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The pre-titles sequence of Robert Young’s 1971 film Vampire Circus has a lot of heavy lifting to do, exposition-wise, so perhaps it’s not surprising that it doesn’t completely hang together. We find ourselves in the usual Hammer evocation of an 18th or early 19th century Osten-Europ (resembling, as ever, woodland a short drive from Pinewood Studios), where a young girl is playing under the kindly eye of local schoolteacher and upstanding citizen Muller (Laurence Payne). But wait! A young woman (Domini Blythe) appears and entices the girl away with her, luring her off to the local castle. Muller is sent into an awful tizzy by this.

All very well, I suppose, until it becomes apparent that the woman is actually Muller’s surprisingly young wife. At this point the characters’ behaviour and reactions, and thus the whole sequence, more or less stops making sense. Oh well. It turns out that Mrs Muller has been having a fling with the local nobleman, Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman, who has a bit of a look of a young Timothy Dalton). Mitterhaus is, unsurprisingly, a vampire, albeit one with a uniquely non-frightening name (in English he’d be Count Middlehouse). The count polishes off the little girl (initial gore quotient met), which Mrs Muller enjoys watching rather too much. ‘One lust brings on the other,’ smirks the count as she slips off her costume (initial nudity quotient met) and the two of them get down to it.

Well, not entirely surprisingly, Muller has been organising an angry mob with flaming torches and a cartful of barrels of gunpowder, and they all turn up at this point. Not having bothered to bring any crosses or garlic, however, the count carves a bit of a swathe through them before he is finally staked and the castle blown up – but not before he can whisper a few dying commands to Mrs Muller (who flees into the forest) or promise a terrible revenge on his assailants and their children.

Yes, this is another of those vengeance-of-the-vampire movies that Hammer had a few goes at in the early 1970s. At least one of these, Taste the Blood of Dracula, is from near the top of the Hammer Horror stack, so perhaps it’s understandable that they should keep going back to it. This is from a lower bracket, though. Fifteen years later, the town of Stitl (home to Muller and the rest) is suffering from an outbreak of a mysterious plague, and the place has been encircled by armed men who shoot anyone trying to get out.

The local doctor, who’s new in town and has the thankless role of being the guy who says ‘Don’t be absurd! Vampires don’t exist!’ at the start of Hammer vampire movies, thinks this is normal plague-type plague, but the Burgomeister (Thorley Walters), Muller the teacher, and everyone else who was there when Count Middlehouse was disposed of have other ideas.

Spirits are briefly lifted with the arrival of the enigmatic and glamorous Circus of Night rolls into town, having somehow got past the circle of armed soldiers. Running the enterprise is a gypsy woman credited as Gypsy Woman (she is played, with considerable oomph, by Adrienne Corri). Everyone rocks up to the circus and enjoys looking at a few caged animals, some slightly tacky exotic dancing, and some more peculiar acts.

Now, here’s the thing that basically turns Vampire Circus into a melodrama you have to indulge rather than a film you can take completely seriously. Senior figures in the community are worrying that the plague is the result of a curse laid on them by Middlehouse the vampire. You would think that all things vampirical would be playing on their minds a bit. And yet no-one seems to find the fact that the circus acts include a man turning into a black panther and acrobats turning into actual bats remotely suggestive. Furthermore, the fact the gypsy woman is credited as Gypsy Woman is presumably to conceal the revelation that she is actually Mrs Muller, come back to exact revenge. It’s not really clear why no-one recognises her – or, alternatively, why her appearance has changed so much. Nor is it quite clear why it has taken her and the count’s cousin Emil (Anthony Higgins, credited as Anthony Corlan) a decade and a half to get round to avenging him.

Then again, all of these films are somewhat melodramatic. Some of the narrative shortfall in Vampire Circus may be down to the fact that it was Robert Young’s first film as director, and his inexperience meant the production overran to the point where the producers shut it down and simply told the editor to do the best he could with the available footage. This may be another reason why the storytelling occasionally feels a bit strained; it’s probably also the best explanation for a sequence in which a group of minor characters are savaged to death by a panther which seems to be realised in the form of an astonishingly manky-looking hand puppet.

Once you get past the obviousness of the title and plot (George Baxt, credited for ‘story’, claims he was paid £1000 just for coming up with the title and had no other involvement with the film), this is a reasonably solid horror fantasy with an agreeably dreamlike atmosphere and impressive visual sense – it’s lurid and garish and a bit surreal in places, but engagingly so.

On the other hand, the main villain is woefully weak, even by late-period-Hammer standards, and none of the performances are particularly strong. You kind of come into these films expecting the juvenile leads to be wet and forgettable, but Vampire Circus is lacking the strong character performances so many Hammer movies benefit from – Thorley Walters is okay, but not in it enough; Adrienne Corri has presence and charisma to spare, but is hampered by the fact she’s playing the sidekick of other characters.

One thing about this movie is that for what feels like a production-line exploitation movie, it has an unusually interesting cast, even by Hammer standards. Quite apart from Walters, Corri, Payne, Higgins and the rest, lurking around the circus are Dave Prowse (one of many pre-Darth Vader fantasy and horror roles), Robin Sachs (another prolific fantasy and horror actor), and the Honourable Lalla Ward in pretty much her first professional acting engagement. It’s not entirely surprising the movie has become something of a cult favourite.

Vampire Circus is a bit of an oddity in the classic Hammer canon, as it’s a standalone vampire film with no particular connection to its series about Dracula and the Karnstein family – if you discount Countess Dracula (which this was released in a double-bill with, and is really a Dracula film in name only), the only other example is Kiss of the Vampire from 1963. I suppose the central notion and its execution is strong enough to justify the film’s existence, but it would have been interesting to see that double-bill fifty years ago: two very different films, one vibrant, lurid and almost impressionistic, the other chilly and measured and rather more thoughtful. Vampire Circus is a flawed movie and not even the best film about bloodsuckers Hammer Films made that year, but it has enough novelty value to be worth watching even so.

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Rumours were rife a few years ago that the revered Canadian auteur David Cronenberg was considering retiring from film-making, simply because trying to find financing for his projects had become too much of a grind. Whether or not this is true (the current rumours are of a possible film noir-ish movie, shooting this year with Cronenberg’s regular collaborator Viggo Mortensen), there has been a bit of a gap, and Cronenberg seems to have filled his time by writing a novel, Consumed.  Some might be surprised that the acclaimed director of such historical dramas and psychological thrillers as Spider, A History of Violence, Eastern Promises and A Dangerous Method should choose to go into print with what’s essentially a horror novel about cannibalism and techno-fetishism, but there is a reason why Cronenberg is still routinely referred to as a cult horror director and the high priest of body-horror in particular.

This is a label Cronenberg picked up back in the 1970s and early 80s, off the back of a string of films with titles like Shivers, Rabid, and Scanners. I think it’s fair to say that early Cronenberg has a very strong and distinctive taste, and one which still lingers in certain aspects of his later work: it might not be going too far to suggest the main theme of the Cronenberg canon is a fascination with all things psycho-sexual, an interest which initially manifested in a string of no-foolin’ horror movies.

The psycho-sexual element is present front-and-centre right from the start of Cronenberg’s 1979 film The Brood, which opens with unorthodox mental health professional Dr Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed) deep in a therapy session with a clearly troubled man. Raglan’s favoured method is something known as psychoplasmics, in which the patient’s repressed emotions manifest through physiological changes in their body: tiny lesions erupt all over the skin of Raglan’s subject as the psychoplasmic demonstration continues.

Watching this is architect Frank Carveth (Art Hindle), whose estranged wife Nola (Samantha Eggar) is currently receiving intensive treatment from Raglan. The relationship between Frank and Nola is acrimonious, to say the least, and much of the trouble centres around the question of who gets custody of their five-year-old daughter Candy. When Candy returns from a visit to see her mother with scratches and bruising, Carveth is naturally concerned and starts looking for legal grounds to block Nola’s access to her, or at least keep Candy away from Raglan’s clinic.

Meanwhile, Raglan continues Nola’s therapy, encouraging her to work through her repressed anger and resentment towards various people in her life, including her mother. It is quite clearly not coincidental, then, when Nola’s mother is brutally bludgeoned to death by someone or something (Cronenberg makes it quite clear the killer is not a normal human being) while baby-sitting Candy.

The tragedy repeats itself when Nola’s father, visiting the house while drunk and grieving, meets a similar fate. Carveth himself confronts the killer, who expires in front of him: a deformed, sexless midget, with no digestive system or umbilicus. But what is the connection to Nola and Raglan, and why does the creature bear a slight but disturbing resemblance to Candy herself…?

Well, and needless to say spoiler alert, it seems that Nola has proven an exceptional subject for psychoplasmic therapy, and her body has been sprouting cysts or sacs, each of which produces one of these homuncular creatures: born of a deeply troubled psyche, they act upon Nola’s subconscious desires without her being aware of it. Raglan, who despite his serious and urbane demeanour is clearly a lunatic mad scientist of the classic type, has getting on for a dozen of these things locked up at his clinic, but they have started breaking out and articulating Nola’s repressed emotions in an actually physical way…

A response of ‘Ewwww,’ is entirely acceptable, and may in fact be obligatory for the scene where Eggar produces yet another of her psychoplasmic spawn, tearing open the birthing pouch with her teeth. (Cronenberg complained that a lengthy shot of Eggar licking the newborn creature was edited by the censors with the result it gave the impression she was actually eating it, ‘much worse than I was suggesting.’) To be fair, though, apart from a little bit of bloody violence, this is a relatively restrained film prior to the climax: indeed, until the first murder, the focus is almost domestic, with Carveth and Nola more concerned about their family situation than anything else.

Bearing this in mind perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Cronenberg himself had recently been through fraught divorce proceedings, to which this film formed a response: the director suggested it was a variation on the same theme as Kramer Vs Kramer, ‘only more realistic’. Perhaps it says something about the essentially cerebral nature of Cronenberg’s work that this never really feels like a personal story, the director working out an issue of his own – indeed, the characters are quite thinly presented, just adding to the sense this is on some level an allegory or fable. There is perhaps something problematic in this interpretation: Carveth is the loving, misunderstood father; Nola a vindictive loon.

Cronenberg himself has suggested this is the closest of all his films to being a ‘classic’ horror movie, and if I was going to be harsh I would suggest The Brood certainly features a lot of horror movie acting as it is stereotypically (and perhaps unfairly) understood, by which I mean that Hindle is a bit wooden and Eggar is over the top, and the best performance comes from the mad scientist. At this point in his career Oliver Reed was just transitioning from (ahem) brooding, saturnine leading man to brooding, silver-fox, borderline-unemployable character actor, and he is unusually restrained but as effective as ever as Raglan. You kind of wish he was in the movie a bit more; if nothing else he provides serious gravitas.

The classic-horror-movie-ish-ness of The Brood extends beyond the presence of a mad scientist doing weird experiments; the homicidal midgets inevitably recall the killer from Don’t Look Now, and there is something of the slasher movie in the way the creatures sneak into their victims’ home or place of work before suddenly unleashing bloody slaughter upon them (though ‘basher movie’ might be more apropos given their clear fondness for blunt force trauma). There is inevitably some tonal unevenness when it comes to the combination of schlocky, slightly camp horror and intense psychological drama, but on the whole this just gives the film a distinct identity of its own. This may not be one of Cronenberg’s most ambitious or visually striking films, but it’s satisfyingly intelligent and repulsive in a way he manages uniquely well.

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Most people, if shown a movie, could probably take a pretty good stab at guessing when it was produced. Even without the obvious clues – well-known dialogue, famous stars – there are all manner of subtle little technical and stylistic things that can tip one off to the time a film was made. Most of the time the evolution of cinema as a visual art form seems quite gradual, with only tiny incremental changes – but then, to stick with the evolutionary analogy, there are occasional moments of punctuated equilibrium, when things change quickly and drastically: the arrival of sound, and then colour; the introduction of a format like cinemascope; the arrival of the modern blockbuster around the time of a revolution in special effects technology; the rise of CGI.

All of these are obviously huge changes, but sometimes you look back at an old film – or, strictly speaking, a couple of old films – and you are struck by the fact even during those apparently static periods of slow and gradual change, progress was still taking place.

By the time that George Waggner directed The Wolf Man in 1941, Universal Picture’s initial cycle of monster and horror movies had been underway from a decade: as well as the initial versions of Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy, the studio had also made The Invisible Man and various follow-ups like The Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula’s Daughter, Son of Frankenstein and The Mummy’s Hand. They’d also had a go at a werewolf movie, Werewolf of London, without much success (consensus is that it was a bit too similar to a recently-released Jekyll and Hyde movie).

This second take on the theme of lycanthropy is done more in the style of Frankenstein and Dracula, by which I mean it occurs in what feels almost like the borderland between the real world and something out of a fairy tale. This sense is only heightened by the decision to set it in Wales – presumably as distant, exotic and romantic a land as central Europe, as far as most Universal executives were concerned. Certainly, in terms of authentic Welshness, the film is about one percent convincing.

There’s something very odd about the near-total refusal of American horror movies in the first half of the 1940s to engage with real world events of the period, but there we go: it’s practically a genre convention at this point not to mention the war then raging. Certainly nobody mentions it in and around the country estate of Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains), where much of the film takes place. Tragedy has recently struck the family with the death of his eldest son and heir, occasioning the return from America (naturally) of his estranged younger son, Larry (Lon Chaney Jr.). (The age gap between Rains and Chaney is, if we’re going to be exact, about seventeen years, or, to put it another way, not quite big enough to convince). Larry initially seems like an amiable, well-meaning guy, which is what the plot requires, although events soon take a rather odd turn.

Sir John’s pride and joy is a big telescope, which he appears to use to spy on the local village as much as for astronomical research, and Larry avails himself of this too: and soon he is peering at the most beautiful girl in the village (Evelyn Ankers) in her bedroom. What can I say – autres temps, autres moeurs. Soon he is beetling down to the village to chat her up properly, apparently not having clocked that it’s a bad idea to admit to ogling someone through a long lens when asking them out.

Still, it’s Wales, and they do things differently there. Having bought a cane with a silver wolf on its pommel (yes, all kinds of plot is brazenly being laid in here) from young Gwen’s shop, Larry ends up taking her and her friend Jenny to the local gypsy camp for what must constitute some very cheap and not very thrilling thrills. The other two go off for an evening walk while Jenny gets her palm read by a gypsy named Bela (Bela Lugosi). Unfortunately, all Bela can read in her palm is a pentagram, which translates as ‘imminent death’.

Yes, Bela Lugosi is a werewolf in this one, though he is let off having to put on the makeup: he turns into an actual wolf. Bela attacks Jenny and Larry has a go at saving her, bashing Bela on the head with his silver cane and getting nipped in the process. Needless to say this kind of incident causes a stir, even in Wales. The natives get ugly and dark imprecations are muttered, blaming Larry for the whole thing.

Needless to say Larry has problems of his own, as Bela’s mother (Maria Ouspenskaya) fills him in on the details of being a werewolf. (The age gap between Lugosi and Ouspenskaya is only six years, which I suppose makes the Rains-Chaney gap seem a bit more reasonable.) Soon Larry finds his toes getting hairier and hairier, and he is gripped by savage primal urges…

(In an odd deviation from what you might expect, the film never provides the full man-into-monster transformation sequence, beyond a shot of Chaney’s bare feet gradually turning into something more like paws. There’s also obviously something rum about the fact that it seems like the very first thing the wolf man does after changing into a savage, inhuman beast is put his shirt back on – I mean, there were obviously very good reasons for not wanting to have to make up Chaney’s arms and shoulders, it’s just a weird bit of continuity.)

What’s obviously missing from all of this is any real mention of the full moon as the trigger for the wolf man’s appearances, and what’s unexpectedly present is a sort-of association between werewolves and Satanism (the pentagram which both Bela and Talbot are marked with, and see on their victims). So we are still in a kind of half-way house between the folkloric werewolf (very much akin to a vampire) and the Hollywood breed, which this film did the most to inaugurate.

Still, the film’s innovations came to be ‘how werewolves are’, in terms of popular culture, in the same way that the Universal versions of Dracula and Frankenstein likewise define their subjects. Not bad going, considering that Lon Chaney Jr isn’t quite in the same league as Karloff or Lugosi (I always find him to be a stolid, doughy sort of performer), and the wolf man make-up also leaves something to be desired: if the film was called The Boar Man it would probably be better, but I can understand that was never going to fly.

Here we come to an odd thing: for while The Wolf Man is appreciably not up to the same standard as the first Universal monster movies and lacks some of their iconic power, it is – by almost any rubric – an appreciably slicker, more competent, more modern production. Tod Browning’s film in particular betrays its stage origins in countless ways; this is much more genuinely cinematic, and more entertaining as a result. We’re talking increments rather than a quantum leap – both films retain the ‘rude mechanical’ comedy relief characters, in this film a policeman called Twiddle – but the use of a much more modern visual grammar is immediately apparent.

Are we stumbling towards the suggestion that The Wolf Man is in some sense a triumph of style over substance? I’m not sure I would honestly go that far, not least because I would call it a decent example of a foundational horror movie rather than a particularly great film in its own right. But it’s true that the way in which the story is told complements the premise in a way that wasn’t always the case with the earlier films, and this goes a long way towards making up for the fact that the premise itself is only a pretty good one on this occasion. An engaging bit of horror history, anyway.

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There have been many notable and occasionally great one-and-done Draculas in screen history: Klaus Kinski, Denholm Elliott, Gary Oldman, Frank Langella. The list is extensive. What’s perhaps a surprising is how close Bela Lugosi comes to appearing on it. But it’s true: while the actor racked up a long list of genre and horror movie roles (including playing Frankenstein’s creature, one of Dr Moreau’s creations, several other lookalike vampires and appearing in a very early picture from Hammer Films), he only played Dracula twice – and one of those films was a spoof (1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein). And yet he remains Christopher Lee’s only credible rival for the title of One True Dracula (Lee played the character in nine movies).

Maybe it’s because he originated the role – or perhaps the original 1931 Dracula, directed by Tod Browning, is just that good? Certainly it establishes the ground rules for anglophone versions of Bram Stoker’s novel, mainly by taking a very flexible approach to the text. Several characters are dropped entirely, others have their roles switched around, and the end result is that in this film it’s Renfield (Dwight Frye) who’s on his way to Castle Dracula to finalise the sale of a house.

It almost feels a bit redundant to summarise the plot of Dracula, but I suppose every version is a little bit different and – in any case – it’s just possible some people may not be familiar with it. The locals are appalled to learn Renfield will be visiting Dracula, giving him a crucifix for protection. Renfield, poor sod, wanders up to the gloomy old pile anyway, finding it to be oddly infested with what look like possums and armadillos (some very odd choices from the art department here). Dracula (Lugosi) issues his usual warm welcome and they conclude the sale of a ruined abbey near London before the brides of Dracula descend on Renfield. (As usual, the film doesn’t address the real question of why Dracula has decided to up stakes – ho, ho – and relocate to England. He hardly fits the usual profile of an economic migrant.)

After a brief interlude depicting the not-exactly-untroubled voyage of the ship Dracula takes from Romania to England – the crazed Renfield has now become his servant – we’re into the main part of the film. After a brief but strikingly effective interlude of a top-hatted Dracula stalking through the metropolis’ fog, pausing only to snack on the occasional match girl, this primarily concerns Dracula’s dealings with Dr Seward (Herbert Bunston), owner of the asylum next door to the ruined abbey, and his nearest and dearest: his daughter Mina (Helen Chandler), her fiancé John Harker (David Manners), and her friend Lucy Weston (Frances Dade).

Best not to get too attached to Lucy, for she is soon no more: her plot function is basically to be a sort of demonstrative victim of Dracula’s M.O. (The subplot from the novel about Lucy rising as a vampire and preying on children is mentioned, but not really developed.) From this point on the film is about the battle to stop Mina from going the same way – luckily, Dr Seward is able to call in his old friend and expert on all things peculiar, Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), who very quickly realises just what’s going on here.

The status of Dracula as an important and iconic film is indisputable by anyone with a passing knowledge of and interest in modern culture, but in recent years a sort of critical push-back against it has developed, suggesting it is simply not a very good movie (and the Spanish-language version made on the same sets at the same time, starring Carlos Villarias, is often cited to be a much more effective take on the story).

Well, I can see where critics of Dracula are coming from, because nine decades on this iconic piece of cinema often feels barely cinematic at all. The reason for this is, in a sense, very straightforward: it’s not quite a direct adaptation of the novel, but rather a filmed version of the 1924 stage version (with occasional moments lifted from Murnau’s unauthorised adaptation, which genuinely is a classic movie). This explains the talky and largely static nature of the piece, although given the film is only about 75 minutes long, probably not its sluggish pace – I get a sense that the stage play may have been a gruelling ordeal, just not in the way that its makers may have intended. Certainly, as a horror movie this film is seriously restricted by the censorship of the period: this is a wholly bloodless vampire movie, some might say in more senses than one.

Then again, neither sensationalist spectacle nor studied naturalism were really in the toolbox of American cinema in the 1930s; many films were basically just filmed theatre, with an accordingly theatrical and camp air to them. There’s something very theatrical, and indeed practically Shakespearean, about the way most of the major roles are played dead straight, while the supporting parts are often comic grotesques (apart from Frye’s wildly over-the-top turn as Renfield, I’m thinking of Charles Gerrard as the asylum attendant, who seems fond of telling his charges they are ‘loonies’).

On the other hand, there is Bela Lugosi as Dracula. Again, this is a very theatrical performance, with a lot of rather studied posing going on, not to mention some stilted line readings. But there’s something else here too – particularly in close-up, where he brings a real intensity and charisma to the part. It’s just a shame that Tod Browning elects to shoot most of the movie in rather static long- and medium-shot. You can perceive, perhaps, why this performance effectively set the template for screen Draculas – virtually every other take on the character is a reaction to it, either an emulation or a modulation.

You can say the same about the movie as a whole: it may hardly be a great Dracula movie itself, but you can sense it incubating the seeds of many other Draculas and vampire movies to come. For every scene which is a bit of a dud, there is another which either really lands, or is at least brimming with potential. Perhaps that’s the kindest thing one can say about this movie – it’s almost like an extended sizzle reel for Dracula and the vampire movie genre as a whole. Perhaps the movies weren’t quite ready for Dracula in 1931, but this movie did a fine job of giving them plenty of motivation to revisit this story time and time again.

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I haven’t done a full statistical analysis of what the most common opening shots of Hammer horror movies are, but I would imagine that there would be a high incidence of forests, castles, implements of execution, and glowering skies of various hues. Vistas of row upon row of terraced houses in the grim urban north would be correspondingly lower on the list, especially when soundtracked by someone reading out a fairy tale. And yet this Coronation Street-meets-Jackanory approach is exactly how Peter Collinson’s Straight On Till Morning chooses to make its bow.

The unexpectedness of tone persists, as in one of the houses we meet Brenda (Rita Tushingham), the young narrator of a fairy tale she has apparently written herself. Domestics are afoot between Brenda and her mum (Annie Ross), as Brenda insists on going down to London to find a man to take care of her and the child she is expecting. Already it is clear that Brenda may not have an absolute stranglehold on reality, but she is also stubborn and determined and duly rocks up in the Smoke, finding herself in a milieu not a million miles away from that of Hammer’s Dracula AD 1972, a slightly shabby demi-monde of mildly debauched young people in the usual startling fashions of the period. She gets a job in a shop, moves in with a co-worker who is having an affair with the boss (the co-worker is Katya Wyeth, and the boss Tom Bell, though his role is so minor and tangential it barely qualifies as a cameo), gets to know another young man who works there (played by James Bolam, likewise appearing less than you’d expect, considering he’s third billed). You would expect Bolam to be the decent, sensible lad whom Brenda eventually ends up. For best results, this movie requires expectation management, however.

Meanwhile, we of the audience are also getting to know Peter, a young man Brenda literally bumps into in the street not long after arriving in London. Peter is played by Shane Briant, possibly the last individual to qualify as a Hammer horror star, here making his first appearance for the studio (he would go on to make three more, Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell amongst them). It is rapidly made clear that, despite his good looks and well-heeled appearance, there’s something not quite right about Peter, as many of the women in his life have realised too late.

Persistent lack of success at landing a bloke causes reality to crash in on Brenda and she goes out for a midnight walk, sobbing and wailing as a rather maudlin song plays on the soundtrack. However, we have now reached the inciting incident of the movie – and not before time, some might say – as she happens upon a scruffy dog named Tinker, also out for a midnight walk. Tinker belongs to Peter, whom she also spies. Displaying a hitherto undisplayed capacity for low cunning, Brenda dognaps Tinker, takes him home and gives him a bath, before taking him back to his owner. As ways of manufacturing a cute-meet go, this is fairly extreme, but for all its relatively mundane setting, this is not a movie which is short on extreme personalities.

For Peter is fully aware of what Brenda is up to, and invites her to stay with him. It transpires that she is not actually up the stick, but would like to be, and telling her mother she was formed part of a not-especially-coherent plan to get her used to the idea of becoming a grandparent. Again, Peter suggests that he might well be open to assisting Brenda with her plans, though he dismisses the fake name she initially gives herself – Rosalba – and christens her Wendy instead. However, a grisly (and not strictly necessary) reminder of Peter’s own issues soon arrives, as he takes against Tinker (whom Brenda has groomed somewhat) and makes his views very clear, using a craft knife…

Quite nasty stuff, but one thing about Straight On Till Morning is that there’s hardly any gore in it: the unpleasantness is almost entirely implicit, with the film owing its adults-only certification to some moderately graphic sex scenes early on. It’s another departure from the Hammer formula – Briant’s presence aside, this is probably the least Hammer Horror-like Hammer horror movie of the lot – in a movie which is obviously trying to do something different.

It would be nice to think that this was born of a desire by the company to broaden its palette a bit and move into other areas – it was released back-to-back with another contemporary psycho-thriller, a slightly more conventional fem jeop movie called Fear in the Night, which at least had Peter Cushing and Ralph Bates in it. However, the fact that the bulk of the movie takes place in the same small apartment, with most scenes being played out between Tushingham and Briant, suggests simply that one of the defining influences on Straight On Till Morning was the fact it was made on a punishingly low budget. Divergence and distinctiveness were really forced upon it.

Even so, I’m not sure this fully explains one of the most striking things about the movie, namely its editing. The actual direction of the scenes, the compositions and the handling of the actors, is perfectly fine, but Collinson frequently opts to rapidly intercut between scenes, juxtaposing clashing images and settings, in a way which is almost subliminal. This gets a bit wearisome very quickly: it’s certainly an interesting experiment, but on this occasion it’s an experiment which fails, badly.

In the middle of all of this, Shane Briant and Rita Tushingham are doing the best they can, and neither of their performances is anything to be ashamed of. This is no faint praise considering the unhinged, wildly implausible characters they are both saddled with playing, or the dubious nature of the plot they are forced to enact. Some of the contrivances involved I trust you will already have spotted for yourself: the rest concern Briant’s character, who (it’s implied) is really named Clive, and has from somewhere acquired a homicidal hatred of beauty – hence his fondness for bumping off the beautiful women who are drawn to him like flies, the fate of the recently-bathed Tinker, and the fact he’s drawn to Brenda (whose main character point seems to be that she is a bit plain-looking). Where to start with the implicit misogyny? The downbeat naturalism of it somehow makes it seem far worse than any of the dodgy T&A-themed vampire movies Hammer were putting out at around the same time. (You may also have spotted an implied conceit relating to Peter Pan, involving the title of the movie and several character names, but this doesn’t really inform the plot or theme much.)

Some of this would be excusable if the film somehow redeemed itself through its resolution: but such is the scantiness of the budget that the climax seems to have been omitted. The movie concludes with an annoyingly open, unresolved ending – the implication of what’s happened is clear, but there’s no sense of actual closure. Straight On Till Morning has been very difficult to like up to this point – it’s got an implausible opening, a talky and largely static mid-section, and a pervasive atmosphere of charmless nastiness – but as it draws to a close it actually becomes objectionable. It is, literally ninety-something minutes of your life you will not get back, and stakes a good case for itself as Exhibit A for the decline and fall of Hammer Films in the early 70s.

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Every now and then, when I’m about one of my creative endeavours, I’m suddenly struck by a sudden attack of self-doubt and become convinced the thing I’m doing has no value. Nowadays when this happens, I tend to park the thing and either forget about it or think about something else for a bit before returning to it with fresh eyes. In years gone by, though, rather than waste the work I’d already done, I often used to try and turn what I’d been working on into something else that I found myself filled with more enthusiasm about: ghost stories would turn into post-apocalyptic sci-fi, high fantasy would turn into a western or spy story, all with little regard for logic or coherence.

This is all very well when it comes to someone labouring (for want of a better word) in obscurity (this is already the best word), creating solely for their own amusement. It’s a bit more of a surprise when something similar seems to be happening in a reasonably big-budget TV series. Which brings us to Sakho & Mangane. After watching a lot of old TV shows high in comfort-viewing value and The Queen’s Gambit (well, everyone’s been watching it), I decided to strike out in a bold new direction and check out the ‘world drama’ section of one of the big free streamers (rather curiously, there are some TV shows available on Netflix also available for free elsewhere, if you hunt about). Quite why I decided to watch what was billed as a ‘fast-moving African cop show’, I’m not completely sure: simple curiosity, I guess, never having seen a TV series from an African nation before.

Anyway, Sakho & Mangane mostly takes place on the streets of Dakar, where a new special Crime Brigade has been set up. In charge is the no-nonsense Mama Ba (Christiane Dumont), despite the fact that veteran cop Commander Sakho (Issaka Sawadogo) half-expected to get the job. Sakho is very stern and serious all the time, for reasons we will later discover. The new brigade’s first problem is a dead Belgian anthropologist who’s turned up dead on the sacred island of a local tribe of fishermen. The problem (and our first splash of Senegalese colour) is that the fishermen won’t let non-tribe members onto the island to investigate. Luckily, there is a cop from the tribe in the building – but he’s in the cells, as Sakho has just busted his derriere on suspicion of being corrupt. His name is Basile Mangane (Yann Gael), and he is a bit of a rogue.

Mama Ba decrees that Sakho and Mangane, horribly mismatched though they are, must partner up to solve the case of the dead Belgian. ‘I work alone!’ the duo cry in outraged unison. ‘So do unemployed people!’ responds their boss. And so a fairly convoluted police-procedural gets underway, involving a stolen idol, people-traffickers, a mysterious local gangster named Bukki, and Mangane’s on-and-off relationship with local journalist Antoinette (Fatou-Elise Ba). It’s fairly engaging stuff, helped by the charisma of the two leads.

Fair enough. After an opening two-parter, the third episode goes with another resonant theme, that of European sex tourists (mostly women) visiting Senegal to enjoy themselves with handsome young gigolos. It opens with one of these lads turning up dead on the beach. ‘Looks like a ritual killing, his balls have been cut off,’ announces one of the team (not something you often hear in Midsomer Murders, nor indeed Death in Paradise). Naturally, Mangane has to go undercover as a gigolo, which he is not delighted about. Again, it’s slightly knockabout stuff, but colourful and fun, with the actors clearly growing into their roles – I particularly enjoyed the performance from Christophe Guybet, who plays the team’s perpetually drug-addled pathologist.

Episode four is where things take… a turn. Mangane’s old army mate turns up dead in mysterious cirumstances, leading him to become even more excitable and impulsive than usual. It seems he was working undercover to expose a gangster leading a counterfeiting ring (I think, this episode is not one of the best-scripted). The bad guy is either a midget or a pygmy, but more importantly he claims to have a magic amulet that makes him bulletproof. Just another nutter, right?

Wrong. Come the climax, Mangane unloads into the pint-sized perpetrator, who’s coming at him with a machete, only for it to have no effect. He is only saved when Sakho appears and plugs the villain. What was that all about? Even weirder, an old bloke who’s been turning up occasionally to give Sakho vague, ominous warnings puts in another appearance. ‘You can’t use your powers that way!’ he tells Sakho. What powers? What is going on here?

Now, anyone watching Sakho and Mangane via Netflix will have had a slightly different experience: there, the show is advertised as a story of two mismatched detectives taking on strange forces as the supernatural threatens Dakar – anyone tuning in for that must have found three episodes about dead Belgians and sex tourism rather confusing.

Nevertheless, this is a show which takes one of the hardest and weirdest left-terms mid-season that I’ve ever seen. What was going on behind the scenes on this series? Was this planned all along? Did the people making it get bored of doing a police procedural and decide to have a go at making something more like The X Files instead? It’s baffling and intriguing at the same time.

From this point on, things get progressively more peculiar, as you might have guessed. Episode five is a post-financial-crisis story, with bank executives involved in selling dodgy sub-prime mortgages turning up dead with their faces melted off. Working out the connections and identifying the individual with a motive takes us briefly back into the realms of a detective story, but the killer turns out to be some sort of avenging angel with supernatural powers (Sakho and Mangane face a sticky moment until the big man calls on his ‘special powers’ again).

Episode six throws the format well and truly up in the air, with the entire regular cast reporting for special training at a cinema inside a deserted theme park. But it’s a trap! Bukki (who, it seems, is a close relative of Mama Ba) has managed to get out of prison and unleashes a horde of zombies against our heroes. Sakho is forced to reveal his special abilities to the whole team before the day is saved.

Yeah, it’s about rampaging zombies in a theme park. By this point I was just letting the show sort of wash over me, as there was clearly not much point in trying to anticipate what was coming next. This looks like the kind of episode made in a hurry, as a response to some kind of behind-the-scenes crisis, so different is its structure and style. None of the regular sets appear (and indeed the Crime Brigade’s HQ is blown up while they’re all off fighting the zombies, and is never seen again).

Episode seven finds the Crime Brigade now based out of Mama Ba’s back yard, with a rather peculiar sex attacker on the loose and the team a man down, as Sakho has gone AWOL now everyone knows he is an exorcist or a magician or something. Mangane seems more bothered about finding his former partner than the killer, which gives some of the minor characters a chance to shine; the fact the culprit turns out to be a demonic incubus (or ‘night husband’, as such things are apparently known in Africa) is not really a surprise at this point. (The demon is surprisingly well-realised.) Highlight of the episode, for me, was the scene in which a government minister summons Mama Ba and announces that the Crime Brigade is publicly being shut down – but it will continue as a secret task force fighting paranormal threats! Mama Ba takes this news with surprising stoicism, and does not appear to inform anyone else on her team of this minor change in focus.

By this point I was expecting something pretty spectacular from the last episode, in story terms at least. However, and this may not come as a total shock if you’ve been paying attention so far, iron narrative control and thought-through structure are not amongst Sakho & Mangane‘s most obvious virtues: the last episode is one of the duds of the season, over-preoccupied for most of its length with a sub-Saw plotline: Sakho is held captive and put through various fiendish tortures (some of them supernatural, of course), while the killer sends Mangane all over the city doing various errands for him. By the time we get to the climactic revelations (something to do with an evil cult Sakho would rather cut his ties with, various estranged relatives, and Mangane’s soul), there’s not much time left to sort it all out.

Furthermore, this is the 21st century, and no self-respecting series bothers with closure if there’s the slightest chance of a continuation, so everything ends on a rather confusing cliffhanger, bringing an end to one of the weirdest viewing experiences I’ve had this side of the final episodes of The Prisoner. Was a second season on the cards prior to the pandemic? Is it still a possibility nowadays? Where can this series possibly go next?

I don’t know. The thought of another full season of Sakho & Mangane quite as detached from the anchor of reason as the first one certainly gives me pause. But I suspect that in the end I would feel compelled to give it a look. In a world so often characterised by tedious competency, it’s important to cherish these eruptions of wildly inconsistent madness. Bravo, mon braves.

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Kornel Mundruczo’s White God, originally released in 2014, opens with a rather lovely aerial shot of a seemingly-deserted city, which I presume is Budapest (this is a Hungarian production). Gradually we become aware of a single moving figure in the great urban expanse – a teenage girl (Zsofia Psotta), riding her bicycle. (There is a trumpet sticking out of her backpack, incongruously enough.)

Questions as to what is going on begin to get an answer very soon, although it is not one of those answers which is particularly helpful: the girl, whom we eventually learn is called Lili, is being chased by dogs. But just one or two dogs. Not even a pack of six or seven or a dozen. Hundreds of dogs of all shapes and sizes are pursuing her through the streets of the apparently empty city.

My default position is to be rather disparaging about films which open with this kind of striking sequence and then jump back to days or weeks earlier to show how we ended up in this situation. With a TV show or a book, where the audience may have come across it by chance and may not be fully committed, fair enough: hook them in. But for a movie? Come on. They’ve already bought their ticket and popcorn and settled in. This kind of tease is surely not necessary.

Except when it’s really well done, of course. The opening of White God (as far as I can tell this is a fridge title, by the way) is certainly well done enough, and, like the rest of the movie, scores impressively high on the ‘well, I’ve never seen anything quite like this before’.

The plot proper begins with Lili’s mother having to go to Australia for her work for three months, obliging Lili to go and live with her cold and distant father, Daniel (Sandor Zsota). This would be awkward enough – Daniel’s flat is so small that the two of them have to share a bedroom – but the situation is exacerbated by the fact that Lili, naturally, insists on bringing her dog Hagen with her (Hagen is played by two other dogs, named Bodie and Luke).

It turns out that the Hungarian government has recently imposed a special tax on non-purebreed dogs (just go with it, I guess), and naturally Hagen is a mongrel. This is the last straw for Daniel, who turns Hagen out of the car on a busy road and drives off.

So far, so very much like a whole load of weepy melodramas about dogs and their young owners – but even up to this point, the film has had a bleak, hard edge to it, suggesting things may take a slightly different path. So it proves, as the narrative splits – one strand follows Lili’s attempts to find Hagen, rebelling against her father and getting into trouble as she does so. This isn’t a barrel of laughs, but it’s still lighter than the travails of Hagen, who is variously hunted and exploited by the human beings he encounters, eventually being sold to a man who trains him to take part in dog-fighting bouts. (There is a degree of grisliness involved, but the film almost goes out of its way to indicate no animals were harmed, etc.) Hagen ends up being grabbed and taken to the pound, but there’s only so much that a dog can take before he snaps…

As readers of long standing will know, I usually avoid lazy ‘this film is like X meets Y’ formulations, but the temptation to describe White God as ‘Lassie meets Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ is irresistible (obviously). Soon enough Hagen is leading a horde of warrior mongrels into the city, intent on a terrible revenge against human civilisation…

Well, as I said: the film does score highly on the ‘not seen this in a movie before’ front, and the storytelling is very well done, considering that quite long stretches of the film feature no dialogue whatsoever. The radical shifts in the narrative – from girl-and-her-dog melodrama, to the bleak and naturalistic mid-section, to the slightly surreal fantasy-horror of the closing stages – are very adroitly handled as well. Nor should one overlook the contribution made by the two lead actors – Zsofia Psotta in particular gives an impressively self-possessed performance.

The truth is, while novelty isn’t everything when it comes to a story, genuine novelty can take you a surprisingly long way. I can understand why the makers of the film decided to open with the flash-forward to the third act: seeing how we get from an ordinary, rather downbeat domestic drama to one of the more surreal movie apocalypses of recent years is the film’s main point of traction.

That said, once the doggie apocalypse gets going, there’s an element of slightly self-conscious weirdness to the film that stops it from being completely successful and immersive as either a drama or a piece of horror – perhaps it’s there all along, albeit as manneredness rather than weirdness. Possibly even the writers and director are aware that suggesting a canine rebellion could put a whole city into lockdown and lead to the army being called out.

Beyond that, I’m also slightly curious as to what the moral premise of the movie is. There’s clearly some kind of subtext about animal rights going on – Daniel appears to be some kind of quality control inspector at an abattoir, and we get to see various scenes showing what goes on there (knives and bone saws are prominent). Clearly, if everyone had been nicer to Hagen from the start, things would have worked out differently – but is the subtext and fundamental message of the film really just ‘be nicer to dogs’? I rather think it might be, in which case we kind of have to conclude that White God is ultimately quite facile.

But, as noted, for all that it may be a slightly odd and simplistic fable, White God is well directed and performed, with sterling work in particular from the animal trainers. It’s certainly worth watching simply for its sheer ‘you what…?’ value.

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I forget precisely where it was that I first read the suggestion that the cultural influence of gothic literature has been greater than one would expect, given how little-read some of the actual books involved are. I’ve recently started a new role-playing game, with a group of people who are all pretty literate, especially when it comes to the SF, fantasy and horror genres: one of the major reference points for the new game is the original novel of Dracula, and people admitting that they haven’t actually read it has become something of a running joke – one person admitted to attempting it on more than one occasion, and simply ‘bouncing off’ what’s an imposingly big and dense text. (I ploughed through it when I was thirteen, but then I’ve always been quite weird.)

Nevertheless, everyone knows Dracula, or thinks they do, and the same is true for gothic horror’s other big hitter, Frankenstein, as written by Mary Shelley in fairly celebrated circumstances. The storm-enshrouded castle! The obsessive baron! The hideous monstrosity, stitched together from purloined cadaver parts! The mob of angry villagers wielding their blazing torches!

We’re at a point where I think it would be disingenuous to suggest that all of these are not now part of the common conception of Frankenstein – they have become mythemes, to adopt a neologism invented by structuralists – but this tells us much more about the power of the mass media than anything connected to Shelley or her novel, because (of course) the castle, the baron, the patchwork man and the angry mob are all completely absent from the book. We only associate them with Frankenstein because they’re in James Whale’s 1931 adaptation, and this film has achieved an extraordinary prominence, largely eclipsing the source text. When someone announces they are doing a ‘faithful’ adaptation of Shelley – as was somewhat the case with the Kenneth Branagh-directed Frankenstein of the mid-1990s – this is basically code, warning the audience they are going to see something that won’t necessarily meet their expectations of the story.

It’s startling how little of the novel actually makes it into Whale’s film. It opens, ominously, with a funeral in progress somewhere that looks bleak and would probably be windswept were it not a studio soundstage. Not far off, Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his hunchbacked assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye) are taking a professional interest… sure enough, once the funeral party leaves, the duo help themselves to the coffin and drag it back to the tower where Frankenstein is about his experiments. It’s not quite that he’s a self-made man, of course, but he does seem to enjoy making men himself.

Yes, Frankenstein has become obsessed with the twin mysteries of life and death, and – apparently in an attempt to comprehend the power of God – has assembled his own constructed person, whom he intends to animate, not with lightning but with a ray from beyond the ultraviolet portion of the spectrum (or something). Basically, don’t try this at home, kids. There is the slight problem that the creature’s brain is not the perfect speciment Frankenstein stipulated, but that of a diseased criminal (Fritz got a bit flustered), but nobody’s perfect…

Anyway, despite the concerns of Frankenstein’s sweetheart, Elizabeth, his father the old Baron, and his friend Victor (yeah, there’s something a bit you-what? about that, this being the main character’s name in the novel), his experiments come to a successful conclusion – for a given value of successful, anyway. The result is a towering, flat-topped creature, of seemingly limited mental capacity, but with an utterly human sensitivity. Boris Karloff plays the Creature, obviously. Bela Lugosi, who’d just played Dracula for the same company, turned the part down – apparently because at that point, the script had Frankenstein’s creation be just a frenzied monster driven to kill. Karloff, naturally, finds immensely more to do with the part, despite having no actual dialogue: this is a justly celebrated performance.

Before too long, Frankenstein’s desire to repent of his hubristic, sacrilegious offences comes to naught, as the Creature rebels against his cruel treatment at the hands of his creator’s associates and runs loose, crashing Frankenstein’s wedding preparations and inspiring that angry, torch-wielding mob to rise up. Which of them will get the justice they deserve?

As noted, it’s kind of fatuous to judge Frankenstein as an adaptation of the novel, because virtually none of the original story beyond the most basic premise makes it to the screen. Viewed solely as a piece of visual entertainment, however, it still stands up astonishingly well for a film now entering its tenth decade – it’s far better than Dracula, made in the same year by the same studio. It’s a piece about image and sensation above all else – characterisation is minimal, handled with the broadest of brushes – there’s none of the delving into Frankenstein’s personality and motivation that the Branagh version takes pains over. But the images themselves are fantastic: extraordinary, towering sets, and fluid direction by Whale. This is before we even get to the iconic realisation of the Creature himself.

On the other hand – and there really has to be another hand, no matter how legendary and influential the movie may be – one has to wonder about the extent to which this actually qualifies as an adaptation of Frankenstein, for it seems to me that the soul of the novel is absent. This is due to one key decision: rendering the Creature mute. Admittedly, Shelley’s handling of the Creature’s self-realisation and education is rather corny and implausible, but it does enable the central discourse of the story to take place: the discussion between Frankenstein and the Creature of what their responsibilities towards each other are. Frankenstein assumes the power of God, but is reluctant to take on the duties that go with it; the Creature’s resentment of what he sees as Frankenstein’s neglect is really justified. Karloff does a lot to make the Creature sympathetic, but in the second half of the movie Clive goes from being an imposingly unhinged presence (I think his performance in the opening section of the film is really underrated) to a much blander and more anonymous romantic lead. The climax of the film makes it initially seem quite ambiguous as to whether Frankenstein lives or dies: and, oddly, the scene which ends the film on a (supposedly) upbeat note barely features him. Perhaps the makers had already clocked that there was only one real star of this film, and it was the British guy in all the make-up.

The thing about Frankenstein the movie being such a massive popular success, and so iconic, is that the result is that there are essentially two rival versions of this story fighting for dominance in the public eye: Shelley’s and Whale’s. Every subsequent version of this story has riffed on or derived from one or the other of them – and, the vast majority of the time, it is Whale’s which has won out. You may find this regrettable (and it certainly means that a wholly satisfying film version of this story arguably doesn’t exist). Whale’s movie may be assembled out of images and ideas from many different sources, few of them having much real connection to Shelley, but this shouldn’t detract from the artistic success of the venture.

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My parents, like many others, were quite cautious about letting me watch horror films when I was a child – I don’t feel that I properly started my education in this area until I was just into my teens, with the BBC’s wonderful season commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of the first colour Hammer horror film. Nevertheless, as a child you do see things that scare and disturb you – when I was quite young, I remember having several supposedly-educational books which had pages I always avoided looking at – one depicting some creepy deep-sea creatures, the others… I think it was something to do with either organ transplants or prosthetic body parts (possibly both). These things do stay with you.

And then there was the day, when I think I would have been about nine, when my class at school all trooped downstairs to find a screen and a projector had been set up in one of the spare rooms. We were going to see a film! Hurrah! Our excitement was only leavened by the fact that this was surely going to turn out to be something educational. And so it proved – but as well as being educational, the short film in question arguably qualifies as the first horror film I ever saw. I still remember the sense of dread and discomfort I felt while watching it: to say it made an impression on me is an understatement.

The film in question is entitled Building Sites Bite, made in 1978 and written and directed by David Hughes. The object of the piece is to raise the young audience’s awareness of the dangers involved in trespassing on building sites, but the approach is not notably dry or fussy. A rather snooty woman (a young-ish Stephanie Cole), her somewhat-spoilt son Ronald (Nigel Rhodes), and their dog (a dog named Snoopy, playing him or herself) visit their relatives, a distinctly lower-middle-class bunch. To say the atmosphere is throbbing with class-related tension is an understatement. The son of the household, Paul (Terry Russell), is not nearly as impressed with his cousin as Auntie is, and (in his interior monologue) is rather scornful of his ambition to be a surveyor or architect. Is young Ronald even aware of basic health and safety principles?

Well, Paul fantasises that he and his sister Jane are in control of a super-high-tech testing programme with Ronald as the subject of their investigations. Through the miracle of a TARDIS-like teleporting shed, Ronald is transported to the edge of a building site, and told they want him to find Snoopy who has wandered somewhere inside. So in Ronald goes, finding the dog in a trench, which then collapses on him, smothering him to death. Snoopy mysteriously escapes, presumably so as not to upset the audience.

Frankly, I remember being pretty upset at this point anyway, given the hard-hitting depiction of Ronald’s demise, and quite glad the film was surely over. But no! Paul and Jane have the power to resurrect Ronald, luckily enough. Or perhaps not: because they proceed to teleport him to a series of other building sites. He is electrocuted! He is crushed by an industrial vehicle! He smashes his head open on a piece of pipe! He is killed when a stack of bricks collapse on him! He drowns! (Snoopy always scampers away without a scratch.) Educational films like this were outside the remit of the BBFC, and so there are levels of gore and general nastiness far beyond what children would be allowed to see in a film.

I was never a particularly outdoorsy or adventurous child, and so they needn’t have really shown me this film. But they did. Watching it again recently was a rather less traumatic experience than back in the eighties. What really struck me was the subtext of the film, though – most of it takes place in Paul’s head, and he seems to be a genuinely disturbed child, taking great pleasure in imagining his cousin’s death in great detail. This seems to be largely motivated by class resentment – Ronald and his mum are both much posher than Paul and his family, with Ronald wearing a cravat throughout his various misadventures. All of this went over my head at the time, which is probably just as well.

Of course, this was by no means the only film along these lines made in the 1970s, and Building Sites Bite doesn’t have quite the degree of notoriety enjoyed by some of the others. There were lots of other potentially lethal places around back then, and John Krish’s The Finishing Line (1977) looks at another one, the railway line.

Again we are privy to the imaginings of a (presumably quite disturbed) young lad, who – after an unseen headmaster declares that ‘the railway line is not a place for playing’ – imagines a school sports day taking place by the side of railway line, complete with brass band and refreshments. Various events take place: Fence-breaking, Stone-throwing, Last One Across (the line, with a train oncoming), and the Great Tunnel Walk. Needless to say, all of these result in horrific injuries and death amongst the competitors, with an astonishing shot from near the end of the film depicting dozens of bloodied child corpses laid out on the lines, while more of the walking wounded stumble out of the tunnel.

John Krish was an experienced film and TV director – responsible for Unearthly Stranger, and various episodes of The Saint and The Avengers – which explains the deftness with which he creates an atmosphere like that of a surreal, deadpan black comedy throughout The Finishing Line. The conceit is carried through quite rigorously, with umpires and other officials carefully checking and reporting the gory results of the different events, apparently with complete indifference to people staggering around with blood gushing from their injuries. (One familiar actor appearing here is Jeremy Wilkin, who also provided the voice of Virgil Tracy in later instalments of Thunderbirds.)

The question, of course, becomes one of just how disturbing and upsetting one of these films should be. The Finishing Line certainly has a cinematic quality to it, which only adds to its impact. It’s presumably because of this that the film was withdrawn after a couple of years, simply because it was so graphically effective.

Horror-movie style poster promoting the DVD release of Apaches.

Less grisly, but possibly even more memorable, is Apaches, also from 1977, directed by John Mackenzie (later to do The Long Good Friday, The Fourth Protocol, and Ruby, amongst others). The venue for slaughter this time is the British countryside, where we find six young children playing (mostly) cowboys and indians in and around a farm, while elsewhere adults are preparing for a mysterious party.

Well, you can probably guess what happens next: as part of their games, one of the children clambers onto and then falls off a moving trailer and is crushed under the wheels, then a second falls into a slurry pit while playing hide and seek and drowns, and so on. Weed-killer, lethal machinery, heavy and precariously-balanced objects – the film does a sensational job of implying that the average farm is a complete deathtrap; one wonders how The Archers or Emmerdale has lasted this long. (I should say that this does seem to be a fairly poorly-run farm, with the children still allowed to run wild even as the death-toll racks up.)

Then again, the thing about Apaches in particular is that it really does feel like an actual horror movie (albeit a short one): there is that same sense of tension throughout, the knowledge that something grim is inevitably around the corner all the time, and a willingness to stretch plausibility to generate its effects. Moments in Apaches are genuinely disturbing and horrible, and once again the effectiveness of the film is reinforced by the director’s skill. The child acting is actually not too bad (much better than in Building Sites Bite), and Mackenzie understands the power of moments of stillness and quiet. There is an understated realism to the film that meshes surprisingly well with its clear intention to make an impression on its young audience: I watched it for the first time recently, and had to take a break partway through, it was that gruelling an experience.

Any discussion of the public information film as quasi-horror would not be complete, of course, without a mention of perhaps the most famous exponent of the form: Lonely Water, directed by Jeff Grant and made in 1973. This one is much shorter than the other films mentioned here, but punches above its weight due to the way it intentionally adopts the conventions of a horror movie, up to and including casting the great Donald Pleasence.

‘I am the spirit of dark and lonely water,’ whispers Pleasence’s voice-over, as the camera shows a mist-wreathed swamp, in which a dark, cowled figure appears to stand on the water. (Many aspects of this film seem to me to have been nicked from The Masque of the Red Death, particularly the appearance of the spirit.) ‘Ready to trap the show-off, the unwary, the fool…’

Various scenes of young children getting into difficulty in or near water quickly follow, always with the figure of the spirit looming, sometimes almost subliminally, in the background. (One of the children featured is Terry Sue-Patt, later of Grange Hill, who later recalled just having fun on the river-bank while making the film – seeing the finished version was apparently an enormous shock for him.) Eventually, one drowning child is helped to safety by two of his wiser peers. (‘Sensible children!’ snarls Pleasence. ‘I have no power over them!’) With the spirit thus exorcised, its robes are thrown in the river, though it still gets to make its famous, echoing promise – ‘I’ll be back!’

Even the director was astonished by how full-on the horror elements of the Lonely Water script were, and the execution of the film does nothing to tone them down (Pleasence is not pulling his punches in the voice-over, either). This film has become something of a legend amongst those who saw it when it was new. There are stories, possibly apocryphal, that Lonely Water didn’t just reduce the number of accidental deaths by drowning, it actually made some children reluctant to go swimming at all, no matter in what situation. Whether that counts as the film just being too effective at its job, I don’t know: but even today it’s still remarkably accomplished artistically for what’s basically just a public information film.

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Just for the sake of completeness, and because I’d never got around to actually watching it before, let’s conclude our look at Ultraviolet with the unaired (and unsold) pilot episode for the American version of the show, which was made in 2000. There’s a sense in which a circle is being closed here, as one of the producers on the US version was Howard Gordon, who’d previously worked extensively on The X Files (and as we have previously discussed, it’s very unlikely the British version would have been made had The X Files not inaugurated the great mid-to-late 90s horror-fantasy boom). Gordon’s verdict on the American pilot was ‘we screwed it up and it just didn’t come out that well,’ which certainly inclines one to fear the worst with regard to it. The pilot was directed by Mark Piznarski and written by Chip Johannessen.

As the story opens we find ourselves at the stag party of former undercover cop Viggo (Spence Decker), who after a slightly chequered past is finally marrying the lovely, if slightly idiosyncratically named, Nealy (Madchen Amick). Keeping an eye on him is his former handler, NYPD lieutenant John Cahill (Eric Thal). (The IMDb listing for this show gets many of the character names wrong, usually defaulting to the UK equivalent – in this case, Jack, Kirsty and Mike, respectively.)

Anyway, the party seems to go reasonably well, but Viggo refuses Cahill’s offer of a lift home. Instead, on the way to his apartment he is approached by a mysterious stranger whom he clearly knows. As will not come as a surprise to anyone who’s been following along, Viggo does not make his wedding the next day, while evidence relating to an investigation into a prominent money-launderer he was involved in has been stolen. It does not look good for him, but Cahill refuses to believe his friend is as corrupt as he appears.

Viggo, meanwhile, is travelling through the city with the stranger, in a car with blacked-out windows. They get caught up in traffic and involved in a contretemps with a biker (slightly discombobulatingly, this is clearly derived from the opening sequence of episode two of the British show, almost on a shot-for-shot level). The car is attacked, sunlight pours through a crack in the window, the stranger partially combusts before pulling away in the vehicle.

Before Cahill becomes aware of this, though, he must contend with a new player: a mysterious federal agency has become involved, represented by taciturn hard-man Vaughan Shepherd (Idris Elba, basically reprising his performance as Vaughan Rice from the UK show) and CDC haematologist Lise Matthews (Joanna Going). Shepherd wears a rather prominent crucifix and Matthews is forever waving UV lamps about. Cahill’s investigation into what’s really going on is going nowhere – Viggo reappears and makes various vague claims of being in danger – until the biker, who was paralysed when the car hit him while departing, is now walking again and has checked himself out of hospital.

Cahill goes in pursuit of the man, and finds him indeed back on his feet. He flees into the New York subway system, occasioning a retread of a sequence from the first episode of the UK show: Cahill’s ability to track his quarry is severely hampered by the fact he doesn’t show up in mirrors or on video cameras. Someone who does show up is Shepherd, however, who promptly puts a bullet into the biker, causing him to explode into burning dust…

Apologies for slightly grainy screen-grab from this untransmitted piece of TV ephemera: that really is Idris Elba in the middle, by the way. Most of it is about as interesting as this to look at.

Well, Cahill tracks Shepherd and Matthews to their base, but remains sceptical about what they claim to be hunting even after watching an apparently paralysed man walk around and then explode. Matthews explains that, post-AIDS, the creatures they are pursuing have grown wary and are seeking to secure their food supply, which will require large amounts of cash (hence their involvement with the money-launderer). The question is one of whether Viggo is simply an ally, or has actually completely joined their cause…

As you can see, in a lot of ways this closely resembles the UK show in terms of its narrative. The first big difference is the absence of a character corresponding to Pearse in the US version; maybe he was being held back for subsequent episodes, or possibly the network were wary of including a priest (or ex-priest) in this kind of show. I wonder how much of the impact of Pearse is due to Philip Quast’s performance, though: he would certainly have been a tough act to follow.

The other big alteration is that Viggo is more of a central character than Jack in the British show, and doesn’t actually join the opposition until near to the climax of the episode (he survives to the end as well). He also gets a number of scenes interacting with his new friends – and here there seems to be a concerted effort to develop them and depict them as fully-rounded and even somewhat sympathetic individuals. The contrast with the UK version, where the undead are off-screen the vast majority of the time, and their agenda and motivation remains mysterious, is marked, and the main effect of this is to heighten the ambiguity in the way the hunters are depicted: we see Vaughan Shepherd blowing away an unarmed man, and they seem cold and hard and untroubled by softer feelings, whereas the creatures they are pursuing get big scenes talking about how much they love one another.

The result is that this really feels like less of a show in the mystery-investigation genre and more a kind of morality play, with much more parity between the two sides – it seems to be building up to be about that old question of whom the real monsters truly are. This isn’t a dreadful premise for a show, but it is a very different one from Joe Ahearne’s conception of the series. It’s equally understated, although in this case perhaps that isn’t completely a positive thing – British Ultraviolet did a good job of looking like any number of other TV shows made in the UK, but American Ultraviolet seems unusually grey and dour for an American TV show, especially a fantasy. It’s not the most inviting or engaging visual palette, and the plot is somehow less immediately gripping. Maybe this is just because the American networks never seem to have had the same kind of prejudice against fantasy and horror that UK ones have routinely shown. I can think of half a dozen American shows featuring vampirism that predated this pilot – in the UK, all the immediately springs to mind are various adaptations of Dracula.

I don’t think US Ultraviolet is quite a bad as Howard Gordon suggests it is – it’s not as immediately accomplished as its immediate progenitor, and the look of the thing could certainly do with improvement, while somehow none of the characters pop this time around. On the other other hand, there are signs of potential here – this could possibly, and I stress the adverb, possibly have turned into a very interesting, morally ambiguous show about not knowing who to trust, and the thin line between good and evil. But it would most likely have just been fairly dull and quickly been cancelled: on the basis of what we see here, it’s hard to feel terribly robbed by the fact that Ultraviolet US never went to a full series.

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