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Posts Tagged ‘Patrick Allen’

Way out somewhere in the distant reaches of movie obscurity there are lost worlds of films that have not just been totally forgotten, they were never noticed in the first place. Whole TV channels (usually the ones with the high numbers) exist just to give this sort of film a (marginal) justification for existence, the sort of thing their original creators can barely have dreamt of when they were originally being made – usually as cheap and cheerful programme filler. (Which is essentially what they still are.)

The real joy of cruising through the high number channels is that occasionally you come across something really special (I use the word in a non-standard sense) that you previously had no conception even existed. So it was with Gerry Levy’s 1969 offering The Body Stealers, produced by perennial genre-movie also-rans Tigon – lest I sound too harsh, I should of course remind you that Tigon had the odd flash of brilliance, releasing Blood on Satan’s Claw and Witchfinder General, which in itself would be enough earn any company a mention in the history of British genre cinema.

The Body Stealers is not quite bad enough to get Tigon stricken from the record again, but some might say it was a close thing. In any case, this is a different sort of film to those two I just mentioned, being ostensibly set in present-day Britain, where a parachute drop is in progress. Watching it are top brass George Sanders and a parachute engineer played by ‘guest star’ Neil Connery (his little brother, who shamelessly used this connection to have a sort of vestigial film career for quite a few years). All is going well, until weird radiophonic noises trouble the soundtrack and… the parachutes descend to the ground, unoccupied! The parachutists have vanished into thin air (Thin Air being one of The Body Stealers’ various alternate titles).

Well, roll credits, and after that, roll stock footage of an air show, where another parachute display is in progress. There are more oooo-eeee-oooo noises, this time accompanied by primitive optical printing special effects, and the parachute display team have vanished too. An observer on the ground reports seeing them fade away into nonexistence, but their C.O. isn’t having any of it. ‘Whatever my men get up to, and they usually do, fading away isn’t it,’ he declares, the sort of line that makes you want to send everyone involved back to have another go.

Well, senior air force bod Allan Cuthbertson (probably best remembered as the twitching colonel from the Gourmet Night episode of Fawlty Towers) takes a break from letching over his secretarial staff to convene an inquiry, and decrees that an outside investigator be brought in. Connery suggests he knows the man for the job, but he could be difficult to find…

Thirty seconds later, they find him: he is Bob Megan, played by slab-faced B-movie lead and ubiquitous voice-over artist Patrick Allen. Whatever Bob’s professional qualifications (everyone just calls him Bob, just as everyone calls Connery’s character Jim, lending the film a peculiarly informal air), they end up being rather secondary to the fact he is basically a borderline sex pest, apparently incapable of meeting a young woman without macking on her in a horribly corny way.

Naturally, the plot ends up revolving around Bob’s mysterious ladykilling talents, as not only does he win (very easily) the affections of female boffin Hilary Dwyer, he also catches the eye of a mysterious blonde whom he meets lying on the beach one night and who has the odd talent of being able to vanish without a trace. Could she possibly be connected to the mystery of the vanishing parachutists – especially when, as senior boffin Maurice Evans suggests, the whole thing could have something to do with Outer Space?

Yes, it is that Maurice Evans. One minute you’re giving a brilliant performance in the original Planet of the Apes, one of the greatest SF films ever made, then before you know it you wind up in a pile of tosh like this. He must have had a really demanding mortgage, is the only explanation I can think of.

I should make it clear that The Body Stealers really is tosh, and it’s not even good tosh at that. This is the kind of film where you quickly learn to be pleasantly surprised when any element of it is not preposterous, clumsy, or just horribly inappropriate. One key plot twist, for example, comes when Jim reveals that Bob’s new mystery girlfriend doesn’t show up in photographs. Well, it’s a daft idea, but daft ideas fuel most of these British SF B-movies – the thing that makes you roll your eyes is the fact that in order to work this into the plot, Jim is revealed to be the kind of guy who goes out lurking on the beach of an evening, secretly taking photos of people without telling them.

I would say this is highly questionable behaviour, but it’s nothing compared to Bob’s relentless pursuit of any young woman who crosses his path – never mind the endless hopeless pick-up lines, he’s the kind of guy who goes for a snog within three minutes of meeting a woman. The worst thing is that the plot demands that they put up only a token resistance and all end up falling in love with him. Seriously, this is the kind of film that gave generations of young men entirely the wrong idea about how to talk to women: here they are almost all entirely decorative, recreational objects, whose response to being endlessly patronised is to fall jealously in love with whoever’s responsible.

The horrific gender politics of The Body Stealers really eclipse most of the rest of the plot, which I suppose has a certain sort of B-movie guile to it, in that it largely manages to dodge using expensive special effects – the one big prop, the alien spaceship, is a second-hand one bought from Milton Subotsky. But even here it’s all just corny, low-stakes stuff, mostly resolved by people standing around in rooms expositing at each other. (Hilary Dwyer is not too bad, I suppose, and does a good scream during the climax.) There is a half-decent cast here, but no-one makes much impression – Neil Connery, on the other hand, reveals again that whatever Sean’s limitations as an actor, he still got all the family’s allocation of talent.

On the other hand, I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy The Body Stealers at all: I was amused by the film’s attempts to economise, while desperately trying to hide the fact it was made for next to no money; I was rather tickled by the efforts of two blokes called Bob and Jim to tackle such a cosmic metaphysical enigma. The film does manage to take itself seriously, which is an impressive achievement all things consider – but, these days at least, I doubt it will manage to persuade even the most sympathetic audience to do the same. Tosh of the purest variety, but hard to entirely dislike.

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If you think of British film companies of the 60s, particularly makers of genre movies, then of course you think of Hammer, then probably Amicus, and perhaps Tigon in third place. It might be quite a long time before you remembered Planet, a much smaller outfit these days best remembered for a couple of Terence Fisher films – Island of Terror, from 1966, and Night of the Big Heat, from 1967. Island of Terror was a moderately successful monster movie, rather let down by ropey monster props and a slightly stuffy tone. Night of the Big Heat (also known by the rather more promising title Island of the Burning Damned) almost looks like an attempt at a remake with these things fixed.

Everything takes place on the island of Fara, which we are told is somewhere off the coast of the UK. The film actually has a very unpromising opening, with no dialogue for ages and no real sense of what’s going on: someone’s radar set explodes in his face, a young woman (Jane Merrow) drives around in her convertible, and a stern-looking man (Christopher Lee) is engaged upon some mysterious experiments involving cameras and mirrors and bits of wood. (One of these scenes turns out not to have happened yet, and is just a teaser for much later on.)

Eventually we get some sense of the set-up here. Key locations on Fara include the weather station and the gravel pits (a useful location for staging mysterious deaths and the climax), but most of the action takes place in the pub, which is run by slab-faced alpha-male novelist Jeff Callum (Patrick Allen) and his wife Frankie (Sarah Lawson). Lodging in the pub is mysterious outsider Dr Hanson (Lee), while constantly propping up the bar is genial GP Dr Stone (‘guest star’ Peter Cushing). New on the scene is Jeff’s latest secretary, Angela (Merrow), who is a bit of a naughty minx: she and Jeff have history together, if you know what I mean, and she’s come to Fara intent on resuming their liaison. A torrid time is in prospect.

Especially torrid given the island is sweltering in the grip of a tremendous, unseasonal heatwave, which is making TV sets and bottles of beer spontaneously explode. (All the men have had ridiculous sweat-patches applied to their shirts by the costume department.) What’s going on? Does it have anything to do with Dr Hanson’s experiments?

Well, sort of. It seems that space probes from Earth have attracted the attention of alien creatures composed of ‘high frequency heat’ and they are using Fara as a beachhead for their invasion of Earth. Anyone who crosses their path – sheep, supporting characters, those old tramps who are such a regular feature of this kind of movie – is rapidly incinerated. Is everyone doomed?

The least you can say for Night of the Big Heat – you know, I do think Island of the Burning Damned is a better title – is that it more or less avoids the key problems that Island of Terror had: the alien monsters are kept off-screen for most of the movie (and the monster props are marginally better when they do appear), and the general tone of the thing is pepped up by some mildly saucy business between Allen and Merrow (not to mention Merrow providing some cheap PG-rated cheesecake thrills). And yet this is still a worse movie than the previous Planet production.

How can this be? Well, firstly, all the stuff about Jeff being unable to keep his hands off Angela, and her scheme to have her way with him, scarcely informs the main plot of the film – it’s filler, basically, and very melodramatic filler too. The characterisation of Angela is, shall we say, problematic: she is a one-dimensional Bad Girl, who functions primarily as a sex object, and she’s the first one to lose it completely as the situation grows increasingly dire. (On the other hand, at least she can type.)

However, at least this makes a vague sort of sense, which is more than you can really say for the alien monster invasion storyline, which starts off as slightly dubious and rapidly becomes very silly indeed; this is the kind of film you can imagine inspiring the Monty Python ‘Sci Fi movie’ sketch. As ever, you are left filled with admiration for Christopher Lee’s ability to treat this kind of material with a gravity and intensity it doesn’t remotely deserve. By the end of the film Lee is participating in expository scenes explaining how the alien invasion has happened which are basically utter gibberish, before running outside to implement his character’s ridiculous plan to see off the invaders (this involves many shots of Lee setting fire to haystacks with a flare pistol), and he genuinely seems to be taking it completely seriously. What a legend. Peter Cushing is, of course, equally good, though not in the film enough – though we do get a marvellous example of Cushing’s wonderful ‘death-spasm’ acting (let’s see Disney’s CGI Cushing do that).

Most of the film is fairly competently made, but the script is so thick-headed that it’s more or less impossible to take seriously as a piece of drama, and it’s not even particularly enjoyable as camp entertainment. Night of the Big Heat came out in 1967, coincidentally the same year as In the Heat of the Night. One of these films is a timeless classic that deservedly won critical acclaim and several Oscars. The other one is a dim-witted B-movie with Jane Merrow in a bikini and aliens defeated by their poor grasp of meteorology. You can kind of see why Planet Film Productions never achieved a higher profile.

 

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