Posts Tagged ‘Gareth Hunt’

After being almost-unseen for decades and seemingly like a prime candidate for ‘lost movie’ status, Ray Cameron’s Bloodbath at the House of Death, released in 1984, has recently turned up on the UK incarnation of the world’s biggest streaming service. If ever a comparatively recent film has languished, it is this one. Perhaps the distinct lack of enthusiasm for it, even amongst some of the people involved in its production, may give us a clue as to why. ‘It’s a fairly terrible film,’ recalled the producer in a 2008 interview. ‘It’s not the film I want on my headstone, or in my obituary when I die.’

Well, there’s a refreshing sort of honesty there, anyway, and the movie does have the kind of bizarre cross-genre conception and eclectic cast list that usually indicates it may be on the road to cult status. As you may know, being ‘fairly terrible’ is not the kind of thing to put me off a film, and the thing is only a brisk 90 minutes or so long. So: how bad could it be?

Well, the producer was possibly being a bit over-generous. The film opens with the first of many swipes at horror cliches: we start with a shot of a big old house in the countryside, as seen via a POV shot from someone creeping towards it through the undergrowth. The watcher pulls back the branches to get a better look – only to lose his grip, and them to spring back into his face, painfully. It’s a better gag than it sounds (the first time they use it, anyway) and a promising start.

Anyway, a mob of robed figures with axes, spears, shotguns, nooses, and so on, break into the house and kill everyone inside, leaving a scene of absolute carnage, in which none of the other attempted jokes have been very funny. British comedy legend Barry Cryer (who co-wrote the film with Cameron) briefly appears as a cop investigating the slaughter, but doesn’t manage to uncover any clues (or any more decent lines).

Then we are nine years later, and rather than death by stabbing or shooting we are threatened with death by exposition as the main cast all make their way to ‘Headstone Manor’, scene of the massacre, carefully telling each other who they are and why they’re going there. Most prominent are top-billed DJ-turned-comic Kenny Everett, in his only movie lead, and comic-actress-turned-latterday-sex-therapist Pamela Stephenson; the rest of the ensemble is not unimpressive as it includes the likes of Gareth Hunt, Sheila Steafel, Don Warrington, and John Fortune; appearing as the juvenile leads are Everett’s regular stooge Cleo Rocos (who brings big hair but no discernible acting ability) and John Stephen Hill (a fairly nondescript young fellow whose Wikipedia page claims he stopped acting the year before he made this film; maybe there is sometimes truth in Wiki after all).

Apparently they are all scientists, sent to the spooky old house to investigate reports of supernatural phenomena and high levels of radiation. The cognisant viewer will by this point essentially be expecting something along the lines of Carry On Up Hell House, given the broad low comedy on display and the premise thus established, but the film doesn’t even have the coherence and focus to hit this rather low target. (The censor, when showed the film, apparently thought it wasn’t especially problematic and indeed had its moments – generous fellow – but thought there’d been a mix-up and he’d been shown the reels in the wrong order. He had not. The plot makes that little sense.)

What you end up with is an increasingly baffled and/or desperate-looking cast, flailing about for a way to get laughs – Stephenson opts for a silly voice, while Everett starts off doing a silly walk and then also goes for a silly voice. Nothing, by the way, makes it apparent that Everett is a TV star doing his first movie more clearly than the over-the-top mugging he indulges in throughout. Some of the dialogue would struggle to get into even a late Carry On film, as when Rocos and Hill are exploring the kitchen: ‘Could you pass me a spoon?’ – ‘I suppose a fork is out of the question?’ – ‘Maybe, but let’s get dinner out of the way first’. Much of the rest of the film is made up of scattershot parodies of other films from around the same period – there’s a Carrie spoof, a very problematic Entity skit with some gratuitous T&A from Stephenson, a scene apparently referencing American Werewolf (which was partly a spoof itself), and even a gag based on E.T. (Inexplicably popular – if you ask me – comedian Michael McIntyre apparently appears in the E.T. segment, due to his being the director’s son.)

The vast majority of this movie is dreary, awful rubbish, one of the signs of the moribund state of the British film industry in the 1980s; it’s actually quite surprising how it manages to take normally capable performers and seemingly drain all the talent and charm out of them. The occasional flash of directorial cleverness, or a decent special effect, doesn’t come anywhere close to rescuing it.

However, there is a reason to watch this movie, and that reason is the presence of no-foolin’ horror legend Vincent Price, making his final appearance in a British film. I have often written in the past of the remarkable ability of stars like Price, Peter Cushing, and Christopher Lee to lift dodgy material through sheer talent and presence, but what Price achieves here is truly exceptional: to say this is a game piece of self-parody is a huge understatement. Price’s scenes are genuinely very funny: he plays the leader of the local Satanic cult, saddled with a bunch of insubordinate and incompetent followers (he’s off by himself and never interacts with the rest of the main cast). He gets a magnificent speech about his centuries-long career of evil, delivered in the classically arch Price manner, concluding with ‘…and you tell me to piss off? No, you piss off!’

That said, Price is only in the movie for about ten minutes, and it’s a near thing either way as to whether this is enough to justify watching the rest of it, which is really and truly properly dire. I have considerable tolerance for and fascination with bad movies, and even I found most of it tough going, so go in prepared and don’t be ashamed of bailing out. I can’t imagine anyone genuinely liking this movie, and even those who can get through the whole thing will probably only do so once.

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Well, with NaNo out of the way well ahead of the deadline (I believe I may have mentioned it), I find myself at a bit of a loose end, writing-wise. So, obviously, the logical thing to do is to write about an episode of The New Avengers, a British fantasy series from the mid 70s which these days obviously struggles to maintain any kind of online profile given the onslaught of material related to another ‘new Avengers’ project.

I say that The New Avengers is fantasy, but to be honest that’s more a matter of tone than anything else. Rather like its progenitor series, (doh!) The Avengers, it wanders back and forth over the line between credible espionage drama and borderline SF and fantasy, although in general the concepts are a bit less way-out (the one with the giant rat obviously excepted). This time around I thought I would write about Target!, generally considered to be one of the best episodes, which was written by Dennis Spooner and directed by John Hough.


The main premise of Target! is the existence of an automated firing range populated by gun-toting androids, its function to provide a training facility for security agents – training being so much more realistic, after all, when the targets shoot back at you. It is essentially a very high-tech version of paintball, or so everybody thinks.

However, the range has been subverted by enemy agent Draker (Keith Barron), with the result that anyone running the android gauntlet usually winds up dropping dead hours or days later. Due to this delay, no-one has any idea what is causing the deaths of so many highly important operatives, which is naturally a source of concern to Steed (Patrick Macnee) and Gambit (Gareth Hunt). Purdey (Joanna Lumley), on the other hand, is a bit less worried, but that is mainly because she has some leave coming up. Once she’s completed her final competency check down at the firing range, anyway…

The majority of The New Avengers was written by either Spooner or series creator Brian Clemens, which may explain quite how formulaic many of the episodes are – but then again, wouldn’t the two of them have noticed quite how often they were repeating themselves? Most of the episodes feature one or other of a traitor working for Steed and company’s organisation, and a member of said organisation stumbling onto a nefarious scheme, getting himself mortally wounded, and then staggering off to Steed’s house to croak out just enough information to get the episode started before pegging out.

Both of these old favourites turn up in Target!, although perhaps this is a little forgivable given it was only the sixth episode into production. Also present is another classic Avengers plot beat, in the form of an eccentric character who’s there to provide an info-dump, in the course of which he gets murdered – in this case, an expert on life up the Amazon (don’t ask).

To be honest, the plot itself does not make a great deal of sense except in the most impressionistic way, with various threads left blowing in the breeze or not quite connecting up with each other. Your credulity will be somewhat stretched even if you accept the idea of the robot sharpshooters which are central to the storyline.

However, the episode works as well as it does simply because the idea of the robot gun-range is such a fun and interesting one. Outrageous though it is, some thought has gone into making it look and feel borderline-plausible: the range is disguised as a collection of buildings and streets, with fake graffiti and roadsigns, and a few ‘friendlies’ for test subjects to waste their ammunition on. (It also appears to give Spooner the opportunity for an in-joke about a previous job, as a police box is spectacularly detonated at one point – rumour suggests this is the actual TARDIS exterior from the Amicus Dalek movies.)


We don’t get to see Steed take on the machine, unfortunately (Patrick Macnee takes a bit of a back seat in this particular episode), but plenty of other characters do, and Hough’s direction of these sequences is smartly done, particularly the finale, in which Gambit has to run the gauntlet, knowing full well his opponents are effectively using live ammunition.

One of Patrick Macnee’s regular observations about The New Avengers is that he shouldn’t have been in the series at all: it would have been much better with just Gambit and Purdey as the two leads. No-one but Gareth Hunt’s bank manager would agree with that, I suspect, but it is true that the scripts often struggle to find stuff for all three regulars to do, and more often than not it’s Gambit who comes across as a bit of a spare wheel.

However, Target! is constructed so it comes across as perfectly natural for Gambit to be the one saving the day in trigger-pumping style. When it comes to dialogue scenes and natural charisma, pairing Hunt with Macnee is like putting a cigarette lighter next to a blowtorch, but he always handles himself perfectly well in action sequences, especially ones as well-directed as those here.

Target! isn’t a really great piece of TV, but then The New Avengers isn’t a truly great series anyway: though it’s certainly a competent and fun one. But this is a solidly assembled, highly entertaining episode, with lots to enjoy going on, even if some of it is in the casting (sitcom favourite Barron is a surprisingly effective villain, while playing his sidekick is TV and film fantasy stalwart Deep Roy, making his screen debut). It’s been said that the only watchable sequence from the 1998 Avengers movie was based on this episode – which is, to be honest, too faint praise. This is the kind of thing nobody really does any more, which I think is rather a shame.


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