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Posts Tagged ‘Ian Bannen’

There is something remarkably comforting and familiar about sitting down to watch one of the Amicus portmanteau horror movies from the 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps it is because this subgenre is so strictly defined by its conventions – you know there aren’t going to be many startling innovations, you know there’s going to be a pretty good cast, and you know that none of the component stories are going to hang around too long. It is almost the cinematic equivalent of a sushi train – if what’s currently going past isn’t really to your taste, well, maybe the next course will do the trick.

1974’s From Beyond the Grave is normally listed as the last of the Amicus anthology horrors, which I suppose is true if you’re going to be quibbly about it, although my own feeling is that 1980’s The Monster Club is really the last of the line, sharing the same format and producer (Amicus’ moving spirit Milton Subotsky). There is another connection in that both films take their inspiration not from other horror movies or American horror comics, but the works of veteran horror author Ron Chetwynd-Hayes.

The movie is directed by Kevin Connor, who went on to have a moderately good line in low-budget genre movies like Warlords of Atlantis. The linking device on this occasion is an antiques and junk shop named Temptations Limited, run by Peter Cushing’s character (Cushing is in camp mode throughout and gives a very funny performance which nicely sets the tone for much of the movie). As the film reveals, the shop has an interesting gimmick (‘a novelty surprise with every purchase!’) and an even more interesting line in customer aftercare.

First story out of the traps is that of David Warner, who plays an arrogant young man who railroads the proprietor into selling him an antique mirror for a fraction of its actual value. No sooner has he put it up in his flat than one of his bright young friends shouts ‘Let’s have a séance!’, and Warner, for reasons best known to the plot, enthusiastically agrees. Well, it turns out that the mirror is a repository for an ancient, dormant evil which now wakes up, thirsting for the blood of – well, anyone it can persuade Warner to kill for it. He starts off with a prostitute (‘Five pounds and no need to rush,’ she says, which if nothing else I imagine says something about the impact of inflation since 1974), moves on to girls he picks up at parties, but draws the line at one of his actual friends (his neighbour seems to be fair game, though).

There are perhaps a few too many scenes of Warner waking up in blood-splattered pyjamas wondering if it was all a dream, but this is quite acceptable on the whole: Warner is always a class act and manages to lift some slightly schlocky material, and the piece has an unusually eerie and effective conclusion. The only thing that makes it sit a little oddly in this film is the unleavened darkness of the story – most of the film feels like it’s pitched as black comedy, but this seems to be aiming for a more serious tone.

The next segment is rather less predictable and feels rather shoehorned into the movie – Cushing and his shop only play a very marginal role. Ian Bannen plays an office drone, unhappily married to Diana Dors with a young son (John O’Farrell, later to find fame as a writer), who strikes up an odd relationship with an ex-army street hawker (Donald Pleasance) and later his daughter (Angela Pleasance). In order to cement their friendship, Bannen steals a medal from the shop, which is the link to the rest of the format. The Pleasances eventually seem to be offering Bannen a way out of his grim situation – but do they really have his best interests at heart…?

Once again, some slightly suspect material is lifted by the skill of the perfomers (Bannen and the Pleasances in this case), although this is much more of a bizarre, whimsical fantasy than a conventional horror story (though the story certainly scores bonus points for its voodoo wedding cake sequence). This is one of the stories which has no real reason to be in a film titled From Beyond the Grave, but it is an interesting change of pace and certainly stands out.

Ian Carmichael turns up playing another one of his posh silly-ass characters in the third section of the film, which opens with him attempting to swindle Cushing by switching the price tags on a couple of snuff boxes in the shop. ‘I hope you enjoy snuffing it,’ says Cushing, deadpan, as Carmichael departs the scene. In the peculiar cosmology of the Amicus horror movies, switching price tags is a sufficiently awful crime to mark you down for vicious karmic reprisals, and Carmichael discovers he has acquired a malevolent (but invisible and thus cheap) elemental companion, who seems to have it in for his wife in particular. Luckily he makes the acquaintance of medium and exorcist Madame Orloff (Margaret Leighton), who offers to assist…

Probably the weakest part of the film, probably because the plot hasn’t got a lot going on, and the segment is forced to rely on the comic performances of the actors involved. Once again, they are good enough to make the film watchable and entertaining (some good work from the set dressers in the scene where the elemental demolishes Carmichael’s living room), but it’s not really clever or striking enough to be memorable.

And so to the final part of the film, in which young writer Ian Ogilvy buys, somewhat improbably, an imposing old door to put on the stationery cupboard in his study. You can probably write the rest for yourself, particularly if you’ve been paying attention, not least because it does bear a certain resemblance to the David Warner story at the top of the film – the door turns out to be a gateway to a domain of ancient, dormant evil, which now wakes up, thirsting for the souls of… well, you get the idea, I think.

Still, the production values aren’t bad and the story also manages to distinguish itself by having the closest thing to a genuine plot twist you’re likely to find in an Amicus film – the audience is invited to assume that Ogilvy has ripped off the till at the shop, thus marking his card for a sticky end, but it turns out he’s a decent, honest chap, and thus has a chance of making it out of the film in one piece. If nothing else it provides an upbeat conclusion.

There is, of course, still time for the final twist with the frame story of the shop. This is not the usual ‘everyone is actually already dead!’ twist as deployed in Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, Tales from the Crypt, and Vault of Horror, but something very nearly as obvious. Still, Cushing gets another chance to camp it up, being funny and menacing at the same time, and the film does conclude with a couple of good gags. Probably not the best or most colourful of the Amicus anthologies, but still an enjoyable piece of comfort viewing.

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And now for a little unfinished business. As frequent visitors may have noticed, I spent a few weeks earlier this year watching and writing about the BBC TV show Doomwatch, which ran on BBC1 from 1970 to 1972. It has never been repeated, despite its enormous success and popularity at the time, and received only a very limited VHS release in the 1990s. As someone interested in TV science fiction and fantasy, though, I was always vaguely aware of the Doomwatch name, enough to make a point of taping and watching the movie based on the show when it turned up on TV – I’m not sure when this actually happened, at some time in the late 1980s I suppose – the main UK commercial network had just gone 24-hour, turning the wee small hours of the night into a treasure trove of obscure genre movies rolled out just to fill holes in the schedule. (What bliss it was, etc.) In any case, the big-screen version of Doomwatch was my first point of contact with the series.

Peter Sasdy’s film was released in March 1972, during the gap between the second and third series of the TV show – it features the second-series line-up of characters (Ridge is still a member of Doomwatch at this point, as is Chantry), although features is the operative word – the main actors of the TV show are billed as ‘also starring’, with the lead roles taken by Ian Bannen (a very capable character actor) and Judy Geeson (a quietly prolific actress whose most memorable big-screen role was perhaps her gob-smacking appearance in Inseminoid).

Bannen plays Dr Del Shaw, a member of Doomwatch’s big-screen-only division, who at the start of the film is packed off by Quist to the remote island of Balfe. The exact location of Balfe is left obscure, but, as we shall see, the temptation to assume it is somewhere off the Scottish coast becomes almost irresistible given how the film plays out. There has been an oil-tanker spill in the region and Doomwatch is checking out what effect this has had on the local ecology (the opening credits indicate that Doomwatch exists mainly as an anti-pollution agency, which is a bit of a simplification of the rationale given on TV, but I suppose it would work to bring new audiences up to speed).

Arriving on Balfe, Shaw sets about obtaining his biological samples, but soon comes to suspect that not all is well on the island – most outsiders are unwelcome and resented, almost violently (although, for plot reasons, this does not extend to their schoolteacher, who is played by Geeson). Shaw finds himself shadowed by a gun-toting islander throughout his sample-collecting excursions. Many of the islanders have a short fuse, to say the least, if not an actual tendency towards savage brutality. Shaw comes across a body in a shallow grave, but when he returns it has mysteriously vanished. What is going on on Balfe, and has it got anything to do with the oil spill he has been sent to investigate?

Peter Sasdy is probably best known as a director of genre and especially horror films – he did a couple of rather good movies for Hammer, Taste the Blood of Dracula and Countess Dracula – although his career effectively ended when he won a Razzie for a more conventional drama, The Lonely Lady. In a similar vein, the big-screen Doomwatch was made by Tigon, a production company best-known these days for making two classic folk-horror films, Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan’s Claw. So perhaps it’s not entirely surprising that, in some ways, Doomwatch’s big-screen incarnation feels like more of a horror movie than the TV version usually did (the US title of this movie was Island of the Ghouls, which is punchy if not especially accurate).

What is perhaps a bit unexpected is the way in which Doomwatch anticipates or mirrors another classic folk-horror film. Look at it this way – an outsider arrives on a remote island, intent on investigating. The locals clearly have a secret which they are very reluctant to share with him. The local schoolteacher provides some intriguing clues. The body of a child disappears in mysterious circumstances. Now, all this happens in the early part of the film, and it’s not as if Ian Bannen is seized by the locals in order to be sacrificed as a way of lifting the curse on the community, but there is a sense in which Doomwatch feels like a weird pre-echo of many elements of The Wicker Man (I should mention that this film was released six months before The Wicker Man went into production, not that I’ve ever seen any suggestion it was an influence on Robin Hardy or Anthony Shaffer). And you could equally well argue that the premise of the movie – something in the sea near a remote coastal community is causing deformities which lead to many members of the community being hidden from outsiders – has something of the atmosphere and tone of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth.

Sasdy conjures up a reasonably effective atmosphere of mystery and menace during this opening movement of the film, culminating in an attack on Shaw by one of the island’s more brutish and deformed inhabitants. However, at this point the story turns into a science-procedural thriller of a kind which would be quite familiar to viewers of the Doomwatch TV show. There’s a rational scientific explanation for everything Shaw and the others encounter, and the only evil involved is that of greedy people trying to cut corners and disregard the danger to the environment. At least Quist and Ridge get more to do in this part of the film, including some scenes with George Sanders (listed, as was common in low-budget British films of this period, as a ‘guest star’).

(I do wonder what 1972 audiences would have made of a movie based on TV’s Doomwatch in which the actual stars of the TV show play such very peripheral roles. I imagine I would have felt a bit cheated. It is a slightly odd creative choice, and an unexpected one given the storyline for the film came from Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, creators of the TV show. Perhaps it was simply the case that the stars of the TV show were busy actually making the TV show when the movie was in production; I don’t know.)

In the end, the least you can say is that big-screen Doomwatch is recognisably the same beast as small-screen Doomwatch, with all the positives and negatives that this implies. It’s a fairly intelligent film that clearly cares about the issues with which it is dealing (primarily, damage to the environment from big business) – one might expect no less from a script by Clive Exton, a very capable screen-writer. And many of the themes of the movie are reminiscent of ones touched on in the TV show – the effects of pollution on communities being the main one. On the other hand, there is a problem when what starts off looking like a certain type of horror movie ends up as something rather different – you’re braced for a particular kind of climax, which never really comes. Ultimately, this is more of a drama than anything else – and a somewhat peculiar one, if you’re unaware of the conventions of the TV show which spawned it. But the Doomwatch film stands up well as an adjunct to the TV show, even if not as a movie in its own right.

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