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Posts Tagged ‘Patrick Wymark’

For a film directed by a relatively obscure journeyman, 1969’s Doppelganger (perhaps better known as Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, especially in the US) has a remarkably distinctive creative identity to it: I imagine that many people, of a certain age at least, could be shown a rough cut without credits and still come away with a very firm idea of who exactly the prime mover behind it was. From the very start, the music is instantly recognisable as the work of the composer Barry Gray, and the model work (which is extensive) is equally obviously the work of Derek Meddings and his team. Even if you don’t know these names, you will recognise the style from dozens of episodes of Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, and other TV shows originated by Gerald Alexander Anderson (Gerry to the world).

It has become one of those quite-well-known stories that, at some point in the middle 1960s, Gerry Anderson was taken out to lunch by Stanley Kubrick, who offered him the chance to do the model unit filming for 2001: A Space Odyssey. History does not recall exactly why, but Anderson turned Kubrick down – however, it looks like the eventual success of the film clearly had an impact on Anderson, who always seems to have wanted to be taken seriously as a film-maker, and it sometimes feels as if much of Anderson’s subsequent work was an attempt to make up for this missed opportunity and somehow show the world what the Gerry Anderson version of 2001 would have been like.

Doppelganger was directed by Robert Parrish, completed in 1968, and then sat on the shelf for a year before its eventual release. By this point Anderson had a string of successful puppet shows under his belt, but, as ever, was aching to get into live action, and a meeting with an executive from Universal Pictures gave him his opportunity: this film was the result.

The plot is initiated by surprising results from a deep-space probe sent to the vicinity of the sun: photos indicate the existence of a hitherto-unsuspected planet on the opposite side of the sun from Earth, in the same orbital path and travelling at the same speed, hence the other planet has remained hidden from terrestrial observers. Tough, hard-bitten head of European space research Jason Webb (Patrick Wymark, basically reprising his role as tough, hard-bitten mogul John Wilder in TV’s The Power Game) uses all his wily skills to get the penny-pinching governments of Europe to club together with NASA to pay for a space flight to survey the new planet (this will cost one billion dollars, or apparently three thousand million pounds: what this says about exchange rates in the film’s near-future setting I leave to others to decide).

As part of the funding deal (for the movie as well as the space mission), the chief astronaut is veteran American pilot Glenn Ross (Roy Thinnes, fresh from his stint as architect David Vincent in The Invaders), while there to do the science, provide character support, and turn up drunk on set is British astrophysicist John Kane (Ian Hendry). Soon enough – actually, not nearly soon enough, for we are nearly half-way into the movie already – the ship blasts off for its three-week trip to the new planet (the two astronauts spend it in a primitive form of suspended animation). Finding the new world to have a breathable atmosphere, a landing gets underway – but it goes badly wrong, and the lander is destroyed as it crashes into a bleak and rocky landscape.

But just when things look terminally bleak for Ross and Kane, they are surprised to find themselves saved, by what appears to be an Air-Sea Rescue vehicle. Apparently they have crash-landed back on Earth, in Mongolia. Kane has been grievously injured, but Ross finds himself dragged in front of Webb and his associates, demanding to know why the mission turned back and has returned to Earth rather than surveying the new planet as planned. Ross has no answer to this – but begins to get an inkling of an explanation when he notices that all the writing around him now appears to be reversed, as if appearing in a mirror…

The good news about Doppelganger is that it displays all the technical skill and inventiveness of the operation that Anderson had put together over the preceding decade: the model-work is superb and innovative, resulting in a deserved Oscar nomination for special effects. At this point in time, it’s fair to say that no-one was doing better model effects than Derek Meddings and his technicians. The bad news, on the other hand, is that the script for Doppelganger was largely written by Gerry Anderson himself, with the assistance of his wife Sylvia.

Now, I have a great and enduring fondness for Anderson and his work (I will even watch the odd episode of second-season Space: 1999 if there is nothing else on TV), but only the most devoted fan would deny there were limitations to his talent. Anderson’s genius was as an originator of ideas and as a producer – when it comes to actual story-telling and the scripts he wrote himself, one is likely in for a very bumpy ride, not least because, as the producer of his own scripts, he generally had the power to stop the directors from making any changes (improvements) to them.

The basic premise of Doppelganger (the existence of a mirror- or counter-Earth which is a near-perfect duplicate) was probably approaching the status of SF old chestnut even in 1968, and part of the problem is that Anderson seems to have thought the notion itself was strong enough to carry the movie. It’s not: the film doesn’t seem interested in the philosophical or metaphysical possibilities of the idea, and why the other Earth differs only in that everything seems to have been reflected is never explained. And as the central idea of the story, it doesn’t really go anywhere or lend itself to a compelling plot – the climax they come up with here feels very contrived and abrupt.

Of course, there is also the issue of the sluggish pacing and structure of the film. It’s almost a hallmark of many Anderson productions that he seems to be much more interested in process than in plot – you remember all those elaborate sequences in Thunderbirds of people rotating through walls, going down ramps, etc, all leading up to the launching of one of the Thunderbird vehicles? That’s the kind of thing I mean. There’s another one at the start of the movie Thunderbirds Are Go, where we see the Zero-X spacecraft being assembled prior to launch: this goes on for about five minutes, without any dialogue. No matter how much you love model effects, it is slow and adds nothing essential to the plot. And it’s the same kind of material that hobbles Doppelganger: it turns out there’s a spy in the European space agency (this is Herbert Lom, basically doing a cameo), and there’s a pointlessly long and involved sequence detailing how he develops the photos he takes with his secret bionic-eye-camera. The sequence of the astronauts transferring to their lander before attempting touchdown on the other Earth is a similar offender.

That said, as a new kind of venture for the Anderson organisation, Doppelganger introduces some innovative varieties of mis-step to the repertoire. Most of these seem to derive from Anderson’s fierce desire to be seen as more than just a maker of children’s TV programmes. He was apparently desperately keen to establish this as a movie for an adult audience by including a nude scene for one or both of the female stars (Loni von Friedl and Thinnes’ real-life wife Lynn Loring), and ructions ensued on set when the director wanted to go in a more subtle direction. There’s something similarly odd and jarring about scenes concerning tensions in the Rosses’ marriage and their apparent inability to have children, which may or may not be due to radiation he was exposed to in space. You think, aha, when he gets to the mirror-Earth his counterpart will be happily married with kids – but no. This goes nowhere too.

Doppelganger is not great in all kinds of ways, but for the dedicated follower of things Andersonian it is obviously of some interest – not least because of the number of ways it anticipates the way the rest of his live-action career would develop. The interest in slightly laborious metaphysical SF would find its fullest expression in the first season of Space: 1999, while on a more practical level, one is immediately struck by how many members of this film’s supporting cast turn up as regulars or semi-regulars in Anderson’s first fully live-action TV series, UFO: Ed Bishop and George Sewell, most obviously, but also Vladek Sheybal and Keith Alexander, almong with many others.

I do think that the craziness of the scripts of Gerry Anderson productions is as much a part of their charm as their visual appeal and the quality of the special effects. The special effects in Doppelganger are good, as previously noted, but the script is lumpy and frustrating throughout, with no single element being completely satisfying. The actors do their best with the material, but there’s really very little to work with. Only worth watching for Anderson completists, I would say.

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You wanna go to the Devil but you don’t like the flames/Blood on Satan’s Claw is my middle name…

Mean Machine, The Cramps

One of the many reasons why I find my local art-house cinema, the Phoenix in Jericho, to be so cherishable is its capacity to put on a genuinely surprising range of films: whether they be five-hour-long silent biographies of Napoleon, or semi-documentaries about the Afghan rap scene. Top prize for this year’s unexpected revival, however, must go to the decision to show, in the Sunday lunchtime golden oldie slot (usually home to things like West Side Story and Casablanca), as part of a season of films for Christmas, Piers Haggard’s cult favourite The Blood on Satan’s Claw, originally unleashed upon the world in 1970 (also known as Satan’s Skin in the USA).

blood-satans-claw

This is the kind of film which the average person takes one look at and says ‘Hammer Horror,’ which is an understandable mistake to make. It is in fact the work of Tigon Films, a company which (along with Amicus) was one of Hammer’s main competitors in the late 60s and early 70s. Tigon’s reputation these days is mainly due to its being responsible for Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan’s Claw, two films which generally get lumped together with Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man as part of a subgenre known as ‘folk horror’, although if you ask me the best category for these films would be called ‘Films which are difficult to categorise’ – Bertrand Russell would surely approve. (Blood on Satan’s Claw was, apparently, appearing at the Phoenix as part of a season of films ‘inspired by’ the ghost stories of Charles Dickens and M.R. James – and there is something oddly Jamesean about its preoccupation with atmosphere and insidious dread.)

Our juvenile lead for Blood on Satan’s Claw is Ralph Gower, doughty ploughman at an unnamed village somewhere in Mummerset in the 18th century. He is played by Barry Andrews, who appears to be wearing one of those permed wigs that make people look like one of Harry Enfield’s Scousers – this at least distracts from Andrews’ (previously discussed hereabouts) unsettling resemblance to a young Hugh Grant. I should mention that Andrews is far from alone in making interesting choices in the tonsorial department – there is such an extravagant festival of fake hair on display throughout that Blood on Satan’s Claw should really have been made by Wig-on, not Tigon.

Well, Ralph is busy ploughing one day when he turns up a deformed, furred skull, that of neither man nor beast (and still with an eyeball intact – the first of many grotesque flourishes). Not wanting to touch the thing, he pops off to fetch the local judge (Patrick Wymark), only to find it has disappeared when they return. The judge dismisses it as superstition to begin with, but then strange events start to sweep the village: a young woman goes mad overnight, and when she is dragged off to bedlam one of her hands is found to have been replaced by a hideous claw. Her fiance (Simon Williams) in turn hacks off one of his own hands while in the grip of a terrifying hallucination. A strange affliction begins to trouble the young people of the village, some of whom form a mysterious cult led by the comely Angel Blake (Linda Hayden). Violent death and horror ensue as the demonic force plaguing the village grows in strength…

To be perfectly honest, the plot of Blood on Satan’s Claw does not strictly speaking make a great deal of sense, in coldly logical terms anyway. Instead there is an almost impressionistic succession of scenes and images, working together to build up an almost tangible sense of unease and disquiet, punctuated by disturbing outbursts of quasi-erotica and gory violence. This film doesn’t have the cachet of either The Wicker Man or Witchfinder General, but you can detect its DNA in nearly anything made by Ben Wheatley, for instance. (Blood on Satan’s Claw also has a bit of a rep amongst Doctor Who fans, due to its containing notable big-screen performances by Anthony Ainley and Wendy Padbury, not to mention an uncredited Roberta Tovey.)

What really makes this film distinctive, when on paper it sounds rather like just another low-budget Hammer Horror clone? Well, to answer that, I will say that Hammer started off as a ‘respectable’ film company, and their early horror films in particular are almost ridiculously genteel and well-mannered. There’s an argument to be made that Hammer’s best films are all essentially classic British costume dramas with just enough horror and sex added to satiate the audience of an exploitation movie. Blood on Satan’s Claw is considerably less polite: it tackles the exploitation elements with a ghastly, full-on enthusiasm and relish. There’s little in the Hammer annals with anything like the shock value of the sequence in which Wendy Padbury’s character is lured to her eventual death.

That it is as effective as it is is mostly down to Piers Haggard’s direction, which brilliantly juxtaposes a sense of bucolic innocence with the supernatural threat – Marc Wilkinson’s dreamy, unsettling score is also a major plus. The strengths of the film are more than sufficient to offset its weaknesses – a clearly tiny budget, for one thing. The climax, too, is clearly dependent on camera effects and rousing music to try and make up for the sheer crapulousness of the monster suit involved.

The openly supernatural tone and nature of the film is one of the things that distinguishes it from the other well-known folk horror movies, and adds to the apparent similarity to more mainstream horror films. It also has a touch of Gothic about it in a way the other folk horrors don’t (ancient evil resurfaces to threaten an enlightened modern world), and also, perhaps, a bit of a subtext about the generation gap – the evil and corruption spreading like a disease seems mostly limited to the younger members of the community, while it falls to one of their wiser elders to sort everything out.

That said, there is something deeply disquieting about the judge, the character who in a Hammer film would probably be played by Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee (apparently Cushing wasn’t available and Lee was too expensive). Wymark’s character is cold and ruthless – ‘You must have patience, even while people die… Only thus can the whole evil be destroyed… you must let it grow’ is his cheery message at one point, while later he promises ‘I shall use undreamed-of measures to conquer the evil!’ (The ‘undreamed-of measures’ turn out to be a damn great sword, which for some reason the judge carries around wrapped in a floral blanket until it’s time to go into action.) In short, even the good guys in this film are sort of a bit frightening and evil. For all its presumably cheerful conclusion, with evil banished, one is left profoundly disquieted by the whole thing. Which was presumably the intention.

Probably about a dozen people turned up to watch West Side Story the last time it was revived at the Phoenix – it was very gratifying to see about twenty people coming out to enjoy Blood on Satan’s Claw on the big screen. This movie has lost none of its entrancing, unsettling power – it’s as marvellously, deliriously nasty as it was when it was first released. Fingers crossed for more Golden Oldie Christmas horror at the Phoenix in future.

 

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