly central to the plot is the Duc de Richelieu, portrayed – but of course – by Christopher Lee himself, in a beard and moustache that make this movie prime material for fan-artists wanting source material for pictures of Count Dooku in happier days. The Duc (or possibly the Dooku) has a problem in that his young friend Simon (Patrick Mower) has dropped all his old circle and started moving with a new, racier set. (I don’t entirely blame Simon for this, as most of the Duc’s friends are either tedious or actively irritating.)

Pausing only to recruit his tedious chum Rex (Leon Greene), the Duc tracks Simon down to an ‘astronomy club’ meeting, but very rapidly discovers (well, this movie is only 95 minutes long) that the astronomers are actually a Satanic cult commanded by black magician Mocata (Charles Gray)! The stage is set: can the Duc and his dull, but loyal, band of friends save Simon from a fate which, if not actually worse than death, is certainly just as bad?

I didn’t really set out to be glib or flippant about a movie I have a sneaking fondness for, but The Devil Rides Out takes itself incredibly seriously without, it seems to me, very much justification. A lot of the script is absolutely ludicrous – heavily reliant on coincidence, improbable behaviour, and with a sort-of cop-out God-rewrites-time ending. The characters are eye-opening too: ‘I’ve never told any of my friends this, but I’ve carried out a very deep study of black magic,’ announces Lee, quite early on. Hmm, okay. If you’re an inexplicably French aristo living in 1930s England with nothing else to do, why wouldn’t you? He spends the rest of the movie displaying unexpected Devil-battling skills and chanting gibberish, and isn’t above a little benign necromancy at one point. If it were anyone else it would seem completely absurd – I think perhaps even Peter Cushing couldn’t have played this part quite as well. Cushing would no doubt have played it with a little twinkle in his eye and thus fatally undercut what tension the film generates.

Hands up if you fancy playing a hero for once in your career.

Of course, if you have Christopher Lee playing your good guy, who on earth can you cast as the villain? The film’s other real masterstroke is in employing Gray. He’s best known for his fruity, campy, slightly arch performances in things like Diamonds Are Forever and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and there are faint elements of that here, but for the most part he plays it just as straight as Lee does. There’s a sequence where he turns up at Lee’s niece’s house and hypnotises her into telling him where Mower and Nike Arrighi’s characters are, and he commands the screen entirely. It’s an astonishingly powerful moment, the stuff of real supervillainy, and when his plan is foiled he gets a killer exit line too: ‘I’m leaving. I shall not be back – but something will…’ Very regrettably, Richard Matheson’s script takes a tag-team approach to Lee and Gray’s characters: one of them is usually on screen, but hardly ever both, and they don’t get the big face-off you’re always hoping to see.

When I wrote about the rather similar Night of the Demon not long ago, I said the main difference between the two films was that Night is restrained and low-key and Devil isn’t. Well, more than that, it’s practically lurid – though there’s no nudity and very little blood (I’m actually slightly surprised it’s earned a 15 rating) – with various unlikely spiritual manifestations and other goings-on throughout. (Top tip: should you find yourself having to repel an actual physical manifestation of the Devil himself, full-beam headlights will apparently be a good place to start).

But the two films are very similar in that they both make it clear that being a Devil-worshipper is, in and of itself, wrong and unforgivable. Rather like Karswell in the other movie, Mocata doesn’t appear to have any wider ambitions beyond running his coven and sacrificing the odd farmyard animal. If Lee and his friends had never met him there’s no evidence anyone would have been any worse off materially. Certainly, viewed dispassionately, there’s not much real evidence that the polite brand of Satanism Mocata and his associates practice is very different from some of the more energetic forms of Christianity (except for the animal-cruelty angle and the fact that the object of your worship is more likely to show up in person). The movie presupposes the viewer shares a moral framework that seems hopelessly quaint and archaic these days.

Hmm, well. When my soul eventually ends up frazzling in one of the innermost circles of Hell for saying some of the above, I will at least be able to take my mind off my tribulations by reflecting on the excellent production values and direction of this movie. To be perfectly honest, the rest of the cast beyond Lee and Gray are rather forgettable, though you get the impression Paul Eddington could have made an impression had he been given a better part.

Is this, then, the first-rate Hammer production it’s so often held up to be? I don’t know – it’s certainly not fantastically representative of the studio’s output. Nearly every aspect of this film is so well-mannered and polite and upper-class: one never gets the sense of dark passions slipping out of control or a wider world going on beyond the limits of the screen, which are both there in the best of the Hammer horror output. And, deep down, you can’t help thinking that on some level this film is trying to impart a serious message, but doing it via rather silly means. It never even suggests you might like to laugh along with it, which only leaves you the options of taking it deadly seriously or relentlessly taking the piss. The commitment and sheer charisma the two leads bring to the movie mean I can just about manage the former, but only for short bursts. I would love to hear what an actual believer made of this film – but, despite the fact it treats the existence of God as a fact, climaxes with the triumph of the cross, and is thus on some level an essentially Christian film, I suspect most such people would refuse to watch The Devil Rides Out on principle: a rare example, perhaps, of the choir refusing to be preached to.

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