Posts Tagged ‘John Mackenzie’

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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Ahem. Please be aware: plot spoilers, not to mention effing and jeffing, lie ahead. 

When George Harrison died in 2001, as well as all the tributes and remembrances relating to his musical career, many tributes were paid to his work in the film industry as well. It is fair to say that, as proprietor of Handmade Films, Harrison was responsible for several examples of the kind of wrong-headed extravaganzas that did the British film industry no favours in the 1980s: Water, Shanghai Surprise, and Bullshot, as well as numerous even more obscure films. Set against this, though, one must consider his role in some of the very best films made in the UK in the same period – starting with Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and going on to include Time Bandits, Mona Lisa and Withnail & I, any one of which would be a source of pride for the average producer.

One gets the impression that Harrison and his company made a habit of riding in like the cavalry to save a production in peril after the initial backers got scared. Handmade was only set up in the first place because Harrison really wanted to see Life of Brian and could only guarantee that if he paid for it himself. Another early Handmade release was of a film struggling for political rather than religious reasons, despite the title: John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday. Made in 1979, by 1980 the original distributor had got cold feet and was attempting to sell a hacked-down version to a TV network. Handmade took the film off their hands and thus secured the reputation of one of the greatest British thrillers. (Yeah, I know I should have done this one last weekend, when it was, you know, Good Friday. Hey ho.)

Bob ‘Oskins plays Harold Shand, an upwardly-mobile London entrepreneur. Despite having a somewhat chequered past, things are looking up for Harold – he and his partner (Helen Mirren) are prosperous,  and his contacts in local government and the police are paying off, with a major redevelopment of the docklands planned, to tie in with London’s bid for the 1988 Olympics. All this will take place provided he can secure the assistance of some foreign backers: some gentlemen from New York City, representing a large family concern. No-one in this proposed agreement is using the word ‘gangster’, of course…

But then, in the space of a few hours, Harold’s Rolls Royce is destroyed by a car bomb, his best friend is stabbed to death, and two other bombs are left at establishments he has an interest in. Someone is attempting to muscle in on Harold’s manor, and they’re not playing by the usual rules. Then evidence comes to light suggesting that the bombs have come from Belfast: the newcomers are not just crooks on the make, but an IRA detachment – an enemy the like of which Harold and his firm have never faced before…

Well, the problem the original financiers had with this film was that it might be perceived to be pro-IRA in its politics. I don’t think it is, really: it’s more a case of it being anti-Thatcherite. Certainly Harold Shand has the kind of go-getting, fiercely aggressive entrepreneurial spirit that in some ways defined the 80s. His eagerness to go into business with the Americans, and his attitude to the Irish problem are also very reminiscent of the UK government of the time. While all this is astute, it’s also remarkably prescient given it was made in the same year Thatcher was first elected. It doesn’t reflect British politics of its time so much as predict them, with great accuracy.

The film’s crystal ball extends to the casting department, as The Long Good Friday is a bonanza for Before They Were Famous fans – lurking down the cast list of this film are well-known British faces like Kevin McNally, Dexter Fletcher, Derek Thompson, Gillian Taylforth, Paul Barber and Karl Howman. Famously, though, this is Pierce Brosnan’s first film. I’ve seen it listed in the paper as a ‘crime thriller starring Bob Hoskins and Pierce Brosnan’, which is pushing it a bit, as Brosnan’s in it for less than five minutes and has only one word of dialogue.

This was no doubt a source of some regret for Pierce as the dialogue in this film is uncommonly good. Barrie Keeffe’s script is tight (you have to work out a few details of the backstory for yourself, but this is not an onerous task) and filled with good lines that manage to be blackly comic while still ringing true to character and situation. ‘Right! Frostbite or verbals!’ Harold shouts, interrogating the opposition in a refrigerated meat locker. Also, appalled at the ruthlessness of his opponents: ‘You don’t crucify people outside a church! Not on Good Friday!’ And berating his former associates for their lack of commitment to the cause, ‘A sleeping partner’s one thing, but you’re in a fahkin’ coma!’

One could go on and on, but beyond the script is a ferociously committed performance by Bob Hoskins. Doing Super Mario Bros. really seems to have been the death blow to Hoskins’ career as a leading man in big movies, which is a terrible shame as this movie proves he is an immensely talented actor. Throughout the film, Harold’s predicament sees him sliding back into methods and attitudes he clearly thought he’d left behind him. And this is an unthinking regression – Hoskins plays the brutality of the gang boss chillingly (and this is a savagely violent film in parts), but he’s also affecting in the moments when Harold realises just how he’s behaving. As the film goes on, you doubt his wisdom and future prospects more and more, but you never completely lose your sympathy for him. The film’s politics are implicit, but Harold’s story grips from start to finish.

And what a finish it is: one of the best in cinema, five minutes perfectly conceived and executed, a brilliant conclusion to the story and a dark prediction as to the future of British attitudes – towards Northern Ireland, and much else. It works as well as it does because of Hoskins – a barnstorming monologue of arrogance and hubris is followed by a long, silent shot in which Harold’s world falls apart. I’ve talked about notable moments of screen acting quite a bit recently – Richard Benjamin and Yul Brynner in Westworld, Claire Danes in Stardust – but the final shot of this movie is exceptional. Hoskins’ character convincingly runs the gamut of emotions from shock, through rage and horror, and then finally to grim acceptance, and you always understand exactly what he’s feeling despite the fact he barely moves and never says a word.

To be honest, this single moment is so good it tends to overshadow the rest of the film for me. This is a shame, as The Long Good Friday is filled with great lines, interesting moments, and has a huge amount to say for itself. I tend to find American gangster movies get a little bit lost in the dubious mystique of the mob: the food and the clothes and the rest of the lifestyle are presented just a little bit too alluringly. But like Get Carter, The Long Good Friday isn’t afraid to present a rather different and much grimmer portrait of organised crime. This is a serious film and a seriously good one.

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