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Posts Tagged ‘Kim Novak’

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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I am so used to finding myself completely out of step with the rest of the world that it comes as a bit of a shock on those occasions when it turns out my reactions and opinions are squarely in line with those of the majority. Then again, I suppose one of the definitions of a truly great film (or an utterly worthless one) is that it can produce the same response in everyone who watches it.

I was in my late teens and just in the process of becoming a film and TV bore when I made the acquaintance of a guy who was several steps further along than me. The rooms of his house were lined with tapes (this was over twenty years ago); tapes of The New Avengers and Doctor Who (he also had virtually a complete set of matches from Italia ’90 recorded, which just shows you never can tell), but also – and more pertinently for our current line of thought – most of the Hitchcock centenary tribute season one of the major UK TV channels had broadcast a while earlier. I was getting to the point where I thought I knew my Hitchcock, and ever-mindful of gaps in my education I borrowed the 1958 movie Vertigo off him.

vertigo

By this point I had already seen Psycho, Rear Window, and The Birds, and I thought I knew what I was getting into. The film has, somewhat atypically for Hitchcock, an in media res opening, with detective John Ferguson (James Stewart) in hot pursuit of a bad guy over the rooftops of San Francisco. But Ferguson slips and is left hanging by his fingertips over a multi-storey drop, and a fellow cop is killed trying to rescue him.

This event understandably leads to Ferguson developing a crippling fear of heights and quitting the police force. Finding himself at a loose end, he is retained by old college buddy Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), who has an odd and slightly delicate problem. His wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) has been acting very strangely, visiting the former home of one of her ancestors and spending hours staring at her portrait. Elster is concerned about all this, half-fearing some kind of malevolent possession is in progress, and wants Ferguson to follow her and find out exactly what’s going on.

Initially dubious, Ferguson takes the job and almost at once finds himself struck by the beauty of his old friend’s wife, not to mention how strangely enigmatic she is. Can she really be genuinely haunted by a ghost which is driving her to take her own life? Averting an attempted suicide forces him to make her acquaintance, and now he finds himself becoming deeply emotionally involved with this troubled woman. But is there any hope for her? Or, come to that, him…?

Well, I sat down to watch Vertigo all those years ago, really expecting another smart, sharp, clever entertainment of the kind Hitchcock is renowned for, and ended up feeling… well, really rather baffled. This is not your typical Alfred Hitchcock movie. To be honest, it’s a difficult film to describe, especially if you don’t want to totally deconstruct (and thus spoil) the plot.

For one thing, the principal cast – certainly in terms of the characters who appear in more than two or three scenes – is tiny: just Stewart, Novak, Helmore, and Barbara Bel Geddes as Stewart’s pal. Even then, most of the film is composed of scenes between Stewart and Novak. This isn’t to say that the plot is simple – well, maybe it is simple; it’s certainly not complex or fast-paced, but if so it is fiendishly simple, containing multiple layers of subtlety and sophistication, some of which aren’t readily apparent on first viewing. There is arguably a sense in which the story makes some pretty big asks of the audience, and there are certainly a few more loose ends than you’d expect from a Hitchcock film, but then it seems to me that this is not a plot-driven film but a character piece.

If so, then it’s a character piece masquerading as a psychological thriller pretending to be a Gothic melodrama. Hitchcock’s intention to make the audience identify with Stewart’s character works on numerous levels – there’s the simple technical sense, in which Stewart’s in nearly every scene and we frequently see events from his point of view, but also on a wider narrative level: just as Ferguson is ultimately the victim of a put-up job, so to some extent is the audience, because the film we think we’re watching isn’t the film we think it is.

Hitchcock famously messed with audience expectations in Psycho, but it’s hard not to see that same intention in the structure of Vertigo, too. There’s a major plot reversal in the middle of the film that appears to go against every tenet of conventional storytelling, and it’s completely wrong-footing: you have no idea how the story is going to proceed from this point on. Any pretence at being a conventional thriller is certainly abandoned and the film becomes a rather bleak drama about all-consuming obsession and the horrible things that love can drive people to do to their lovers.

Here is where the real sophistication of the plotting comes in: quite naturally, as the film shows it, what entails is a situation where – on a thematic level – the ‘fake’ plot of the first part of the film, with a living person consumed by a shade from the past, is replayed for real. The brilliance of the script comes from the fact that the living person and the shade are both in fact the same individual. Vertigo poses some serious questions about identity, certainly when it comes to relationships – is it even possible for someone to impersonate him or herself? To what extent do we actually fall in love with with real people, rather than just our idealised images of them? Can love survive complete truth and honesty?

Pretty heavy stuff, and not leavened by any laughs, either. One of the many remarkable feats of the third act of Vertigo is that a scene which should feel clunky and melodramatic, and rather intrusive, is actually the turning point of the entire movie. Stewart departs the movie for a few minutes, leaving the stage clear for another character to actually deliver a monologue explaining the plot and how Ferguson (and the audience) have been misled by the villain, such as he is. It really shouldn’t work, but not only does it generate the suspense and pathos leading up to the climax, it effectively shifts the audience’s sympathies: Stewart actually becomes rather creepy and unsettling in his pursuit of his lost love (or at least her image), while a character who should have no call on the audience’s affection becomes engagingly vulnerable and sympathetic. It’s consummate storytelling sleight of hand, and I’ve no idea quite how Hitchcock managed it.

That said, most of the time in Vertigo one gets a sense of stuff going on that one isn’t entirely aware of. Hitchcock and the cinematographer are clearly doing something with Novak and the colours red and green: she’s frequently dressed in one or other of them or surrounded by it in the set dressing, but if there’s some kind of code going on here I haven’t been able to decipher it. All those scenes in the first half of the film of, basically, Stewart following Novak around San Francisco, too: they seem rather repetitive and slow but presumably the director is slowly and incrementally building our association with Stewart, and the idea of his obsession with Novak.

Vertigo is quite a long film, and not really a conventionally entertaining one: no-one in it ever seems particularly happy, not for more than a few seconds, at least. But it really does have that mesmerising, dreamlike quality so often ascribed to it: or perhaps, in the circumstances, not dreamlike but nightmarish. The opening titles of the film do a good job of conveying what’s to follow – Bernard Herrmann’s remarkable score plays over Saul Bass’s spinning, multicoloured vortices, which we initially access through Kim Novak’s eye. The message is that this is going to be an internal, psychological film, about loss of perspective and loss of control. And it is.

Vertigo baffled the critics in 1958 just as much as it did me thirty-something years later, but its critical reputation has recovered now to the point where it has displaced Citizen Kane as Best Movie Ever (Ever) on at least one list. I’m pretty certain I wouldn’t go that far, and I’m still not sure I would chose it over one of Hitchcock’s more conventional entertainments, but this is an extraordinary film in many ways: it confounds expectations at every turn while still being completely magnetic to watch, if never entirely comfortable.

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