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Posts Tagged ‘Joan Collins’

As we have observed many times in the past, a successful formula gets noticed, and this is no less true in the movie business than anywhere else. Whatever else you want to say about the series of portmanteau horror movies produced by Milton Subotsky, usually through his company Amicus, they seem to have made money – why else would there have been half a dozen of them? And, of course, this led to other people having a go at doing the same thing.

Which brings us to Freddie Francis’ Tales That Witness Madness, a very obvious attempt at cloning the style and structure of an Amicus film, with perhaps a few odd tonal innovations. The script is credited on-screen to one Jay Fairbank – however, this was actually a pseudonym for the actress Jennifer Jayne, who actually appeared in Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, the first of the Amicus portmanteaus, so there’s a further connection. The film also features Joan Collins, who turned up in the previous year’s Asylum (which this slightly resembles), and Donald Pleasence, who would appear in From Beyond the Grave the following year. It’s a small world when you’re making low-budget British portmanteau horrors.

The frame story gets underway with one Dr Nicholas (Jack Hawkins) arriving at a modern psychiatric facility to see the chap in charge of the place, Dr Tremayne (Pleasence). These scenes are brief to the point of being perfunctory, which is a shame as Pleasence is always reliably creepy in this kind of film – but on the other hand, Hawkins had lost his larynx to cancer some years earlier (he died shortly after completing this film), and he’s fairly obviously being dubbed by an uncredited Charles Gray (so we got some Blofeld-on-Blofeld action going on here, vocally anyway).

Anyway, apparently the powers that be are concerned about Tremayne’s progress, and so Tremayne agrees to introduce Nicholas to four of his patients and explain their weird and unnatural case histories, and if that’s not a cue for a portmanteau segment to get underway, I don’t know what is.

First up is ‘Mr Tiger’, which basically resembles a big-screen adaptation of Calvin and Hobbes, as directed by Dario Argento (while suffering from a migraine). This features a ten-year-old Russell Lewis as the main character, Paul (Lewis has gone on to make a good career for himself writing various cop shows on British TV, including every episode so far of the Inspector Morse prequel). Paul seems to live in a very comfortable house, with his own private tutor, but his parents’ marriage seems to be under stress, with Paul himself being used as a playing piece in their various arguments. One of the points of contention is Paul’s devotion to his imaginary friend, Mr Tiger: Paul insists on doors and windows being left open so Mr Tiger can find his way in and out of the house, steals bones and sides of meat from the kitchen for him, and so on.

But then! (And I should say there will be spoilers aplenty coming up, here and further on.) Paul’s parents sit him down for a good talking to about how Mr Tiger isn’t real – but Mr Tiger is real (at least, judging from the prop they use, he’s a real stuffed tiger), and he turns up and mauls Paul’s parents to death.

Er, yeah, well: that’s your lot, as far as the plot of this bit is concerned. I say ‘plot’, but the so-called twist is so screechingly obvious, especially in this context – I mean, who does a horror movie about a boy whose imaginary friend turns out to be actually imaginary? It is one of the weakest segments of any portmanteau horror that I’ve seen, although to be fair Lewis is a pretty decent child actor.

Mind you, it is at least easy to work out what’s actually going on, which is more than you can say for the next bit, the oddness of which is kind of telegraphed by the title ‘Penny Farthing’. Lead character this time is Timothy (Peter McEnery), an antique shop owner who brings in the vintage bicycle in question, and also a old framed photo of his Uncle Albert. The first obvious sign that all is not quite right is that Uncle Albert’s picture keeps changing: it, or he, is clearly aware of things going on in the shop and reacting to them (this is done in the most basic way: the picture never changes in-camera). Things get appreciably weirder when he finds himself compelled to mount and ride the bicycle, finding himself transported back to (it would seem) the Edwardian era, where he romances a young woman (Suzy Kendall, who also plays his girlfriend in the present-day sequences). The horror element comes from the fact that he is also being stalked by, apparently, the rotting cadaver of Uncle Albert (this is the only example I can think of of a rotting cadaver wearing a deerstalker hat).

Well, if the plot of Mr Tiger is painfully predictable, then that of Penny Farthing goes completely the other way and is almost totally bizarre. It’s not especially well-acted or directed, either. Nevertheless, this is still probably the best story about someone cursed to ride a haunted time-travelling bike ever committed to celluloid. Needless to say, this is such a tiny niche that a story can proudly have this title and still be rubbish.

The needle swings back towards the realms of the excruciatingly predictable, in the form of ‘Mel’, a bizarre – do you see a pattern developing here? – entry in the canon of British botanical horror. Michael Jayston plays Brian, a seemingly ordinary chap who one day, while out for a walk, happens upon a fallen tree-trunk. He is so much taken with it that he drags the log back to his house and installs it in his living room, to the disgust of his wife (Joan Collins). He finds the name ‘Mel’ carved into the bark and starts calling the log by it.

Suffice to say that Bella is not as fond of Mel as Brian is, something not helped by Mel deliberately scattering leaves on the carpet just after Bella has hoovered, or sprouting thorns to impale her on (the monstrous tree costume is better than the one in Womaneater, but not by that much).  Bella becomes very jealous of the log (that’s a sentence which may never have been typed by anyone not summarising the stories in Tales That Witness Madness), and of course, it all ends very predictably: there’s an attempt at a twist which wouldn’t wrong-foot a four-year-old. On the other hand, I suppose the conclusion, which appears to depict Michael Jayston about to be physically intimate with a tree trunk in the marital bed, comes a bit out of left-field. Again, though, while it has a sort of campy appeal, it’s just too obvious to work.

Something very different rounds out the film, though; not a story you could ever imagine Milton Subotsky wanting anything to do with. This is ‘Luau’, starring – and I still find this hard to believe – Kim Novak (yes, the same Kim Novak from Vertigo), in her first film for five years. Novak plays Auriol, a slightly lost-in-her-own-world literary agent who’s planning a big party in honour of one of her clients, Kimo (Michael Petrovitch). As Kimo is from Hawaii, she decides to make it a luau. Kimo’s friend Keoki (Leon Lissek) is very helpful in assisting with this shindig.

Meanwhile Kimo is romancing Auriol’s young daughter Virginia (Mary Tamm), although his designs on her body are not of the usual kind: his mum is dying, and in order to ensure she goes to Hawaiian heaven, Kimo is planning a ritual where people assemble and eat the flesh of a virgin. Having made it look like Virginia has left to visit friends, he lures her to his room, where he has converted the shower cubicle into a shrine to his particular god. Virginia meets a sticky end and is chopped up by Keoki, prior to being cooked and served up to everyone at the luau.

And then the film concludes with… what, sorry, you were expecting more plot? Think again: the film doesn’t even have the moment where Auriol realises she’s been tucking into her daughter’s flesh – in fact, Novak’s character is very tangential to the plot throughout. Her role is to be the one who doesn’t know what’s happening around her, and the scene where the horrible truth becomes apparent to her is missing from the film. This segment doesn’t even try very hard to be frightening, as such: like most horror films about cannibalism, it just dwells on the gory details. As a result, it has a sort of queasy power, even if it’s only looking for the gag reflex rather than a more elevated form of dread.

I suppose it’s kind of impressive that it manages this despite being nearly as ridiculous as the rest of the film. Quite apart from the arguably slanderous depiction of Hawaiian culture, there’s the fact that the supposedly Hawaiian characters look like nothing of the sort: Leon Lissek spent much of his career playing eastern Europeans and would have been a decent choice as the lead in a Stanley Kubrick bio-pic. He’s one of the least Hawaiian-looking people I’ve ever seen, and Petrovitch is nearly as bad a choice. (What did Jennifer Jayne have against Hawaii? Was she once bitten by a wild ukulele?)

We’re back to the asylum for the conclusion, at which point the film reverts to its earlier mode by being predictable and slightly confusing at practically the same moment. At least it’s not the ‘and it turns out they’re all actually dead!’ twist used on numerous occasions in the Amicus films. If all of the film was like this (jerking back and forth between the predictable and the bizarrely unexpected and incomprehensible), I would find it easier to know what to say about it. The first three segments are very much like inept, substandard Amicus, but the cannibal luau… it hits a sustained note of lowest-common-denominator nastiness which the crudeness of the production does little to dispel. (I should say that, with the exception of Raw, I find films about cannibalism to be repulsive rather than scary or insightful, so maybe I’m biased.) It’s certainly the most memorable element of Tales That Witness Madness, also because it has Kim Novak in it and she is so badly underused.

If you like the Amicus portmanteau movies, then this is probably worth watching, if only to help you appreciate that while hardly any of them are consistently great, they could have been much, much worse. For everyone else – well, this is one weird film, almost like a fever-dream of whimsical strangeness with very occasional moments that are genuinely repellent. If it had been wholly innocuous I would probably have liked it more.

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So, just recently I was writing about the vital contribution to my education which was made by the main commercial channel’s tendency to show endless old genre movies in the middle of the night, back when I was a teenager. Doesn’t happen these days, of course: even old movies are now too expensive, given there are a dozen other channels in the market for content, so the wee small hours are the domain of rip-off phone-in competitions and ultra-cheap home-grown repeats. And, as it happens, just the other day I was writing about the fractured dream-logic of a certain kind of horror movie. There is something oddly satisfying about the way these two themes combine in Freddie Francis’ 1972 film Tales from the Crypt.

Or should that be Milton Subotsky’s Tales from the Crypt? Subotsky is one of the (largely) unsung heroes of low-budget British genre movie-making of the 1960s and 1970s, most frequently through his company Amicus. Amongst other things, Subotsky oversaw the two 1960s movie adaptations of a famous BBC fantasy series the name of which I will not utter here, and the first few Trampas movies (the last one, Warlords of Atlantis, was the work of other hands). But if Subotsky left an indelible mark on the fabric of cinema, it is in the form of the portmanteau horror movies which he oversaw both at Amicus and elsewhere. He was not the first to make this kind of movie – I suspect that credit goes to Dead of Night, made in 1945, and widely credited as the best of the subgenre – but if you stumble across one of these, the chances are it’s one of Milton’s.

Subotsky was not the kind of man to mess with a successful formula, and it must be said that most of these films are rather samey, to the point where they all start to merge together in one’s head after a while. When an Amicus portmanteau comes on the TV, I have to take a moment to work out if this is the one with Fluff Freeman fighting the carnivorous vine, or Tom Baker misusing his voodoo paintbrush, or David Warner contending with a haunted mirror.

Tales from the Crypt is not any of these, in case you were wondering (oh, what delights remain as yet unconsidered by this blog). This one opens in classy style with a bit of Bach’s toccata and fugue on the organ and some shots of a cemetery. Geoffrey Bayldon, soon to appear as a homicidal psychiatrist in the next Amicus portmanteau, Asylum, plays a guide showing a group round the cemetery catacombs. Five of them get separated from the rest, and find themselves in, well, a crypt, with a robed and hooded figure (Ralph Richardson).

One thing about the moribund state of the British film industry in the 1970s, you got some heavyweight actors appearing in slightly suspect material. This is, as the title would indicate to the in-the-know, a fairly low-budget movie based on some disreputable American horror comics – a proper slab of schlock, not to put too fine a point on it. And yet it has Ralph Richardson, an actor from the same bracket as Laurence Olivier, Alec Guinness, and John Gielgud, and apparently taking it quite seriously. And he is not the only big name to appear.

Well, anyway, each of the five characters appears in their own short tale, revealed to them by the enigmatic Crypt Keeper. But is he showing them their future or their past?

First up is And All Through the House, featuring Joan Collins as an avaricious housewife who is unkind enough as to bash in her husband’s head on Christmas Eve, solely for his life insurance. (Best not to worry too much about finer details of character and motivation, to be perfectly honest.) However, no sooner is the deed done than the news is reporting that a homicidal lunatic has escaped from the local asylum and is on the loose, dressed in a Santa Claus outfit (well, of course). Sure enough, the psycho Santa is soon lurking in Joan’s garden, leaving her with the awkward problem of what to do – she can hardly call the police with her husband’s corpse still on the lounge floor…

Some effective jump scares in this one, I suppose, and it’s an especially camp segment of what’s a rather camp film overall. The contrived plotting and particularly fake-looking fake blood (all the Kensington gore in this film is completely the wrong shade of red) just add to the fun, but it’s just as well this is the hors d’oeuvre in this particular collection.

Along next is Reflection of Death, an unusually short segment starring Ian Hendry as a man leaving his wife and children to be with his mistress (this is a sufficiently heinous crime to make you a marked man, and put you in line for spectacularly cruel and unusual punishment, in the odd cosmology of the Amicus portmanteaus). Well, they are driving off to their new life together when there is a car crash, and…

Well, the thing is that this one is so short and so insubstantial that it barely stands up to even a cursory review. If it were any longer it probably wouldn’t work at all – as it is, some slightly gimmicky direction and the re-employment of the ‘endless nightmare’ idea from Dead of Night just about keeps it afloat. You might wish for Ian Hendry to get some more substantial material, but you take what you’re given in this particular genre.

On next is Poetic Justice, in which a grasping, good-for-nothing, rich Tory bastard (Robin Phillips) schemes to ruin the life of a sweet old widowed bin-man (the legend that is Peter Cushing), having his numerous pet dogs taken away by court order, and spreading malicious rumours that, um, he’s a paedophile. What can I say, it was the 1970s, tastes were a bit different back then. Cushing is finally driven to suicide by a load of vindictive Valentine’s cards (the Tory bastard seems to have put an awful lot of effort into writing all the insulting doggerel involved), but his tormentors have failed to realise he has mystical connections beyond the grave. Or something. This is not really made very clear, but suffice to say, one year later, Cushing comes back…

Another textbook example of Peter Cushing deploying his powers to their full extent to lift some rather dubious material. There’s also the added poignancy of the recently-widowed Cushing taking on this role – I couldn’t help noticing that his character’s dead wife has the same name as Cushing’s own partner, and I’d be prepared to bet this wasn’t a coincidence. Sometimes you think you understand just how much this loss defined the last two decades of Peter Cushing’s life, and then sometimes you suspect it’s impossible to fully appreciate that.

Oh well. Onto Wish You Were Here, in which another ruthless Tory type (Richard Greene) finds himself financially embarrassed and on the verge of serious debt, at which point his wife discovers that a mysterious statuette they bought in the Far East has the power to grant three wishes. Any self-respecting viewer will at this point groan ‘Oh, no, not The Monkey’s Paw AGAIN,’ but the movie earns a degree of respect for having the characters also be aware of WW Jacobs’ famous cautionary tale and actively try to avoid making the same mistakes as their counterparts in the story. It doesn’t help them, of course, and the film earns bonus points to go with the respect, for finding inventive ways for their ill-considered wishes to screw them over.

And finally, Blind Alleys, in which yet another callous and greedy Tory type (I’ll say one thing for Tales from the Crypt, it may be campy schlock, but ideologically it’s completely sound) takes on the job of superintendent of an institution for the blind. As our man (played by Nigel Patrick) does not run the place in the most compassionate manner, resentment builds up amongst his charges, led by Patrick Magee (someone else who appears in Asylum). Suffice to say the assembled blind men prove unexpectedly good at DIY and a sticky end is on the cards for someone…

So, the guilty all get punished in suitably outlandish style, and all that remains is for the twist of the frame story to be revealed. I say ‘twist’, because another of the defining features of the Amicus portmanteaus is that the final twist is almost always the same, and hardly difficult to guess if you pay any attention whatsoever to what’s been going on in the film.

I really don’t know about Tales from the Crypt: by any objective standard, it’s really quite a bad movie, with silly stories, obvious twists, and unconvincing fake blood, lifted only a bit by the presence of some properly talented actors. The same could really be said for most of the other, similar films produced by Milton Subotsky. And yet it also manages to be quite marvellously entertaining. If 1970s British horror movies are not your thing, you should probably give it a very wide berth, but if they are – well, you probably already know what to expect. Hardly a great film, but – for some of us – great fun.

 

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