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Posts Tagged ‘Ralph Richardson’

So, just recently I was writing about the vital contribution to my education which was made by the main commercial channel’s tendency to show endless old genre movies in the middle of the night, back when I was a teenager. Doesn’t happen these days, of course: even old movies are now too expensive, given there are a dozen other channels in the market for content, so the wee small hours are the domain of rip-off phone-in competitions and ultra-cheap home-grown repeats. And, as it happens, just the other day I was writing about the fractured dream-logic of a certain kind of horror movie. There is something oddly satisfying about the way these two themes combine in Freddie Francis’ 1972 film Tales from the Crypt.

Or should that be Milton Subotsky’s Tales from the Crypt? Subotsky is one of the (largely) unsung heroes of low-budget British genre movie-making of the 1960s and 1970s, most frequently through his company Amicus. Amongst other things, Subotsky oversaw the two 1960s movie adaptations of a famous BBC fantasy series the name of which I will not utter here, and the first few Trampas movies (the last one, Warlords of Atlantis, was the work of other hands). But if Subotsky left an indelible mark on the fabric of cinema, it is in the form of the portmanteau horror movies which he oversaw both at Amicus and elsewhere. He was not the first to make this kind of movie – I suspect that credit goes to Dead of Night, made in 1945, and widely credited as the best of the subgenre – but if you stumble across one of these, the chances are it’s one of Milton’s.

Subotsky was not the kind of man to mess with a successful formula, and it must be said that most of these films are rather samey, to the point where they all start to merge together in one’s head after a while. When an Amicus portmanteau comes on the TV, I have to take a moment to work out if this is the one with Fluff Freeman fighting the carnivorous vine, or Tom Baker misusing his voodoo paintbrush, or David Warner contending with a haunted mirror.

Tales from the Crypt is not any of these, in case you were wondering (oh, what delights remain as yet unconsidered by this blog). This one opens in classy style with a bit of Bach’s toccata and fugue on the organ and some shots of a cemetery. Geoffrey Bayldon, soon to appear as a homicidal psychiatrist in the next Amicus portmanteau, Asylum, plays a guide showing a group round the cemetery catacombs. Five of them get separated from the rest, and find themselves in, well, a crypt, with a robed and hooded figure (Ralph Richardson).

One thing about the moribund state of the British film industry in the 1970s, you got some heavyweight actors appearing in slightly suspect material. This is, as the title would indicate to the in-the-know, a fairly low-budget movie based on some disreputable American horror comics – a proper slab of schlock, not to put too fine a point on it. And yet it has Ralph Richardson, an actor from the same bracket as Laurence Olivier, Alec Guinness, and John Gielgud, and apparently taking it quite seriously. And he is not the only big name to appear.

Well, anyway, each of the five characters appears in their own short tale, revealed to them by the enigmatic Crypt Keeper. But is he showing them their future or their past?

First up is And All Through the House, featuring Joan Collins as an avaricious housewife who is unkind enough as to bash in her husband’s head on Christmas Eve, solely for his life insurance. (Best not to worry too much about finer details of character and motivation, to be perfectly honest.) However, no sooner is the deed done than the news is reporting that a homicidal lunatic has escaped from the local asylum and is on the loose, dressed in a Santa Claus outfit (well, of course). Sure enough, the psycho Santa is soon lurking in Joan’s garden, leaving her with the awkward problem of what to do – she can hardly call the police with her husband’s corpse still on the lounge floor…

Some effective jump scares in this one, I suppose, and it’s an especially camp segment of what’s a rather camp film overall. The contrived plotting and particularly fake-looking fake blood (all the Kensington gore in this film is completely the wrong shade of red) just add to the fun, but it’s just as well this is the hors d’oeuvre in this particular collection.

Along next is Reflection of Death, an unusually short segment starring Ian Hendry as a man leaving his wife and children to be with his mistress (this is a sufficiently heinous crime to make you a marked man, and put you in line for spectacularly cruel and unusual punishment, in the odd cosmology of the Amicus portmanteaus). Well, they are driving off to their new life together when there is a car crash, and…

Well, the thing is that this one is so short and so insubstantial that it barely stands up to even a cursory review. If it were any longer it probably wouldn’t work at all – as it is, some slightly gimmicky direction and the re-employment of the ‘endless nightmare’ idea from Dead of Night just about keeps it afloat. You might wish for Ian Hendry to get some more substantial material, but you take what you’re given in this particular genre.

On next is Poetic Justice, in which a grasping, good-for-nothing, rich Tory bastard (Robin Phillips) schemes to ruin the life of a sweet old widowed bin-man (the legend that is Peter Cushing), having his numerous pet dogs taken away by court order, and spreading malicious rumours that, um, he’s a paedophile. What can I say, it was the 1970s, tastes were a bit different back then. Cushing is finally driven to suicide by a load of vindictive Valentine’s cards (the Tory bastard seems to have put an awful lot of effort into writing all the insulting doggerel involved), but his tormentors have failed to realise he has mystical connections beyond the grave. Or something. This is not really made very clear, but suffice to say, one year later, Cushing comes back…

Another textbook example of Peter Cushing deploying his powers to their full extent to lift some rather dubious material. There’s also the added poignancy of the recently-widowed Cushing taking on this role – I couldn’t help noticing that his character’s dead wife has the same name as Cushing’s own partner, and I’d be prepared to bet this wasn’t a coincidence. Sometimes you think you understand just how much this loss defined the last two decades of Peter Cushing’s life, and then sometimes you suspect it’s impossible to fully appreciate that.

Oh well. Onto Wish You Were Here, in which another ruthless Tory type (Richard Greene) finds himself financially embarrassed and on the verge of serious debt, at which point his wife discovers that a mysterious statuette they bought in the Far East has the power to grant three wishes. Any self-respecting viewer will at this point groan ‘Oh, no, not The Monkey’s Paw AGAIN,’ but the movie earns a degree of respect for having the characters also be aware of WW Jacobs’ famous cautionary tale and actively try to avoid making the same mistakes as their counterparts in the story. It doesn’t help them, of course, and the film earns bonus points to go with the respect, for finding inventive ways for their ill-considered wishes to screw them over.

And finally, Blind Alleys, in which yet another callous and greedy Tory type (I’ll say one thing for Tales from the Crypt, it may be campy schlock, but ideologically it’s completely sound) takes on the job of superintendent of an institution for the blind. As our man (played by Nigel Patrick) does not run the place in the most compassionate manner, resentment builds up amongst his charges, led by Patrick Magee (someone else who appears in Asylum). Suffice to say the assembled blind men prove unexpectedly good at DIY and a sticky end is on the cards for someone…

So, the guilty all get punished in suitably outlandish style, and all that remains is for the twist of the frame story to be revealed. I say ‘twist’, because another of the defining features of the Amicus portmanteaus is that the final twist is almost always the same, and hardly difficult to guess if you pay any attention whatsoever to what’s been going on in the film.

I really don’t know about Tales from the Crypt: by any objective standard, it’s really quite a bad movie, with silly stories, obvious twists, and unconvincing fake blood, lifted only a bit by the presence of some properly talented actors. The same could really be said for most of the other, similar films produced by Milton Subotsky. And yet it also manages to be quite marvellously entertaining. If 1970s British horror movies are not your thing, you should probably give it a very wide berth, but if they are – well, you probably already know what to expect. Hardly a great film, but – for some of us – great fun.

 

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Only a visually-impaired person could look at the history of popular cinema over the last half-century and not notice the huge spike in the number of SF movies in the late 70s and early-to-mid 80s, courtesy of (need it even be said) George Lucas and his stellar conflict franchise. Many of these movies were hugely popular and quite accomplished in their own way – I’m thinking here of films like Alien, Flash Gordon, Moonraker, The Terminator, and so on.

However, what I think gets forgotten sometimes is that the big SF boom sort of obscures an equivalent spike in the number of fantasy films that were made at the same time (Lucas’ project being fantasy at least as much as SF, after all) – in some respects a more notable trend, as SF films had a fairly distinguished pedigree as a genre prior to 1977, while genuine fantasy films not aimed at children were much rarer. I know in the past I have occasionally expressed the opinion that the majority of ‘traditional’ fantasy films released before 2001 usually verged on the awful, but considering early-80s movies like Excalibur, Time Bandits, The Dark Crystal, and Krull… well, many of these films are not bad, to say the least. Also very much not bad is Matthew Robbins’ 1981 movie Dragonslayer, which I watched again recently for the first time in many years.

dragonslayer

Set in a conveniently vague region of Dark Age Europe, the story opens with supplicants arriving at the tower of the world’s last sorcerer, Ulrich of Craggenmoor (Ralph Richardson), begging for his help. The visitors are led by Valerian (Caitlin Clarke), who reveals that their home, the kingdom of Urland, has been ravaged by the ancient dragon Vermithrax Pejorative for decades. To placate the great worm, the king has instituted a policy where twice a year a virgin is selected by lot and sacrificed to the dragon. Feeling this is not satisfactory, not least because the wealthy have been quietly buying exemptions for their children, Valerian has led some of the common folk to ask for Ulrich’s help in killing the beast. (There’s a plot bit about Clarke having been raised as a boy in order to keep her from being subject to the lottery, but it’s not exactly central to the story, and as a twist it doesn’t quite come off – it’s quite obvious that Caitlin Clarke is a woman even before her revelatory nude scene).

Unfortunately, the villagers have been followed to Craggenmoor by Tyrian (John Hallam), a soldier of the king, and to the surprise of all involved he kills Ulrich before the journey even gets underway. However, Ulrich’s apprentice, Galen (Peter MacNicol), inherits his mystic powers, and promises to kill Vermithrax Pejorative himself…

The very least you can say for Dragonslayer is that it is solidly plotted, looks fantastic for most of its running time, and has a great supporting cast. You can forgive a certain degree of confusion on the part of the film-makers as to where exactly the film is set (there seems to be the implication that King Casiodorus is in some way Romano-British, which is rather at odds with other points suggesting an Irish setting), for there is a mostly quite authentic Dark Ages feel to the film. There’s also an interesting subtext to the film, which is essentially about the passing of magic from the world and the rise to dominance of a different kind of world-view: while initially happy to ask a sorcerer for help, by the conclusion of the film the villagers are all adopting the new faith of Christianity (an almost indecently young-looking pre-Palpatine Ian McDiarmid plays a missionary who meets a sticky end).

However, for this to really be effective, the contrast between the grimy quotidian mundanity of Dark Ages life and the fantasy elements of sorcery and the dragon would have to be somewhat better realised than it is here, and this is at least partly a question of special effects. Now, this is a 1981 movie, made using technology of that period, and I would still say that Vermithrax Pejorative is still one of the very best dragons in movie history, in terms of overall presentation – by which I mean it’s a beast of terror and mystery. It’s just that, well, the dragon’s big set pieces never quite grip or excite, although this may be down to the direction and editing as much as any shortfall in the effects. (It seems to me that Robbins’ handling of the dragon in the early part of this film was an influence on how Spielberg depicted the tyrannosaur in Jurassic Park, but that’s by the by.)

Some people have criticised this movie for having rather too much of a modern sensibility, at least in terms of its characterisation – the heroine is a bit too bolshy, the king rather too much of a politician, Tyrian too much of a brutal pragmatist – but I don’t think this is necessarily a problem, if you consider that the story is trying to subvert or undermine the traditional fairy-tale archetypes. If the film has problems in this department, they are two-fold – firstly, Ralph Richardson is the actor you really want to see, and he’s not in it enough (Richardson made a string of late-career appearances in genre movies, but never quite hit the jackpot in the same way as his peer Alec Guinness), and secondly… well, I’m not sure if this is a writing or a casting problem, but I’m talking about Peter MacNicol.

Peter MacNicol is one of those actors who is never less than interesting to watch, and of course he does eccentricity very well, but here he is called upon to play a character who in the course of the film is a young apprentice, a romantic lead, and an action hero, to name just three things. There’s plenty of opportunity here for the right actor to turn Galen into an unusually well-rounded fantasy hero, but unfortunately MacNicol is always just a bit too much of an odd little hobbit to really convince in the part. (Plus the romance between Galen and Valerian appears out of nowhere, between two characters who seem to have absolutely no chemistry together.)

Then again, it’s not entirely MacNicol’s fault – Galen and Valerian are somewhat sidelined during the climax, which promises the epic battle to the death between the world’s last sorcerer and its last dragon. That’s quite a big promise to make to an audience, the stuff of proper high fantasy, and whether it’s the gear-change from the decidedly low fantasy of the rest of the movie, or the limitations of 1981 technology, or the slightly laborious direction… it never enthralls or even really thrills you as it should, for the film to really deliver the ending it needs.

There’s a lot of stuff to enjoy in Dragonslayer, but most of it is ambient, if not completely incidental: the real strengths of this film are its atmosphere and many other things all going on in the background. It has an interesting and smart take on one of the great mythic tales, but the problem is that when it really counts, it’s just not quite convincingly mythic enough.

 

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