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Posts Tagged ‘Michael Bryant’

One day, I’m sure, I will have written about all the portmanteau horror anthology movies made by Milton Subotsky’s Amicus Films in the 1960s and 1970s; one day I may even have written about all the knock-offs copying the Amicus style (things like Tales that Witness Madness and The Uncanny). But not yet, obviously: it still feels like I am trapped in some kind of recurring nightmare, where my bad deeds have condemned me to endlessly revisit an eclectic range of movie stars hoist by their own petards in inventive but slightly thrifty ways…

Freddie Francis’ Torture Garden (NB.: contains very little actual torture, but no actual gardening either) was made in 1967 and thus comes very early in the lineage. Whereas some of the other films were either written by Subotsky himself (drawing quite heavily on common horror-movie tropes) and/or derived from things like American horror comics, Torture Garden is scripted by the distinguished writer of horror and crime fiction Robert Bloch (Bloch is perhaps best remembered for writing the original novel that Psycho was based on, but also contributed a few well-remembered episodes to the original run of Star Trek). Bloch wrote a few movies for Amicus; this isn’t the best, but it has its moments.

The setting for the frame story (there’s always a frame story in this kind of film) is the Torture Garden of Dr Diablo, a circus sideshow being visited by a mixed group of British and American characters (Amicus wanted to use more British actors – Christopher Lee was inevitably in the frame – but the film’s American financiers insisted on big names from the States). Overseeing events is Diablo himself, played with enormous relish by Burgess Meredith. Meredith starts off in a variation on his Penguin outfit, with top hat and cigarette holder, but soon adopts the persona of an American gangster (for some reason).

Well, after the main show, a few of the punters stick around for the ‘special tour’ (only a fiver extra) and Diablo shows them his waxwork of Atropos, Goddess of Destiny, and wielder of the Shears of Fate. (I am tempted to say that shear terror ensues, but probably best not to). Each of the five visitors – Michael Bryant, Beverly Adams, Barbara Ewing, Jack Palance and Michael Ripper – must take it in turn to gaze upon Atropos’ Shears and be given a vision of their own destiny…

And off we go. First up is the tale of an unpleasant and dissolute young man named Williams, played by Michael Bryant (a very fine actor, well-remembered for The Stone Tape and his guest role in Colditz), who visits his wealthy but sick uncle (Maurice Denham) to try and shake him down for some cash. Well, uncle doesn’t play ball, and Williams decides to bring his inheritance forward a bit. Searching the house, he discovers a coffin buried in the cellar, and inside the coffin is a rather peculiar cat. Needless to say Williams soons find himself becoming very familiar with the kitty – or perhaps that should be the other way around…

Pretty basic stuff, this one, but a strong performance from Bryant just about holds it together: at various points he has to declaim exposition to the cat, basically repeating things the cat has just telepathically informed him of. Normally this would be a recipe for the most ridiculously eggy nonsense, but Bryant manages to ensure it’s all just bad rather than disastrous. Decent direction and a very Hammer-ish score help too.

We continue with a story subtitled ‘Terror Over Hollywood’, which strikes me as overstating things a bit. Beverly Adams gets to be the first woman to lead an Amicus segment as actress Carla Hayes. How good an actress she actually is is debatable, but she quickly demonstrates an enormous aptitude for two-faced ruthlessness in pursuit of success in the movie business. One thing about this segment is that it’s arguably just a little bit over-plotted, with a lot of faffing about before we get to the heart of the matter: Carla’s co-star (Robert Hutton) is apparently killed by the mob, but whisked off to a mysterious clinic where he makes a miraculous recovery. What gives?

There’s a nice idea here, sort-of anticipating The Stepford Wives (there’s a bit of a giveaway) and with great potential as a satire of Hollywood and the superficiality of movie stars and their relentless appetite for celebrity, but the reveal comes a bit too abruptly and the story isn’t properly developed. As a result it comes across as a nice idea, not particularly well-realised, but Adams isn’t bad and there’s a cameo from Bernard Kay as an evil doctor.

Barbara Ewing is up next, playing journalist Dorothy Endicott. She meets a famous pianist (John Standing) for an interview and the two of them become romantically involved, despite the concerns of his manager that this will be a distraction from his practising and touring. He does seem very devoted to his work, especially the beautiful old grand piano his mother gave him, which he calls  ‘Euterpe’ (the Greek muse of music). But who will win if it comes down to a contest for his affections between Dorothy and Euterpe?

One thing about this movie is that the different segments all do have their own visual style, and this one is particularly distinctive, with a certain minimalist look to it and mostly black-and-white costumes and sets. The story itself is fairly routine stuff, though, building up to a delirious moment of kitsch nonsense where Ewing is attacked by the piano. It’s not quite up there with Fluff Freeman grappling with the killer vine, but it’s about as close as Torture Garden gets.

Following this it’s Jack Palance’s segment. Palance is in the role initially earmarked for Christopher Lee, playing a obsessive collector of Edgar Allen Poe memorabilia (given Bloch’s mentor was H. P. Lovecraft, himself an enormous admirer of Poe, one wonders if there isn’t a subtle sort of tribute going on here). Palance’s character, Wyatt, meets another collector, Lancelot Canning (the always wonderful Peter Cushing) – Canning really does seem to have every possible piece of Poe material, including some original manuscripts – even a few which are completely unheard of. Can Wyatt resist the temptation to let his envy of Canning’s collection get the better of him?

Well, once you know the background to the film, you can’t help but imagine what this bit would have been like with Lee and Cushing playing the two lead roles. As it is, Palance makes an unusual dance-partner for Cushing, but it’s still an interesting little piece with Palance not disgracing himself opposite the great man. Palance seems to have relished the chance to play more of a character role than one his usual tough guys and perhaps indulges in a bit too much business with his pipe and glasses, but this is an engaging tale with a good twist to it.

Which leaves us with Michael Ripper. Ripper is an actor who gets pigeon-holed as the chap who plays all the inn-keepers and local constables in classic Hammer Horror movies – and, to be fair, he did play a lot of these parts – but he was a performer of considerable range and ability (see, for example, 1964’s Every Day’s a Holiday, where he is required to do a song-and-dance number opposite Ron Moody and is in no way outshone). I was rather looking forward to seeing his chance to shine in this movie.

Well, suffice to say it doesn’t really happen, for we are in twist ending territory. The good thing about the twist ending of Torture Garden is that it isn’t the same one as in all the portmanteau horrors written by Subotsky himself. The bad news is that, like most of the punchlines to the stories in this film, it somehow doesn’t quite connect with the viewer as well as it might, with the result that the movie is a just a bit underwhelming.  Bloch is a very fine writer, but the segments here don’t have the same cartoony power and colour as the ones in Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, to name but one. If memory serves, Bloch’s script for Asylum (1972) was rather an improvement – but that’s a set of stories for another day. If you like the Amicus anthology films, this is fun, but not one of their best.

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So, we’ve been romping through the collected works of Nigel Kneale over the last week, more or less in chronological order. This came about more by chance than design, with the fortuitous near-conjunction of TV showings of The Quatermass Xperiment and First Men in the Moon and my discovery of a few other bits and pieces on a popular video-sharing website. This partly goes to explain the absence of any of the TV versions of Quatermass from this current run, partly because I hadn’t uncovered them when I began and also because I haven’t had ten hours to watch them in their entirety. This will be amended at some future point, not least because I want to see how the TV version of Quatermass and the Pit matches up to the big-screen adaptation (surely Kneale’s most memorable film script, in the horror arena at least).

Quatermass and the Pit has a reputation as the receptacle of the classic Kneale themes: his bleak view of the human race, his interest in rationalising supernatural horror in a way that – somehow – does nothing to reduce its power to disturb. The latter of these was something that Kneale returned to and developed even further in 1972, in another of the landmarks in his career – the play The Stone Tape, an extraordinary fusion of gothic ghost story and contemporary SF drama.

stonetape

Jane Asher plays Jill, a brilliant computer programmer who is part of the R&D team for an electronics company. The team is just moving into a new research facility in a refurbished old house, their mission to come up with a new recording medium. Jill’s boss and lover Brock (Michael Bryant) – an ambitious, driven man – is furious to find that the building work has not been completed. The reason given by the estate manager (Iain Cuthbertson) is that one room in the house is haunted.

Brock is initially scornful, but Jill sees the apparition – a young woman screaming and falling to her death – and research uncovers a long history of disturbances on the site. A traditional exorcism in the 1890s apparently having failed, Brock opts to take a radically different approach and bring the full range of modern instrumentation to bear against the spectre. Initially it seems as though this scientific approach is bearing fruit, with a working model to explain the haunting not proving too difficult. But Brock sees the ‘recording’ of the ghost as a clue to a process he can potentially exploit, and under pressure to deliver, he chooses to tamper with a phenomenon he does not yet fully understand…

The Stone Tape is a multi-camera production shot entirely on videotape, meaning that it has the kind of visual quality and atmosphere nowadays found only on soap operas and sitcoms. Having said that, one can only imagine the kind of impact it would have had if it were shot on film, as even on VT it retains a tremendous power to grip and chill.

This is mainly due to the masterful precision of Kneale’s script, which painstakingly sets up the history of the haunting (leaving the seeds of a terrifying twist ending lying in plain sight, for the most part) in the style of a ‘classic’ ghost story, even if we do see the spook itself quite early on in proceedings. Then the play takes an abrupt left turn into what’s basically relatively hard SF, exploring Tom Lethbridge’s theory of hauntings as residual sense-impressions somehow associated with certain locations and replaying in the perceptual centres of witnesses.

It’s an intriguing theory, and one which makes a certain amount of sense to me (I feel obliged to mention that my tutor in Conceptual Parapsychology at university was wont to dismiss it as ‘a wild metaphysical flight of fancy’). The danger with explaining a mystery like a ghost, of course, is that by making it comprehensible and knowable, you rob it of the very qualities which make it frightening. But Kneale manages to avoid this, hinting throughout that Brock is not seeing the bigger picture, and constantly drawing on that classic SF trope: that of scientists interfering with forces best left alone.

Brock is a compelling character, and the driving force of the plot, but not necessarily a sympathetic one. That role is given to Jill – as the only woman in the centre, the boy’s club-ish atmosphere of which is convincingly evoked, she is in her own way every bit as isolated as the ghost of the woman. It’s only Jill who wonders if the recording of the ghost retains any remnants of consciousness, and Jill who first comes to understand the true nature of the ‘stone tape’ itself…

This is another example of a play punching well above its apparent weight in terms of legacy and cultural impact. If you’re going to do a ghost story in the British media, certainly on TV, then it’s very hard to escape the long shadow of The Stone Tape. Troubled, psychically-sensitive young women abound, as do overconfident investigators who fatally misjudge the nature of the forces they are dealing with. They’re there in Ghostwatch (one of The Stone Tape‘s very few serious rivals in this genre), and also in The Woman in Black (a story with its own associations with Nigel Kneale). Even the Doctor Who episode Hide (a series, by the way, which Kneale openly derided, it pains me to say) openly references The Stone Tape in its opening if not its resolution.

On the other hand, this is a brilliantly written, performed, and directed play with virtually no flaws to speak of, beyond the basic technical limitations of its medium. It is one of those things that, once seen, stays with you. Given the theme of the story, it seems entirely appropriate that The Stone Tape has infiltrated the fabric of the modern ghost story, lingering on, occasionally manifesting itself. However, unlike the monstrous apparitions in the story’s climax, it shows no sign of losing its own clarity or focus.

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