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Posts Tagged ‘John Neville’

‘Will you allow me to come to your home and, in your presence, anaesthetise your wife, so we will know once and for all whether she is real or an illusion?’

You have to love a line of dialogue like that. In fact, if I had come across it in one of those lists of great movie quotes, I like to think I would at once have started actively seeking out the movie from which it came. In this case, the line comes from the 1964 movie Unearthly Stranger, directed by John Krish. This is supposedly a highly-meritorious British B-movie, but the fact that I’d never heard of it until only a few days ago rather suggests to me it is in fact fairly obscure, as these things go. Still, now I know of it, I have seen it, and if my mind has not been blown then it has certainly been breathed upon quite energetically.

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The story gets underway with our hero, Mark Davidson (John Neville), running across London at night, clearly in a bit of a tizzy. There is a lot of running. One might even say there is an inordinate amount of running, especially when you consider this film is well shy of 90 minutes in length. I might even be moved to suggest that the script for the rest of the film had yet to be finished when they started filming, and so they just kept Neville running as a means of filling the time. Well, anyway, our man eventually arrives at his workplace, the Royal Society for Space Boffinry, where he sits down with a reel-to-reel tape recorder to narrate the rest of the movie, which happens in flashback (it’s a well-worn old device, but it has a certain charm).

Well, it seems that the space boffins are hard at work coming up with a method of interstellar travel through means of willpower alone. This depends upon coming up with a formula to unlock the hidden potential of the human brain, also known as TP-91 (not that any of the details sound remotely convincing or have any particular bearing on the plot). It transpires that Davidson’s old boss, Professor Munro (Warren Mitchell), worked out part of the solution before retiring to his office – only to be discovered dead a few moments later!

‘It was as though there was an explosion inside his brain,’ reports the project’s security officer, Clarke (Patrick Newell). Davidson, who was away on holiday in Switzerland at the time, is the new boss, and Clarke fills him in on some disquieting details – parallel projects into brain-powered space travel are underway in America and the USSR, but they too have been hampered by the mysterious deaths of key researchers, all of them with the same symptoms of exploding brains. Cripes! Could foul play be afoot?

Davidson lets himself get a bit paranoid and the film heads off down some curious blind alleys for a bit – Munro’s body has disappeared, and it seems there were traces in his body of a poison only otherwise found in returning space capsules – before settling on the more fruitful topic of Davidson’s relationship with his new wife Julie (Gabriella Licudi), whom he met during his recent holiday. ‘Is your wife an alien?’ puffs Clarke (meaning, not British) before embarking on the usual security checks. Normally this would count as unforgivably obvious writing, but in a film like this one it’s all par for the course. Soon enough Davidson is unsettled to discover his wife sleeps with her eyes open and has no pulse, while his colleague Professor Lancaster (Philip Stone) spots her taking the casserole out of the oven without using gloves.

Yes, there’s something about Julie, and it comes as no surprise when she fails her security check on account of not actually having existed until a few weeks ago. By this point the audience has already enjoyed a schlocky-but-eerie sequence in which she wanders down the high street, upsetting small babies with her subliminally extra-terrestrial presence, scaring off whole crowds of schoolchildren, and so on. However, she is a sensitive soul and this moves her to tears: the tears appear to burn the skin of her face, in a nicely bizarre touch. But what is her mission here on Earth? And could her burgeoning feelings for her new husband get in the way…?

As you may have gathered, with Unearthly Stranger we are in the realm of the dingbat pastiche of either Quatermass or Village of the Damned, but it’s still oddly watchable stuff. The film-makers get top marks for managing to make a proper science fiction film without the need to include any special effects at all (always a neat trick), while for a modern audience the film’s casting certainly has cult credibility: these days Neville is best remembered for playing the title role in Terry Gilliam’s Baron Munchausen as well as the Well-Manicured Man in The X Files, while Philip Stone was Jack Nicholson’s predecessor in The Shining, and Patrick Newell was Mother in the final season of The Avengers. Jean Marsh, an actress whose genre pedigree stretches from the original Twilight Zone to Mark Gatiss’ Crooked House, also appears in a small but crucial role. (Warren Mitchell manages to land fifth billing despite being in only one scene.) All of these actors, by the way, uphold the proud British tradition of doing your best even when you’re saddled with some rather dodgy material.

I am tempted to say that once you get past the deeply suspect premise of scientists seriously engaged upon research into some form of psychic teleportation, this is not too bad, as paranoid SF B-movies go. However, watching it today what strikes you again and again is the sense that this film was made exclusively by, about, and for white men in their late thirties:  even though the film appears to be about the alien infiltration of Earth society by the main female character (shades of Under the Skin), Julie almost always feels like the object of other characters’ activity and attention rather than someone with any real agency. And it is telling that she feels like not so much an alien disguised as a woman as an alien disguised as a housewife – note how she is rumbled by her peculiar behaviour when getting dinner out of the oven.

Of course, there is a degree of irony involved here – Neville’s sneering dismissal of what he sees as the superstitious nature of another character is setting up the climactic twist of the film – but in the end the gender politics of Unearthly Stranger, perhaps its most striking element beyond the weirdness of its SF plot, are just a bit too odd and uncomfortable for a modern viewer. The fact that it is hardly flattering, in the end, to its male characters doesn’t entirely make up for the fact that it seems perilously close to misogyny in its presentation of women. Then again, the film hasn’t exactly aged well in any other respect, so it’s not a tremendous surprise that this aspect is problematic too. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting little film if you like this sort of thing.

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If you want to carve out a niche for yourself as a great Sherlock Holmes, you should probably be aware that it will be a long haul. Dozens of actors have played the great detective over the years, including some very famous ones: Roger Moore, Christopher Lee, and Charlton Heston amongst them. And yet, when the average person is asked to name a classic Sherlock, they will almost certainly – once they’ve mentioned Cumbersome Bandersnatch – go on to list Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, and Peter Cushing. All of these guys spent years or even decades playing Holmes: I suppose the fact that Rathbone and Brett didn’t really have another leading role of equal magnitude is a factor, too.

Relative obscurity doesn’t mean that some of these one-shot Sherlocks didn’t have touches of greatness about them. One candidate with definite potential, although this may be because he was primarily a theatre actor, was John Neville, a performer possibly best-known these days for the title role in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (I once heard Jon Pertwee claim that Neville’s management basically stole the role from Pertwee for their man through wily politicking, though that’s by the by) and also a recurring turn in The X-Files. He played Holmes in James Hill’s 1965 movie A Study in Terror.

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As the movie opens, the inhabitants of late-Victorian London are (as usual) quaking in their boots as a series of strange and ghastly events unfolds. Someone has taken to murdering Whitechapel prostitutes and then mutilating their corpses with surgical equipment. Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson (Donald Houston) are following the case with their usual interest, but are not actually involved – until a case of surgical instruments arrives in the post at Baker Street, postmarked Whitechapel, and with the main scalpel notable by its absence…

‘Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper’ is, when you think about it, a fairly obvious pitch for a movie, so it’s not surprising that a production like A Study in Terror eventually got made. That it took so long is probably due to taste concerns – this is, as I always say when writing about Ripper movies, a case of a brutally misogynistic serial killer being parcelled up as jolly entertainment – and, I suspect, the success of the period genre movies being made by Hammer at about the same time. A Study in Terror isn’t a Hammer movie – the budget is clearly bigger, and the cast list much starrier – but there are indications of the style here and there, especially in the set-piece killings.

Probably just as important as a point of reference for A Study in Terror is another film made a decade later, Bob Clark’s Murder by Decree. This is probably a better-known one-shot Sherlock movie, starring Christopher Plummer and a host of A-listers, but it again revolves around the ‘Holmes vs the Ripper’ idea. The main difference is that Murder by Decree was ginned up especially to put across one particular theory claiming to be a genuine solution to the Ripper murders, while A Study in Terror is essentially not much more than a piece of entertainment (please note I am studiously avoiding the ‘ripping yarn’ pun).

While there are a couple of ways in which Study seems to anticipate Decree – the ‘solution’ of the crimes involves the British aristocracy, and the film has a sort of social consciousness when it comes to the squalour of parts of London in the 1880s – it’s much less concerned with historical or forensic accuracy (the Ripper’s victims retain their real names, but are killed in the wrong order). Plus everyone is a bit too well-turned-out, everything is a bit too clean and colourful, for this to really convince in terms of the period setting: the setting and characters in Oliver! look more authentically dingy than they do here.

Not to say that this is a bad film, by any means: the plot is pleasingly convoluted, though I think I detect the odd hole here and there, and there is, as I said, a very impressive cast on hand – Frank Finlay plays Lestrade, a role he would reprise in Decree, and this is surely the only production in history for which Judi Dench and Barbara Windsor both receive an acting credit (sadly, they never share a scene together). Holmes gets to make some proper heavy-duty deductions, too, which is also very pleasing.

Actually, Neville and Houston are pretty good full stop as Holmes and Watson: they are clearly very influenced by the Rathbone and Bruce characterisations, but at least Houston’s Watson is just a little bit pompous rather than a complete turnip. Neville doesn’t really get a chance to project the obsessive darkness others have found in Holmes’ character, but in addition to Rathbone’s kind style of vigorous geniality, there is a trace of the kind of asceticism Peter Cushing brought to the part.

I suppose it is also to the film’s credit that this does feel rather authentic as a Sherlock Holmes story. Many pastiches don’t – some supposed adaptations, too, for that matter – for the simple reason that they treat the Holmes stories as though they were Classic Literature with the capitals intact, and their filming like the making of a costume drama. The original stories are genre fiction, and at times not that far removed from quite outlandish pulp fiction – it’s notable that there’s barely a reference to the actual Ripper murders in the original Conan Doyle, despite the fact they happened during the period when the first Holmes stories were originally being published.

One thing you can’t deny about A Study in Terror is that it honours the pulpy roots of Holmes, albeit in an occasionally roundabout way. Holmes gets a couple of proper action sequences and the story contains the requisite levels of the outlandish and bizarre. As I said, there are even moments of pure exploitation-horror, most notably the sequence in which Edina Ronay is killed: shot in long takes from the Ripper’s viewpoint, it’s undeniably powerful, even as it betrays the influence of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom.

So in the end I would say that A Study in Terror is a pretty successful attempt at a Holmes pastiche. It’s still obviously modestly-budgeted, rather than a major production, and it’s very clear that it was conceived of as a high-class genre movie – but these things in themselves aren’t the stuff of substantive criticism. You could perhaps express a slight demur at the very concept of the film, and there are perhaps a few minor issues with plotting and tone, but on the whole this is a very decent movie, worth checking out if you enjoy a classic-style Holmes.

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