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Posts Tagged ‘John Hough’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Maintenance of aim is terribly important in any undertaking: if you’re a surgeon doing heart-surgery, for instance, it is generally accepted that changing your mind halfway through and embarking on a tonsillectomy is not best practice. This kind of goes without saying in most walks of life, and is not normally a problem when it comes to film-making, anyway; any decent movie, once it enters serious production, has all the agile manoeuvrability of a fully-laden oil tanker – it’s just too complicated and expensive to start changing things. (Many a famous flop is the result of clashing creative visions causing a bad movie to go soaring over budget.)

Movies are a bit more vulnerable at the scripting stage, of course, and a spectacular example of just how badly things can go wrong at this point appears to be John Hough’s 1986 film Biggles (released in the US a couple of years later, under the title of Biggles: Adventures in Time). Now, anyone familiar with W.E. Johns’ famous boy’s-adventure hero could probably have guessed that the producers of this movie had set out on a slightly rocky path: doing Biggles authentically would involve dealing with a lot of problematic material, mainly due to the character’s origins during the dying days of the British Empire – there are some fairly unreconstructed attitudes on display from time to time, if not outright racism.

Nevertheless, you could certainly imagine a Biggles movie kind of working, provided it was sensibly scripted to catch the spirit of the stories – lots of courageous aerial derring-do, all in the cause of righteousness, naturally – in fact, you could imagine the 1983 Tom Selleck movie High Road to China serving as a template for a fairly successful Biggles film. And apparently Hough’s movie started life as just such a rousing period adventure, in the Raiders of the Lost Ark style. However, and this is the point at which the catastrophe started to unfold, while the film was being scripted – it may even have been while it was in production, such are the timescales involved – key figures on the project noted the success of various science-fiction films, particularly Back to Future, and the decision was made to try and attract the same audience to the Biggles movie.

So it is that Biggles, a film supposedly about a British First World War flying ace, is primarily about Jim Ferguson (Alex Hyde-White), a New York City yuppie living in the middle 1980s. Ferguson’s job is running a company that produces fairly rancid-looking ready meals (he keeps getting dragged out of meetings by people declaring ‘there’s a glitch with the mashed potatoes!’) but his life is generally quite ordinary, except for the fact he is being stalked by a mysterious old man (a frail-looking Peter Cushing, giving it all he’s got).

Well, all this changes one night when Jim, apropos of nothing much, finds himself in 1917, saving the life of a British airman when his biplane crashes (this, needless to say, is Biggles, played moderately well by Neil Dickson). And then he’s back in New York, none the wiser. This happens a number of times, until he decides to sort it all out by tracking down the old man, who seems to be connected to this odd phenomenon. Cushing’s character actually lives inside Tower Bridge in London, for no very good reason, and turns out to be Air Commodore Raymond, Biggles’ commanding officer during the war. This would make him about a hundred years old, and the uncharitable would say Cushing possibly looks it, but the film skips daintily over such things.

Well, Cushing is saddled with the exposition, and reveals that Ferguson and Biggles are ‘time twins’ and that apparently ‘time travel is much more common than people think.’ This is the sole rationale for the movie, and not even Peter Cushing can sell it, I’m afraid. Anyway, every time Biggles is in danger, Ferguson finds himself plucked back through time to help him out, and spends most of the film ping-ponging back and forth. There is a plot about the Germans having developed a new weapon that delivers a devastating sonic attack (all together now: ‘You will feel dizzy, you will feel the urge to vomit’, and so on), which most of the action revolves around.

And it is all almost indescribably awful. It’s not as infuriatingly, wilfully ugly as the Peter Rabbit movie, but this is the kind of film that made some people spend most of the eighties announcing the death of the British film industry. Cushing is the only person connected with this film who had any kind of movie career of note, and it was his last role. Everyone else has a solid background in duff TV, for it is full of faces from things like Allo Allo! and Roland Rat. Well, maybe I’m being a little too harsh on John Hough, who in addition to doing various episodes of The New Avengers and similar things also made Twins of Evil for Hammer and the original Witch Mountain movies for Disney. There’s a bit of a Hammer thread running through this movie, for in addition to the presence of Cushing and Hough, a Hammer subsidiary part-financed the film. It just shows the extent of the company’s fall from grace in the 1980s, I suppose.

I mean, the film verges on the downright incompetent when it comes to things like editing and pacing, to say nothing of the tranquilised quality of most of the performances – Hyde-White is a particular offender in this department. All this just compounds the flaws inherent in the basic conception of the film, which crassly hedges its bets by attempting to combine swashbuckling adventure with time-travel fantasy and broad comedy: Ferguson keeps time travelling at inappropriate moments, so his friends discover him dressed as a nun (ho ho!) or he finds himself inadvertently machine-gunning the London police (ha ha!). The casual profanity in this film, to say nothing of the gags about breast implants, just feels horribly wrong for a Biggles movie, but the uncertainty of tone is pervasive – we go from moments of near-slapstick to a bit where Ferguson’s girlfriend (Fiona Hutchison), for no very good reason, claws an incinerated corpse’s eye from its socket. Even in the bits which seem vaguely historically accurate, the synth-pop soundtrack destroys any chance of atmosphere (this film contains Queen bassist John Deacon’s only recordings outside the band, which may mean it is of marginal interest to obsessive fans).

The real problem with Biggles is that it doesn’t have an audience: I don’t mean that no-one would be interested in a film based on this character (I think that a serious film based on the earliest stories, which are darker and grittier, could be really interesting), but that the structure of the story is so slip-shod and weak it appears to be aimed at undemanding children, while much of its substance is clearly pitched towards a much older age-group. The result is a strikingly incompetent film with a very broad lack-of-appeal; other than Queen aficionados, it’s only likely to be of interest as Cushing’s final (non-CGI) big screen appearance, and even in those terms it’s a horribly unworthy valediction for the great man.

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