Posts Tagged ‘Clive Revill’

The value of this kind of intensive viewing exercise is once again proven as it turns out – rather to my surprise – that I’ve never properly watched Brian Clemens’ Dead Men are Dangerous before. (I’m sure I saw part of it during the mid-90s BBC 2 repeat, but most of it is completely new to me.) It opens with a flashback to (presumably) late 60s Germany, where Steed is on the way to deliver colleague and lifelong friend Mark Crayford to a dangerous mission behind the Iron Curtain. I would have said Steed spent that particular period of his life fighting ridiculous mad scientists in the home counties, not doing this kind of Len Deighton stuff, but the script is the script. (Crayford is played by Clive Revill, who’s a very capable actor – the original Palpatine in The Empire Strikes Back – but ten years younger than Patrick Macnee.) Some slightly on-the-nose dialogue reveals that Crayford has always felt second-best to Steed throughout their friendship, and this bubbles to the surface when Crayford reveals his plan to defect and make a new life for himself in service of the Other Side, supposedly out of Steed’s shadow. Steed obviously can’t permit this and puts a bullet in him (he really is quite out of character in this sequence), but the Other Side spirit him away for treatment.

Enemy medicine has its limits, however, and ten years later Crayford is informed the bullet in his chest will very shortly kill him. So he has himself declared dead and returns to Britain to extract a slow and sadistic revenge on his old friend, destroying his most cherished possessions, attempting to obliterate any record of his achievements, and eventually threatening the people Steed cares about…

Quite heavy and atypical stuff, then, and perhaps it could be read as an attempt to move the series onto a more dramatic footing after some of the sillier moments of the first season. (Such a move clearly doesn’t take, of course.) As something resembling a serious drama, it actually works really well: Macnee is at the heart of the story throughout and gives a strong performance, and in some ways the script is as good a naturalistic character study of Steed as one could wish for (although, given it’s long been established that Steed happily cheats whenever it suits his purposes, one wonders if perennial also-ran Crayford doesn’t have a reason to be so embittered about constantly losing to him).

It actually has a sort of emotional heft to it, which isn’t something you could often say about The New Avengers (or indeed the parent show), and while there’s still a degree of plot contrivance involved it doesn’t overpower the story. Gambit and Purdey both get their moments to shine as well (though that complete timeline is looking even weirder – Gambit is clearly living in a different flat to the first season’s, but claims he moved into the current one four years ago and just hasn’t bothered to unpack yet). Lots of people rate this as being amongst the very best episodes of the series, and I am not going to argue with them in the slightest.

Back to something a bit more traditional in the shape of Brian Clemens and Terence Feely’s Angels of Death – I would imagine Feely handled most of the intelligence tradecraft side of the story, while Clemens swooped in and added the material which feels like a tribute to the classic Philip Levene style of script from nearly a decade earlier. After some brief swanning around in Paris (making that French location shoot really pay for itself), this settles down to another story about an enemy operation to systematically eliminate key figures in the security establishment – but the only clue Steed has is that it somehow involves ‘angels of death’.

Certainly a great many top men have been dropping dead, but all of natural causes – well, they are in a very stressful line of work, after all. It’s up to Steed, Gambit and Purdey to keep working the case until the plot structure dictates they all simultaneously realise what’s going on and head to the enemy lair to put a stop to it.

I am being rather reductive, of course: the episode isn’t quite as obvious as that (though it is still quite obvious in some ways). Heft and drama comes from Steed seeing yet more of his very many close old friends mown down, and bemoaning the mindset required of the work they all do – we get a glimpse of his own formative years in flashback when he is finally put through the enemy wringer and recalls his own training (though the flashbacks are actually only to first-season episodes – gotta economise somehow if you want that French location shoot). Needless to say, the welcome trend of keeping Steed at the heart of the story continues.

The structure of the story should be very familiar to anyone who’s watched a lot of the filmed episodes of the original show: it’s basically a string of murders all using variations on the same gimmick. The premise here is that of a killer health farm, visitors to which (all important government types, of course), rather than being pampered, find themselves drugged, sent into a fake nightclub, and forced to disco-dance with Caroline Munro and Pamela Stephenson until they reach the point of death by exhaustion (as I say, I suspect this may have been part of Clemens’ contribution). Then they are forced to try and escape from an impossible maze, all of which creates such a massive set of stressful associations that merely seeing an image associated with the experience days or weeks later causes them to drop dead of shock. (One wonders sometimes if it wouldn’t be cheaper just to shoot them.)

And the cult-o-meter is off the charts…!

The episode misses a massive trick, if you ask me, by not showing us the moment at which Patrick Macnee struts his funky stuff in the disco, but Caroline Munro is effectively deployed, even if her inevitable fight with Joanna Lumley doesn’t quite live up to your expectations (then again, could it ever). And it is, on some level, another episode which mainly resolves through Gambit turning up with a gun. The only thing that really keeps this from being a story they could have made ten years earlier is the disco-dancing in the fake nightclub, but there’s something to be said for comforting familiarity sometimes.

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It’s always slightly disconcerting when two films in the same genre end up bearing very similar titles – I’ve written in the past of the potential confusion inherent in the existence of The Day the Earth Caught Fire and The Day the Sky Exploded, not to mention The Land That Time Forgot and Creatures the World Forgot – and this is before we come to films in the same genre, with similar titles, and weirdly similar premises as well. Pay attention, this gets complicated: Shirley Jackson wrote The Haunting of Hill House, adapted for the screen as The Haunting, while Richard Matheson wrote Hell House, which he adapted for the screen as The Legend of Hell House. Haunting? Legend? Hill House? Hell House? The what of which?

Full disclosure: it wasn’t until quite recently that I finally saw either of the films in question, and prior to that I was genuinely prone to getting them mixed up – not that it made much difference, given how little I actually knew about either of them beyond the fact they’re about misguided investigations of pieces of real estate with baleful supernatural properties. Having now seen the Matheson movie, directed by John Hough, I can at least bang on about that with more of a chance of looking like I know what I’m talking about.

The movie opens with physicist Lionel Barrett (played by Clive Revill) receiving a curious challenge from the millionaire Rudolph Deutsch (Roland Culver) – Deutsch will reward Barrett handsomely if he can finally resolve the question of whether the human personality can survive after death. According to Deutsch, there is only one place where this has not been refuted – Belasco House, once the home of an insane, perverted millionaire, which has stood empty for decades. A previous attempt to investigate spiritual disturbances in the mansion led to the death of all but one of the people concerned – it has become, in Barrett’s words, ‘the Mount Everest of haunted houses’.

Assisting Barrett in his mission are a pair of mediums – one of them, Fischer (Roddy McDowell), is the sole survivor of the previous investigation, the other (Pamela Franklin) is younger and more idealistic. Also joining them is Barrett’s wife (Gayle Hunnicutt), who is rather sceptical about the whole project.

Well, Belasco House turns out to be an imposing Gothic pile, complete with bricked-up windows (could this have been to make it easier to film the interior scenes on a sound-stage) and a pre-recorded message of welcome from the last owner, Emeric Belasco. Everyone takes this in their stride remarkably well, to be honest. Barrett wants to press on with holding a seance almost as soon as they arrive, despite Fischer’s misgivings in particular: he is absolutely certain that the house has agency of its own and will actively try to kill them, tainted as it is by the succession of atrocities Belasco carried out. ‘How did it all end?’ asks Mrs Barrett, rather naively. ‘If it had all ended, we would not be here,’ replies Fischer, darkly…

You normally know where you stand when it comes to British horror movies from the early 1970s (this film was released in 1973). Hammer were in decline by this point, making a succession of increasingly lurid and dubious pictures, Amicus were in the midst of their series of portmanteau films, Tigon were just about to depart the stage – as producers, if not distributors – with The Creeping Flesh. The thing about The Legend of Hell House is that it doesn’t feel like or resemble any of those – it may be down to the presence of an American screenwriter (Matheson) and producer (James H Nicholson), but this does feel more like an American movie from the same period – where British horror films always have a tendency towards extravagance and even camp, this is much more sober and naturalistic.

The attempt at a kind of faux-documentary realism is propped up by a series of captions establishing exactly when the various scenes occur, and also by an opening card, supposedl quoting a ‘Psychic Consultant to European Royalty’ (oh, yeah) in whose opinion the events of the film ‘could well be true’. ‘Could well be true’? What the hell is that supposed to mean? Talk about hedging your bets. Nevertheless, the film’s attempts at a kind of eerie restraint work rather well, as things slowly begin to happen, to Pamela Franklin’s character in particular. The atmosphere is effectively oppressive. Much of this is due to an unsettling radiophonic score – not really music, but hardly ambient sound, either – provided by British electronica pioneers Brian Hodgson and Delia Derbyshire. Their work here is every bit as good as you would expect.

In the end, though, the film goes off on a slightly different path, and one which oddly recalls the plot of Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape (originally broadcast six months before the release of this film). Barrett, though a physicist, is open-minded about the existence of the supernatural and eventually unveils his ghost-busting machine, the operation of which performs a sort of technological exorcism of the surrounding area (the patent is filed somewhere between Carnacki’s electric pentacle and the Ghostbusters’ proton packs). Nothing wrong with a plot point like this in principle, but the problem is that it actually seems to work – nothing destroys the atmosphere and menace of a haunting like rendering it vulnerable to this sort of occult hoover. The film has to go through some fairly outrageous contortions to accommodate this and still provide a decent climax – it does so, thanks to a very odd cameo by Michael Gough and Roddy McDowell choosing just the right moment to go for it with his performance. It’s still a bit mad, though, effectively revolving around a pair of prosthetic legs and some armchair psychology, and the creepy atmosphere is perhaps a bit too thoroughly dispelled.

Still, this is still a notably effective horror movie, in many ways anticipating the way the genre would go towards the end of the decade. Performances, direction and soundtrack are all good, and if some of the plotting is a bit suspect, Matheson at least provides some very good dialogue, particularly in the opening part of the film. This is probably not the greatest haunted house movie ever made, but it is a memorable and effective one.

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