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Posts Tagged ‘Christopher Lee’

How’s this for reductionist humour – Space: 1999? A ha ha ha ha ha! If you wanted to be a little more decompressed, you might bring up the issue of the show’s entry in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (‘see also: Scientific Errors’), the episode with the killer plants of Luton, the perpetually baffled chief scientist Victor Bergman (default response to any query: ‘Well, John, I just haven’t a clue’), and so on. The fact that the series has been brought to a whole new generation by the good folk at the Horror Channel is surely enough to give anyone cause to smile, even in times as difficult as our own.

Some context for the uninitiated: Space 1999 was a big-budget SF series made in the 1970s under the auspices of Gerry Anderson (he of Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet fame), although by this point he had moved on from the stilted, wooden performances given by puppets, having discovered you could get a similar result from living actors with the right kind of scripting and direction. By this point Anderson had already turned down Stanley Kubrick’s offer to do the special effects on 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it does seem like that movie was at the back of his mind when he came to make Space: 1999 – apart from the similarity in titles, this was an attempt at the same kind of blend of seriously-imagined ‘realistic’ space fiction and enigmatic cosmic mysticism.

The problem with the show is that the format doesn’t easily fit into either of these categories. The premise is that, in September 1999, nuclear waste dumps on the Moon explode, blasting it out of orbit and sending it zooming across the cosmos, encountering alien life and stellar mysteries on pretty much a weekly basis. It’s one of those formats which is frankly so absurd the show can’t even acknowledge its own implausibility, to say nothing of the fact the series is predicated on the fact that the crew of Moonbase Alpha can never arrive anywhere nice or meet anyone especially helpful, as this would destroy the format.

Even a show as daft as Space: 1999 occasionally throws up a decent episode, however, which brings us to Earthbound, written by Anthony Terpiloff, directed by Charles Crichton, and originally broadcast in December 1975. I must have originally caught it on a Saturday lunchtime repeat in 1981 or 82; this may be a dud series, on the whole, but a couple of episodes have lodged in my memory, and this is one of them.

The character driving this episode is Commissioner Simmonds (Roy Dotrice), a desk-orbiting political operator with an extraordinary choice of hairstyle and beard. Simmonds has been stuck on the Moon since the opening episode, which (as this is the fourteenth episode in the run as originally transmitted) kind of leads one to wonder where he’s been in the intervening time, given he’s such an obtrusively obnoxious individual (the episode would maybe make more sense located earlier in the chronology of the show). Simmonds is fixated on trying to get back to Earth, despite the fact this is obviously impossible, which doesn’t half tick off actual commander John Koenig (imported American star Martin Landau).

Still, it soon turns out that Simmonds isn’t the only one thinking along those lines, as an alien ship makes a forced landing on the Moon (it is an interesting shade of blue and looks like a sort of novelty vase or ornament). The Alphans go aboard and discover what seems to be a glam rock band lying in state, inside sealed glass cabinets. Not having their own copy of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and thus being unaware that it is always, always a bad idea to interfere with apparently dead aliens, chief medical officer Dr Russell (Landau’s real-life wife Barbara Bain) tries to open one of the boxes but only succeeds in incinerating the occupant. Oops.

Looking on the bright side, this at least perks all the other aliens up a bit, particularly their leader, Captain Zantor, who gets all the dialogue. This is no bad thing as under the wig and the make-up is Christopher Lee, fresh off the set of The Man with the Golden Gun and well on his way to well-deserved living legend status already. It seems the ship is from the dying planet of Kaldor, and the six (now five) crew members are heading for Earth, intending to settle there (if the people of the planet permit them). Their ship was programmed to go into orbit around the Moon, which has still happened even though the Moon is not where it was supposed to be. The Kaldorians accept the various cock-ups which have beset them with good grace, and announce they’re going to continue on to Earth, seventy-five years’ voyage away, and, as they now have a free stasis box, they offer to take one of the Alphans with them.

The future’s bright – the future’s… various shades of beige, apparently.

Koenig decides to get the base computer to select the best person to receive this free ticket back to Earth, but Simmonds isn’t standing for any of that sort of nonsense (he has already suggested Koenig kill all the Kaldorians and seize their ship). Proving unexpectedly trigger-happy for a politician, he zaps his way into the power unit and basically takes the reactor hostage, insisting on being the one to take the spare berth on the alien ship. Zantor agrees, amidst much grumbling from the rest of the crew who quite rightly think that it’s not right that Simmonds should get away with this.

But will he? No-one has bothered to tell him the aliens need to create a special hibernation matrix keyed to whoever is using the stasis cabinet for it to function, with the result that Simmonds wakes up in his cabinet only three hours into the seventy-five year flight. Already the ship has departed and is beyond the range of Alpha’s support craft to reach; he is sealed in, unable to affect the ship. He screams and thrashes around helplessly in his box as the alien craft glides on through space…

It’s a memorably nasty conclusion, and of course the double whammy that sets it off so well is yet to come: when asked who the computer selected to send on the flight, Koenig reveals the inevitable answer – Simmonds. The Commissioner would have got his own way regardless.

Watching Earthbound again now, it is not quite as impressive as my memory suggested, but then neither is Space: 1999 in general quite as useless as it is popularly held to be. It remains, on a fundamental level, an awkward mash-up of the space opera stylings of Star Trek and the more philosophical approach copied, clumsily, from 2001, but the special effects are quite as good as you’d expect from an Anderson series and the production values are generally pretty good too. Barry Gray’s scores are also always a highlight of an Anderson show.

This is still a superior episode, the thing that lets it down being the way that Simmonds is presented. Leaving aside the fact that such a prominent figure seems to have materialised out of thin air in the gap between episodes, he’s just not plausible as a character. There’s potential for him to have been borderline-sympathetic – he ended up stranded on the Moon by accident, he’s not a trained specialist or astronaut like the rest of the crew, after all – but he’s written as a ruthless, self-interested villain, almost bordering on the psychotic. It’s not quite a panto turn from Roy Dotrice (usually a dependable actor) but the script kind of requires him to turn it up a bit too far to be credible.

The same is not the case when it comes to the episode’s genuine special guest star, Christopher Lee. Lee is really up against it, given the costume and make-up he is required to perform in (originally, heavier prosthetics were planned for the Kaldorians, but Lee refused to wear them), but as you would expect he rises to the occasion magnificently. You quite rarely get actors of Lee’s distinction playing guest aliens in space opera TV shows, and too often the resulting performances are just, well, not very impressive – for whatever reason, they don’t seem to be particularly trying to portray a genuinely alien being and just treat the make-up or whatever as a special kind of hat beneath which they just give a standard performance. Exceptions to this are few and far between; honourable mention must go to Martin Sheen’s appearance in Babylon 5, but also to Lee here – there is something genuinely unearthly and detached about his demeanour and line-readings here. The big question left open at the end of the episode is one of whether Zantor has deliberately arranged things so Simmonds meets his awful fate at the end; Lee’s performance is carefully pitched to give no indication, which just adds to the creepiness of the conclusion.

I expect that the discerning modern viewer would look at Earthbound nowadays and just say ‘This is rubbish’, and not without a smidgeon of justification – in addition to all its other faults, Space: 1999 simply hasn’t aged at all well. But in the context of the series this is still a superior instalment, and that ending does stay with you. And while the rest of the series may be even more rubbish, at least it is interesting, often unintentionally funny rubbish, and you have to take your pleasures where you can these days.

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Until a very short time ago I would have sworn to you that the five Fu Manchu movies Christopher Lee made in the late 1960s were products of his relationship with Hammer films. They have the same kind of period setting which gives so many Hammer horrors their atmosphere, they have the same mixture of pulp and class, and, well, they have Christopher Lee in them.

Apparently not: these films were made by the British producer Harry Alan Towers, and while they still look a lot like Hammer films, they generally tend much more towards the pulp adventure genre than actual horror per se. This is not to say that elements of these films are not shocking, just that this is probably not in the places intended by the film-makers themselves.

1966’s The Brides of Fu Manchu is the second of these films, following the previous year’s The Face of Fu Manchu. Face is rather stolid; Brides is much more confident, colourful and preposterous. For a film ostensibly about a Chinese supervillain, it opens in a surprisingly Egyptian-styled lair (possibly Towers just bought a lot of second-hand Egyptian props off the set of Carry On Cleo). A sequence briskly unfolds involving various nubile damsels in distressed clothing, a snake pit, and death by haircut, which sets the tone of the film quite nicely. We meet Professor Merlin, a French scientist, played by Rupert Davies (Davies opts for the inevitable allo-mah-Briteesh-chooms accent, but we are in for a feast of dubious accentry as the film continues). Merlin’s daughter has been kidnapped by the evil Fu Manchu (Christopher Lee, of course) and Merlin is coerced into helping him conquer the world.

How is he going to do this? Well, Fu Manchu has a death ray, but as this is the 1920s he needs a set of relay stations to transmit the ray to wherever it needs to go. Hence all the kidnapped young women: their fathers have been busily building relay towers all over Europe (without anyone taking much notice, it would seem).

Next on the list for a kidnapping is Marie Lentz, daughter of a German scientist (Marie is also German for the first twenty minutes, then reverts to using the natural French accent of Marie Versini, who plays her. This is that sort of film). The first intimation that Fu Manchu may not be the machiavellian genius everyone says he is comes when it is revealed that his preferred kidnapping technique is for his dacoit henchmen to jump out on people from behind cars and other everyday objects and try to overpower them by brute force. This goes somewhat amiss as Marie’s companion Franz (Heinz Drache) drives about four dacoits off single-handed and beats one of them to death in the process. Franz is not a heavyweight boxer or commando, by the way, he is a research chemist. (The reason why there are so many German characters in this film is because it was a co-production with a West German company.)

The dead dacoit in London is enough to put Fu Manchu’s dogged nemesis, Sir Denis Nayland Smith (Douglas Wilmer), on the trail, accompanied by the faithful Dr Petrie (there is a very obvious Sherlock Holmes vibe going on here, only added to by the fact that Wilmer played Holmes on TV the previous year). Can Nayland Smith and his associates figure out what Fu Manchu is up to before he takes over the world?

There are things which are non-ironically good about The Brides of Fu Manchu, principally some of the production values – the recreation of 1920s London is handsomely done, incorporating many vintage cars, decent numbers of extras, and even a biplane for one sequence. (I should also say that there are also quite a few rather duff props and sets on display, with some distinctly wobbly death ray transmitters turning up before the end). Don Sharp’s direction is pacy and energetic, giving the film something of the feel of a Bond film with a period setting.

On the other hand, we have to acknowledge the various absurdities of the script, which above all else is heavily reliant on some outrageous plot devices to function. Most glaring of these is a character called Abdul (played by Salman Peerzada), one of the hospitality staff in Fu Manchu’s lair who decides to betray him for no apparent reason whatsoever. Nayland Smith may march around a lot looking dour and determined, but it’s Abdul who does most of the donkey work of helping the hostages escape before the end of the film. Other delights include lookalikes who bear no resemblance to the person they’re supposed to be, and an uproarious truth-drug sequence.

One comes away with the impression that Fu Manchu would have got away with it all, if not for some very bad recruitment decisions. Quite apart from hiring Abdul to do the catering, he is also saddled with a chief technician named Feng (Burt Kwouk), who has the bad manners to have a nervous breakdown and collapse onto the big red self-destruct lever in the secret lair (the fixtures in the secret lair have a lovely steampunky charm to them). His henchmen also leave a lot to be desired – German research chemists are quite capable of beating them up in droves, and at one point there’s a massed brawl between the dacoits and the escaping young women in which the guards seem to be distinctly hard pressed. Ancient Chinese saying, Fu Manchu: you just can’t get the staff.

It is, as you may have guessed, impossibly to take remotely seriously, but still hugely entertaining if you’re in the right sort of mood. That said, I fully expect that many people will be shaking their heads and sucking their teeth at the very idea of enjoying a Fu Manchu movie in our enlightened present-day society. Sax Rohmer’s original novels were allegedly directly inspired by a racist agenda, after all. (My mother was in the room while we were watching this and complained that she couldn’t tell the good and bad guys apart. ‘Anyone Chinese is a bad guy,’ I said, which is not strictly true (Nayland Smith’s house-girl seems to be on the level) but a good rule of thumb.) There’s also the fact that this racist stereotype Chinese supervillain is portrayed by a notably un-Chinese looking actor in yellowface make-up. (Students of pop culture will enjoy spotting several familiar actually Chinese actors in minor roles: apart from Burt Kwouk, these include the ubiquitous Vincent Wong and a young (ahem) Ric Young, of Transporter fame.)

Well, I’m going to do my usual thing and say that it is entirely possible to take a film like this too seriously. If it was a serious, well-written, thoughtful drama, it would certainly be unacceptably racist. But it’s none of those things – it’s an absurd knockabout pulp action movie. If you come away from it genuinely convinced that Chinese people represent a menace and want to take over the world, well – you’re so suggestibly gullible you probably shouldn’t be allowed to watch movies at all. Obviously you couldn’t make a film remotely like this one nowadays. But it’s still a mistake to judge old films by modern standards. Even if The Brides of Fu Manchu was intended as a piece of bigoted propaganda, we should also remember it was also probably meant to be a serious thriller. The fact is that it succeeds at being neither, but as an absurd unintended comedy it is immensely entertaining.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Madness conquers Hollywood!’ said the poster for the French release of Steven Spielberg’s 1979 film, 1941. It’s a bit unclear as to whether this is a description of the plot of the movie or a criticism of the thought processes involved in the thing being made in the first place; it’s arguably equally accurate as both. This is the early Spielberg movie that most people don’t think of and haven’t seen, and the one that tends to be described as a failure despite the fact it made nearly $100 million at the box office (three times its budget). Personally I always think of the film as a kind of folie de grandeur, for want of a better expression: it’s deeply mystifying that a film like this one ever got made, but I’m very glad it was.

Stanley Kubrick said the biggest mistake Spielberg made with 1941 was telling everybody it was supposed to be a comedy, and the film certainly doesn’t start like one, with a mock-grave caption describing the somewhat febrile mood of panic and tension gripping the United States in the days following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941. It soon becomes apparent that this is absolutely not your typical Spielberg film about the Second World War – a young woman out for a swim in the Pacific Ocean off the southern Californian coast is startled to find a Japanese submarine surfacing beneath her – not only is the scene directed as a spoof of the opening of Jaws, but John Williams reuses the theme from that movie, and it’s even the same actress (Susan Backlinie).

We then proceed to a scene between the commander of the sub (Toshiro Mifune) and a German advisor (Christopher Lee) discussing their situation (in Japanese and German respectively) and the commander’s desire to strike at a significant target in the continental US so they can return to Japan with honour. Both these movie legends play the entire film almost completely straight, no matter what else is going on around them (in this scene, for instance, there is a naked woman clinging to the periscope above them while they talk). It certainly makes a change from the gurning and screaming which is the preferred style of performance of nearly everyone else in the film as it goes on.

Well, anyway. 1941 has a huge number of characters and nearly as many subplots. In addition to Mifune and Lee trying to work out where their sub is and deliver an appropriately crushing attack on America, the film also concerns a young man trying to stop a soldier from stealing his girlfriend, an unhinged fighter pilot (John Belushi) trying to track down non-existent Japanese planes, a mild-mannered homeowner who has an anti-aircraft gun deposited in his garden by the army, an army officer trying to lure his superior’s secretary into a plane for, ahem, personal reasons (she is an aviophiliac, for want of a better word), and a motor pool sergeant (Dan Aykroyd) and his crew who are trying to maintain some kind of order. Courtesy of some ingenious plotting (the script is by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis, who of course went on to write Back to the Future), all these elements bounce off each other as the film proceeds (it essentially takes place within a single day) and the situation in Los Angeles gets more and more chaotic.

It is, if anything, a disaster movie played for laughs, having the same kind of structure – the difference being that here the disaster is largely self-inflicted (the first time I saw Independence Day, itself an heir to the 70s disaster tradition in many ways, I remember thinking ‘This reminds me of 1941‘, and I was not the only one to spot the resemblance). 1941 takes all the technical advances of late-70s cinema and puts them to the purpose of trying to be funny.

Set in 1941 and made in 1979, this movie is of course now closer to the time it depicts than the present day, and it is perhaps inevitable that it feels a little dated in some ways. Much of the comedy is of a broad, early Saturday Night Live kind, unsurprisingly given Belushi and Aykroyd found fame on SNL – there is a lot of Belushi’s bull-in-a-china-shop slapstick, in particular. There is a wilful irreverence about the war in this film which is not at all what one would expect, and which indeed made it somewhat controversial at the time – Spielberg offered John Wayne a role in it at one point, and Wayne not only refused but told him he shouldn’t make the film at all as it was un-American and unpatriotic. With Spielberg so well established as a Hollywood grandee these days, it’s fascinating to revisit a time when he was still a subversive young rebel.

In other ways, of course, this is very recognisably a Spielberg movie – there is music from John Williams (he contributes one of his more rousing marches), a strong sense of nostalgia, and of course the usual technical mastery. The appearance of Backlinie, reprising her role from Jaws, isn’t the only in-joke in the film, either – Lucille Benson appears in virtually the same role she had in Duel, made nearly a decade earlier, playing a gas station owner saddled with an awkward customer.

Perhaps it’s this sort of thing which has led many people to label 1941 as self-indulgent – Spielberg, fresh from the massive success of Jaws and Close Encounters, being given carte blanche to do whatever he wanted, with the result being an overblown mess (‘Spielberg playing with cinema like a child with a toy train set’ was one comment). I don’t think it’s remotely fair to call 1941 a mess, for it manages to tell a complex story with a minimum of confusion. If there is a problem with the film, it’s that it’s a comedy which is not very funny – at least, not consistently.

There’s a relentless, manic quality to the film which eventually becomes a little exhausting rather than completely enjoyable, and it does require you to accept that the characters do absurd and ridiculous things for no other reason than that they’re supposed to be funny (a character on air raid warden duty takes a ventriloquist’s dummy with him). It almost anticipates Airplane! in its belief that if you bombard the audience continuously with jokes, enough of them will be funny for the film to succeed – and I suppose this is true, for this is a movie which never fails to entertain me. This may partly be because I just enjoy the fact that so much talent and so many resources have been devoted to bringing such an absurdly silly story to the screen, but as well as being a lavish piece of movie-making, 1941 is filled with colour and movement and action. The hectic pace may be a problem, but if the film slowed down for a moment it would surely fail entirely.

As I say, 1941 is a film I have always liked, even if Spielberg considers it to have not completely worked, and steered clear of comedy as a result (a shame, especially as he was supposedly planning to do a movie with the Goodies before this one came out). It’s hit and miss as a comedy, but as a technical achievement and above all as a spectacle, it has lots to offer.

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Never a sniff of Tiptoes, as it turned out. Hey ho. It has been a pleasant five or six years with Lovefilm, though, and it would be remiss of me to be too harsh on the service for its persistent failure to provide one particular probably-dreadful dwarf-themed Matthew McConnaughey rom-com. To the end, the mechanics of how the company decided what discs it was going to send me remained obscure – was it ever anything more than a form of eeny-meeny-miney-mo? I expect I shall never know. It’s hard to discern any particular significance to the final disc that was sent to me, fine and welcome though it is: Billy Wilder’s 1970 film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

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As is fairly well-known in interested circles, the version of this film which is generally available includes only a portion of Wilder’s original ideas for it – the initial intention was to make almost an anthology, with four linked stories casting Baker Street’s most famous residents in a different light. Two of the stories were removed at the insistence of the studio (what remains of them are available as additional material), meaning that what remains is a little curious in its structure, to say the least.

The film, naturally, concerns various exploits of Sherlock Holmes (Robert Stephens) and his faithful amanuensis Dr Watson (Colin Blakely). Initially we find them between cases, with Holmes contending with the depression inactivity always brings on in him, and Watson trying to dissuade him from his cocaine habit. Then they are invited to the ballet, where the prima ballerina has a rather eye-opening proposition to make to Holmes. His delicate attempts to evade the entanglement which she has in mind end up seriously annoying Watson. Almost wholly played for laughs, this is indeed a very funny segment, although rather politically incorrect by modern standards (there are many jokes about gay ballet dancers). Plus, it poses the question at the centre of the film: what kind of personal life does Sherlock Holmes have? Is he even capable of an emotional involvement with a woman?

This is developed in the rest of the film, all of which concerns a single, rather peculiar case which Holmes finds himself involved in, albeit unwillingly to begin with. A young woman (Genevieve Page) is delivered to 221B Baker Street late one night, having been fished out of the Thames. The only real clue is that she has Holmes’ address on a scrap of card in her hand.

It transpires that she is Gabrielle Valladon, a Belgium woman whose engineer husband has gone missing somewhere in Britain. Initially reluctant, Holmes finds the case has enough unusual features to pique his interest, the trail taking them to the Diogenes Club and his brother Mycroft (Christopher Lee), and then on to the shores of Loch Ness, while also including a mysterious party of Trappist monks, bleached canaries, the Book of Jonah, and, if not a midget submarine, then certainly a submarine for midgets…

The story is undeniably rather bizarre, but not very much more so than many Conan Doyle tales, and I suppose the key qustion must be whether this is intended as a spoof Sherlock or simply a pastiche. Much of the film is played somewhat tongue-in-cheek, of course, but it is less broad than, for example, Thom Eberhardt’s Without a Clue (my research has just turned up the news that Judd Apatow is doing a funny Sherlock Holmes with Will Ferrell: oh, God), and it has a rather wistful, melancholy quality which is not what you’d expect from a straightforwardly comic film. The movie is somewhat impertinent towards some elements of the canon, but affectionately so, and in the end I would say this was much more a pastiche than anything else.

Certainly, Mark Gatiss and the Unmentionable One, creators of the great Sherlock Holmes pastiche of our day, have spoken openly of the influence of Private Life on their own version of the Great Detective, especially with respect to its presentation of Mycroft Holmes as some kind of spymaster. You could even suggest that Gatiss’ own performance as Mycroft is basically his interpretation of that given by Christopher Lee in this film.

It is traditional to suggest that Robert Stephens gives us a rather theatrical Sherlock in this film, and this is true: none the worse for that, of course, I would say. He’s a rather good one-shot Sherlock, and the same is true of Colin Blakely as Watson; Blakely plays the part for laughs when it’s called for, but also keeps the character grounded and credible in the film’s more dramatic moments.

As well as a piece of Sherlockiana, of course, the film also seems to me to have a curious place in the cultural history of the Loch Ness Monster. Most famously, one of the Monster props made for the film sank to the bottom of the loch and was only rediscovered in 2016, briefly causing a degree of excitement amongst monster hunters. However, the film also presents the monster phenomenon as being well-known in the 1880s, with various characters making reference to it as an established mystery. This, of course, was not the case, with the Loch Ness monster legend only acquiring currency in the early 1930s (very shortly after the release of King Kong, indicatively enough) – the film gives the impression of a lengthy history of monster sightings prior to the 20th century, for which there is no real evidence, and so you could argue it has contributed to the perpetuation of this charming myth. It’s hardly grounds to criticise the film, either way.

This is a lavish, charming, funny film, and not without grace notes of darkness and melacnholy, as noted. Most of these one-shot Sherlock Holmes seem to vanish without much of a trace, with only the film and TV series seeming to linger in the memory – Rathbone, Cushing, Brett, Downey Jr, Cumberbatch. That this one has not, quite, may be a result of what a singularly unusual take on the Great Detective it presents, but it also surely has something to do with the overall quality of a superior movie.

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Sometimes I could almost believe the people at Lovefilm are reading this blog and sitting in judgement upon it. One of the unusual (and, to my mind, rather enjoyable) aspects of my soon-to-be-defunct DVD rental service is the random nature of it – you basically get very little control over what films from your list they decide to send you. Is there some sort of lucky dip system in effect at Lovefilm HQ? Somehow I doubt it, for there have been several occasions when I have received a string of suspiciously similar films in a row. On these occasions I can almost hear a spectral voice saying ‘We enjoyed your review of that last Woody Allen film. Have another one.’ And my thoughts on Tales from the Crypt seem likewise to have earned the approbation of the DVD gods, for landing on my figurative mat this week was another Amicus portmanteau horror movie – the daddy of them all, in the form of Freddie Francis’ 1965 film Dr Terror’s House of Horrors. All I can say is: DVD gods, please send Tiptoes before your service closes down.

Anyway – yes, this is the one with Fluff Freeman and the killer vine. This was the original Amicus portmanteau, and as a result it does feel a little less formulaic than later films in the subgenre. Scripted by Amicus head honcho Milton Subotsky, apparently the film originated in the late 1940s, with the script hanging around for fifteen years or so before it finally went into production – scholars of American horror movies of the mid-40s have suggested that all the segments of House of Horrors are to some extent derivative of other movies and stories from that period, but this is not especially obvious to a modern audience.

The movie opens with a group of men gathering in a train compartment, and you do get a sense almost at once that this isn’t a film completely trapped in the horror ghetto – true, you do have Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee giving their legendary imprimatur to proceedings (although both are somewhat cast against type), but there’s also a very young Donald Sutherland, not to mention all-round entertainer Roy Castle and the disc jockey (and not very good actor) Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman. Something for everyone there, I’m tempted to say.

Anyway, Cushing is playing the enigmatic Dr Schreck (German for ‘terror’, naturally), which allows the actor to have some fun with a peculiar accent, and really go to town with the make-up box: his fake eyebrows suggest a couple of hairy caterpillars are engaged in a courtship ritual on his forehead. When he reveals he’s carrying a set of tarot cards in his luggage, and they have mystical powers to foretell the future and shape destiny, the others are initially doubtful – especially Lee’s snotty art critic. But one by one they consent to have their fortune told…

First up is Werewolf (the segment subtitles leave a little to be desired, if you ask me), a slightly overplotted tale of an architect (Neil McCallum) who returns to his recently-sold family home to do some surveying work for the new owner (Ursula Howells). Soon enough he discovers the coffin of a legendary sorcerer and werewolf, the magnificently named Cosmo Valdemar, walled up in the cellar, and recalls old tales of Valdemar’s undying hatred of his family. Better start melting down the silver crucifix to make bullets, then… but is there something else going on that our man is not aware of?

The least you can say about any of the stories in House of Horrors is that they are atmospherically filmed, and this one is no exception. However, each of them also stands or falls on the strength of its punchline, so to speak, and the question of exactly what’s going on here always seems to me to be a little confused. Or, to put it another way, you don’t really expect to have to work out the plot of an Amicus portmanteau story for yourself. Hey ho.

No such worries in the next one, The Creeping Vine – yes, the time has finally come. One of the distinguishing things about this film is that it’s not about dodgy types receiving their well-earned comeuppance, which is basically the rationale of later films like Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horrors and From Beyond the Grave – it’d be a stretch to describe any of the protagonists here as actually wicked, they’re petty or foolish at worst. And yet their fates are uniformly pretty grim. In this case, Fluff Freeman plays a very ordinary bloke who comes back off holiday to find a peculiar vine has sprung up in his garden. The vine violently resists any attempts at pruning, which is enough to prompt Fluff to head off to consult some boffins.

‘I’m pretty good at handling garden tools, I don’t think those shears slipped!’ says Fluff to the experts (I can’t understand why that line has not become one of the most celebrated movie quotes in history). The boffins (Jeremy Kemp and Bernard Lee), who obviously have far too much free time, speculate that rather than being a gardening mishap, this may be evidence of a sentient mutant plant having appeared, and one of them actually moves in with Fluff to investigate.

Well, who’d have guessed it, but the boffins are right, and soon the malevolent vine is strangling family pets and covering the whole house. Bernard Lee brings remarkable gravitas to an uproariously silly story, all the more so given he was apparently so much the worse for drink during most of his scenes that he had to deliver his dialogue sitting down. Fluff, meanwhile, just stands around looking slightly bemused by the whole thing. Very entertaining, but hardly the high-point of the British botanical horror tradition, and once again the ending is just a bit too ambiguous.

Next up is Voodoo, the tale of Roy Castle’s hapless jazz trumpeter (it’s Roy Castle, of course he’s going to have a trumpet), who is sent off for a residency in Haiti along with his band. We’re heading into slightly problematic territory here, with Haiti depicted as a hotbed of black magic and voodoo (Castle’s attempt at a West Indian accent at one point is also rather embarrassing), but the casting of Kenny Lynch allows the film to undercut the stereotypes a little.

Castle is much taken with the music of the local voodoo ceremonies and plans to arrange it for his jazz group, despite the objections of the local houngan, who insists it is ancient and sacred to his god Dhambala. ‘Oh, well, if it’s that old, it’s out of copyright…’ says Castle. Needless to say the playing of the music leads to unfortunate events back in London. A slightly lighter tone to this one, mainly because of Castle’s deft comic performance (hard to imagine first-choice actor Acker Bilk being quite so capable), if (a pattern develops) the climax is a little underpowered.

Christopher Lee’s stuffy art critic consents to have his future told next, and suffice to say it is entitled Disembodied Hand. Lee’s pompous and snobbish character gets involved in a feud with an artist (Michael Gough), which spins out of control. Gough is maimed and commits suicide as a result, but his severed hand is still on the loose and seeking revenge on Lee…

A really good performance from Lee here, who is miles away from his traditional kind of role – here he plays a vain, foolish man who gradually succumbs to terror as the hand’s relentless attempts at vengeance go on, and on, and on. The crawling hand prop is actually rather impressive, given this is not exactly a big-budget film – the hand would go on to have a fairly distinguished career in other Amicus productions, playing one of Richard Greene’s severed hands in Tales from the Crypt, for instance. A strong ending, too, finally.

And so to (spoiler alert) Vampire, in which doctor Donald Sutherland sets up in small town USA with his faintly exotic foreign bride. No sooner have they settled into their new home than mysterious cases of anaemia start cropping up amongst the townsfolk, often accompanied by strange marks on the neck…

I think this is a fairly witty little story, provided you don’t know the twist going into it. Not a great showcase for Sutherland, though, partly because while his character may be a qualified doctor, he’s also depicted as rather a dim bulb, but mainly because Sutherland gets bulldozed off the screen by Max Adrian, here playing the town’s other doctor, one of those actors with a tremendous capacity for stealing scenes.

Then it’s time for the final twist of the framing story. Now, as I’ve observed before, the thing about the Amicus portmanteaus is that the final twist is nearly always the same in all of them, but bearing in mind it would have been new and original on this occasion, I think it’s a reasonably good way of ending the movie.

All in all, Dr Terror’s House of Horrors feels rather less schlocky and threadbare than some of its successors, possibly because it’s not principally based on American horror comic books (as a couple of the other films were). Derivative it may be, but its choice of subject matter is sound – a vampire, a werewolf, a crawling hand, voodoo magic, and a killer plant… again, something for everyone here – and the film has an interesting mixture of styles. The werewolf story is properly gothic, the vine is more of an SF B-movie, the voodoo story is somewhat played for laughs, and so on. This, along with the extraordinarily eclectic and interesting casting, gives the film a real sense of variety and colour. You can see why Amicus and many others have endlessly reused this formula in the years since Dr Terror’s House of Horrors was made, but this film has a touch of class almost all the others lack.

 

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If you think of British film companies of the 60s, particularly makers of genre movies, then of course you think of Hammer, then probably Amicus, and perhaps Tigon in third place. It might be quite a long time before you remembered Planet, a much smaller outfit these days best remembered for a couple of Terence Fisher films – Island of Terror, from 1966, and Night of the Big Heat, from 1967. Island of Terror was a moderately successful monster movie, rather let down by ropey monster props and a slightly stuffy tone. Night of the Big Heat (also known by the rather more promising title Island of the Burning Damned) almost looks like an attempt at a remake with these things fixed.

Everything takes place on the island of Fara, which we are told is somewhere off the coast of the UK. The film actually has a very unpromising opening, with no dialogue for ages and no real sense of what’s going on: someone’s radar set explodes in his face, a young woman (Jane Merrow) drives around in her convertible, and a stern-looking man (Christopher Lee) is engaged upon some mysterious experiments involving cameras and mirrors and bits of wood. (One of these scenes turns out not to have happened yet, and is just a teaser for much later on.)

Eventually we get some sense of the set-up here. Key locations on Fara include the weather station and the gravel pits (a useful location for staging mysterious deaths and the climax), but most of the action takes place in the pub, which is run by slab-faced alpha-male novelist Jeff Callum (Patrick Allen) and his wife Frankie (Sarah Lawson). Lodging in the pub is mysterious outsider Dr Hanson (Lee), while constantly propping up the bar is genial GP Dr Stone (‘guest star’ Peter Cushing). New on the scene is Jeff’s latest secretary, Angela (Merrow), who is a bit of a naughty minx: she and Jeff have history together, if you know what I mean, and she’s come to Fara intent on resuming their liaison. A torrid time is in prospect.

Especially torrid given the island is sweltering in the grip of a tremendous, unseasonal heatwave, which is making TV sets and bottles of beer spontaneously explode. (All the men have had ridiculous sweat-patches applied to their shirts by the costume department.) What’s going on? Does it have anything to do with Dr Hanson’s experiments?

Well, sort of. It seems that space probes from Earth have attracted the attention of alien creatures composed of ‘high frequency heat’ and they are using Fara as a beachhead for their invasion of Earth. Anyone who crosses their path – sheep, supporting characters, those old tramps who are such a regular feature of this kind of movie – is rapidly incinerated. Is everyone doomed?

The least you can say for Night of the Big Heat – you know, I do think Island of the Burning Damned is a better title – is that it more or less avoids the key problems that Island of Terror had: the alien monsters are kept off-screen for most of the movie (and the monster props are marginally better when they do appear), and the general tone of the thing is pepped up by some mildly saucy business between Allen and Merrow (not to mention Merrow providing some cheap PG-rated cheesecake thrills). And yet this is still a worse movie than the previous Planet production.

How can this be? Well, firstly, all the stuff about Jeff being unable to keep his hands off Angela, and her scheme to have her way with him, scarcely informs the main plot of the film – it’s filler, basically, and very melodramatic filler too. The characterisation of Angela is, shall we say, problematic: she is a one-dimensional Bad Girl, who functions primarily as a sex object, and she’s the first one to lose it completely as the situation grows increasingly dire. (On the other hand, at least she can type.)

However, at least this makes a vague sort of sense, which is more than you can really say for the alien monster invasion storyline, which starts off as slightly dubious and rapidly becomes very silly indeed; this is the kind of film you can imagine inspiring the Monty Python ‘Sci Fi movie’ sketch. As ever, you are left filled with admiration for Christopher Lee’s ability to treat this kind of material with a gravity and intensity it doesn’t remotely deserve. By the end of the film Lee is participating in expository scenes explaining how the alien invasion has happened which are basically utter gibberish, before running outside to implement his character’s ridiculous plan to see off the invaders (this involves many shots of Lee setting fire to haystacks with a flare pistol), and he genuinely seems to be taking it completely seriously. What a legend. Peter Cushing is, of course, equally good, though not in the film enough – though we do get a marvellous example of Cushing’s wonderful ‘death-spasm’ acting (let’s see Disney’s CGI Cushing do that).

Most of the film is fairly competently made, but the script is so thick-headed that it’s more or less impossible to take seriously as a piece of drama, and it’s not even particularly enjoyable as camp entertainment. Night of the Big Heat came out in 1967, coincidentally the same year as In the Heat of the Night. One of these films is a timeless classic that deservedly won critical acclaim and several Oscars. The other one is a dim-witted B-movie with Jane Merrow in a bikini and aliens defeated by their poor grasp of meteorology. You can kind of see why Planet Film Productions never achieved a higher profile.

 

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