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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Fuest’

Let us take a moment to glance into the future, by which of course I mean 1970, or thereabouts: there’s going to come a time when The Avengers ceases production, after all, and what is everyone involved going to do then? Well, emigrate to America in the case of Patrick Macnee, not make a Bond film in the case of Linda Thorson, and as for the boys behind the scenes…

It seems like most of the key creative personnel stuck together with an eye to going into movies. Brian Clemens, producer and de facto head writer on the show, eventually ended up writing and directing a couple of the later Hammer horrors (Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde and Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter), so perhaps it’s not entirely surprising that a little while before this he was involved in what’s effectively a horror movie: Robert Fuest’s And Soon the Darkness.

(This is one of those movies where you do get a sense that the title is a placeholder which they never really got back to. Quite apart from the fact that it’s roaringly inaccurate even in terms of basic grammar, it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the plot, which takes place in the course of an almost completely sunny day. But there we go. I suppose it has a kind of ominous tone to it which is by no means completely inappropriate.)

We find ourselves in rural France, which is flat and seems rather underpopulated, in the company of two maternity ward nurses from Nottingham, who are on a cycling tour. They are played by Pamela Franklin, who never seems to have really hit the big time (though she was in The Legend of Hell House), and Michele Dotrice, who is still probably best remembered for playing Betty Spencer in Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em.

It soon becomes quite apparent that going on holiday together was possibly not the wisest move the girls could have made, for they clearly have very different temperaments: one of them is very sensible, cautious, and organised, and insists that they stick to their planned schedule and itinerary, while the other is much more laid-back and even a touch hedonistic, happily letting herself get distracted by some of the handsome young hommes they come across as they travel. (Seasoned horror movie watchers will already have worked out which one of the duo is likely in for a sticky end before the conclusion of the story, which is why I’m being rather vague about who plays who: it would practically count as a spoiler.)

Well, after stopping for a break on the road, the two girls have a genuine falling-out, with one of them pressing on and the other staying where she is, alone in the woods. But is she quite alone? (Hint: of course not.) Her friend eventually grows worried about her, something which is in no way mitigated by the fact that a female hiker was murdered in those same woods a couple of years earlier, and the killer was never caught. A young man (Sandor Eles) approaches her, presenting himself as a Surete detective on holiday, but is his offer of help all that it seems? Who can she trust?

Brian Clemens’ co-writer on this movie was none other than Terry Nation, who was another contributor to the final season of The Avengers. (The two men seem to have had quite a good working relationship, at least until Clemens ended up taking Nation to court over the issue of who actually originated Survivors.) Both Clemens and Nation have near-legendary reputations as originators of a certain flavour of pulpy, escapist entertainment (Clemens shaped The Avengers into its classic form, as well as creating The New Avengers and The Professionals, while Nation heavily influenced the BBC’s SF-fantasy output in addition to creating – on paper, at least – Survivors and Blake’s 7), so it is a bit of a surprise to find that And Soon the Darkness is a relatively gritty, down-to-earth psychological thriller. Both men are, you would think, a bit out of their comfort zone, and this is before we even come to the fact that the main characters are a couple of young women.

Then again, that’s kind of essential as the movie is really just an exercise in what the French would possibly call le jeopardie du femme: which is to say, it’s a film about young women, but one made largely by, and for, men. There’s often a trace of that little exploitative edge to the film, where the male viewer at least is invited to momentarily entertain some unacceptable thoughts. I suppose this kind of catharsis is an inherent part of the horror genre, but it can still make me feel a bit uncomfortable, and one thing you can say about And Soon the Darkness is that it’s relatively restrained in this area.

This is because it is relatively restrained in pretty much every area, a restraint which may arise partly from creative decisions but also probably owes something to the fact it has clearly been made on a very low budget. There are a handful of characters and locations, none of them especially lavish, no big set pieces or crowd scenes… as an exercise in parsimonious storytelling it’s quite impressive, but one wonders why the film is stretched out to well over ninety minutes, other than for solely contractual reasons. you can understand why this kind of film would start slow and then gradually build to a thrilling climax, but in this case it starts slow, stays quite slow, occasionally decelerates for a bit, then goes back to being just slow rather than actually glacial, and then there’s a climax and it stops.

This is the crux of the issue when it comes to this film: it’s slow and not much happens. You can sense that Nation and Clemens are working very hard to try and generate a bit of intrigue when it comes to the identity of whoever-it-is that’s been murdering young women on holiday, but in the end as a viewer you fundamentally understand that it’s either going to be Sandor Eles or it isn’t, and if it isn’t then it will be someone rather unlikely (basically because Eles’ character is the only plausible suspect). Another consequence of this is that rural France comes across as a very sinister and unsettling place, inhabited by shifty, alarming locals. One can imagine a lot of reproving missives from the French Tourist Board arriving on the producers’ desks, complaining about the poor light this movie places the whole continent in. It’s hardly likely to make people approach their European holidays, or indeed Europe in general, with more positivity. (The roles of Brian Clemens and Terry Nation in subliminally laying the foundations for the Brexit disaster: discuss.)

Well, I suppose most of the acting is pretty good – this is one of Sandor Eles’ better roles, I think, as he mainly seemed to get stuck with second- or third-banana parts in his films for Hammer – and Robert Fuest does the best he can with the material. This is an efficient, economical little psycho-horror-thriller, let down a bit by sluggish pace and lack of incident. But given the names on the script you would be forgiven for expecting something with a bit more colour and life and fun.

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I’ve thought for a long time that there’s nothing more comical than a botched attempt at a horror movie, and few things more guaranteed to chill the soul than an inept comedy film. By this logic, then, comedy-horror films are particularly odd beasts, because you have to get both things right, and in the appropriate places, too. Film-makers who attempt to hedge their bets by putting a few funny bits in what’s supposed to be a horror movie are taking a big risk, and when they come a cropper it is frequently spectacular.

On the other hand, when it works, the results are often something quite distinctive, which sort of brings us to the case of Robert Fuest’s 1972 film Dr Phibes Rises Again, a sequel (rather self-evidently) to the previous year’s The Abominable Dr Phibes. Wikipedia lists this movie as a horror film, plain and simple; the IMDB takes a more cautious position and pegs it as ‘comedy, horror’. None of this really does the peculiar tone of the movie justice.

We open with a brief recap of the first film, and the murderous revenge-spree undertaken by the insane genius Dr Anton Phibes (Vincent Price, obviously) – theologian, organist, inventor, and general man of many parts – against the doctors he blamed for the death of his wife (Caroline Munro, not doing a great deal). The film concluded with Phibes eluding the police and putting himself into suspended animation alongside his wife, in preparation for the hour of his return.

And, of course, said hour has now come. The sequel opens with Phibes rising from his sarcophagus, and – just to get things off on the right foot – he proceeds to do a little light dusting around his crypt, before rattling off a few organ arpeggios. As you would. From somewhere or other he summons his glamorous assistant Vulnavia (Valli Kemp, this time around), his plan being to use an ancient map in his possession to find the River of Life which runs through the basement of a secluded Egyptian temple. The River of Life will apparently resurrect Mrs Phibes and give the pair of them eternal life (whether it will allow Dr Phibes to grow a new face is not made clear). However – zounds! – in the years since the first film, Dr Phibes’ house has been demolished and the map stolen.

Luckily the doc knows exactly who would be in the market for a relic like that: Darius Biederbeck (hmm, like that’s a real name), played by Robert Quarry. Biederbeck is also searching for the River of Life – it eventually transpires that he has managed to enormously extend his own life by (presumably) alchemical means, but his means of doing this are almost exhausted. He will soon be departing from London for Egypt, where he will lead an archaeological dig to the hidden temple.

Well, Dr Phibes steals the map back, killing Biederbeck’s servant in the process (lest you think the film has adopted too quotidian a tone, he does so using a basketful of clockwork snakes and a trick telephone), and everyone departs for the valley of the Nile (which is played by southern Spain), with Phibes and Vulnavia leaving a trail of bizarre killings behind them. The police eventually cotton on to the fact that Dr Phibes is back in action, and top detectives/idiots Waverly (John Cater) and Trout (Peter Jeffrey) are dispatched in pursuit.

You could argue with some merit that many of these early-seventies Vincent Price movies are basically just strings of set pieces held together by rather basic plots – watching The Abominable Dr Phibes or Theatre of Blood, it quickly becomes apparent that these movies are about Price having a hit list of victims, which he is going to work his way down in his inimitably outlandish style. Dr Phibes Rises Again does depart from this formula, but only to the extent that Price has another agenda, and just ends up killing people who get in his way. (New characters are written in solely to facilitate the set pieces – John Thaw turns up, gets savaged to death by Phibes’ pet eagle, and is barely mentioned again after the one sequence he appears in.) It is, I suppose, a little more plot-driven, but that would give the impression that the plot, or indeed the film, actually makes sense as a conventional, naturalistic narrative. It does not – and lest that sound like a criticism, I think it was never really intended to, nor is this particularly a problem.

Unlike the first film, the sequel does appear to include a genuine element of mysticism or the supernatural, in that Biederbeck does seem to have achieved a degree of immortality, but even without this, nothing about this film is remotely credible. It’s almost like a rather gory cartoon in which the laws of physics themselves have been suspended for the duration: not only is Phibes able to booby-trap the dashboard of someone’s car so they are sandblasted to a skeleton while driving along, he manages to do so in about five minutes flat. It would be ridiculous if it weren’t all so knowing and tongue-in-cheek: the Price horror movies of this period come closer than most to managing to be funny and scary at exactly the same moment.

That said, while Price and the returning cast members all seem to be in on the joke, some of the others aren’t, which can be problematic. Peter Cushing turns up for one scene (he is credited as a ‘guest star’), which he plays entirely straight; the part isn’t really worthy of him. Interesting to imagine what would have happened if he’d played Biederbeck instead – Robert Quarry had recently appeared in the bad-but-influential Count Yorga movies and was apparently being groomed as a new horror star by AIP, but isn’t remotely in Vincent Price’s league. (Legend has it the two had an acrimonious relationship – when Price came upon Quarry singing in his dressing room, Quarry said ‘You didn’t know I could sing, did you?’, to which Price replied ‘Well, I knew you couldn’t act.’) About the best thing you can say about Quarry’s performance in this film is that he is not actively bad.

Biederbeck is written as such an odd character, and performed so flatly, that it’s hard to tell if he’s genuinely meant to be the hero of the movie or not. As it is, you end up – well, not quite rooting for Phibes, but certainly wanting to see more of him and the ridiculous costumes and death-traps and other gadgets that invariably surround him. There’s a sort of cheery amorality about every aspect of this story, certainly no sense of moral outrage – every death is there to be enjoyed. The ending, with Phibes seemingly triumphant, Biederbeck defeated, and Price giving us a technically anachronistic rendition of ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ as he vanishes into shadow, doesn’t feel downbeat or a case of evil ascendant. But then this movie is not much concerned with good or evil, just with its own peculiar style. Perhaps it’s better to consider this film as a collection of individual moments, intended to amuse and distract, rather than as any kind of plausible story. As such, Dr Phibes Rises Again is rather entertaining, always assuming you are on its wavelength.

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It would be impossible to write the history of American genre film-making without devoting a hefty section to American International Pictures and its founders Samuel Z Arkoff and James H Nicholson (also known as Jack’s dad). These are the guys who made the original version of The Fast and the Furious, and a bunch of other movies which have brilliant titles even if they’re (perhaps deservedly) obscure: The Astounding She-Monster, Frankenstein Conquers The World, I Was A Teenage Werewolf, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die… those films alone sound like a long weekend of bliss to me, and there are hundreds more.

Not that AIP didn’t aspire to a touch of class sometimes, perhaps most famously with their cycle of Poe adaptations overseen by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price. Those films came out in the late 1950s and early 60s, and nearly ten years later Price was back with the company for another well-remembered and reasonably classy outing, in Robert Fuest’s The Abominable Dr Phibes.

The film is set in 1920s England (not that this is immediately apparent). Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey) is investigating a series of bizarre and grisly murders: one man has been stung to death by bees, another savaged by bats, a third has had his head crushed by a rigged fancy-dress mask, and so on. It turns out that all the victims were doctors, and a further connection is that they all worked on the same case, an operation overseen by Dr Vesalius (Joseph Cotten). The patient died, and Trout begins to suspect that her husband, who was believed dead, may in fact be nothing of the sort.

He is right, of course, for the outraged widower, Dr Anton Phibes (Vincent Price, of course), brilliant organist, theologian, and inventive genius, is back on the scene and intent on extracting revenge on the men he holds responsible for the death of his beautiful young wife (I suppose this qualifies as another ‘Vincent Price Broods Over His Dead Wife’s Portrait’ movie – Mrs Phibes is played by the delectable Caroline Munro, only adding to the movie’s cult credentials). Can Trout anticipate Phibes’ plans and stop him from completing the nine murders he has planned?

Stripped back to its absolute bare bones, The Abominable Dr Phibes sounds relatively straightforward – an unhinged killer sets out to take revenge on a group of men he holds responsible for a loved one’s death. What elevates the film from being a relatively routine suspense or horror movie into its own special realm is the bizarre, whimsical, baroque detail the film indulges in throughout. The film could have just opened with Dr Phibes emerging from his inner sanctum and setting off to orchestrate another murder. However, what actually happens is that Price emerges through the floor while playing a pipe organ (rather in the manner of Reginald Dixon), performing a piece by Mendelssohn. Having completed this important part of his plan, he goes on to engage in a little ball-room dancing with his enigmatic sidekick (Virginia North), the music being played by a band composed of life-sized clockwork automatons. Then he goes off to murder someone.

I don’t say this as a criticism of the movie, far from it – for it is the absurd excess of the film, and its darkly comic overtones, that give it so much of its charm and entertainment value. Is there a particularly plausible reason for Phibes to theme his revenge scheme around the biblical plagues of Egypt? Well, no, of course not: but it would be a much duller film without this. You could argue it is part of a great tradition of extravagant, somewhat gothic horror – and the film is surely partly inspired by The Phantom of the Opera – where odd details are actually very important. Things like the way that Phibes can only speak by plugging a gramophone into the side of his neck, and only eat and drink in a similar manner, may not be terribly important to the plot, but they add enormously to the atmosphere and style of the film.

Now, seasoned Price-watchers will of course be aware that the structure of this film is not unique in the actor’s canon: embittered maniac, aided by a mysterious young woman, embarks upon a series of elaborate themed murders against those he perceives as having done him wrong. That is, of course, the outline synopsis not just of The Abominable Dr Phibes but also Douglas Hickox’s Theatre of Blood, which came out a couple of years later. The Abominable Dr Phibes is an entertaining and well-made movie, but it can’t help but come across as a dry run for Hickox’s movie, which is arguably superior: the theme is more coherent, and it’s not afraid to really put the pedal to the metal when it comes to including elements of black comedy.

And, of course, it gives Price an unparalleled opportunity to show off his range. In The Abominable Dr Phibes, he’s playing a character who is effectively permanently masked and largely mute, thus drastically limiting the options for Price’s performance. That the actor still gives a striking and memorable performance says much about his class, but the thing that distinguishes Vincent Price from peers like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee is his capacity for outrageous, operatic, over-the-top performances, and it’s this that’s missing from The Abominable Dr Phibes.

This is a fun film, which feels very much like a product of the British film industry in the 1970s – various distinguished figures show up for brief cameo roles (Terry-Thomas, John Laurie, Hugh Griffith) – for all that you can, perhaps, if you squint, see how it may have had some kind of influence on a later generation of horror movies (one element of the climax seems to me to anticipate Saw). Its ostentatious wackiness may not be to everyone’s taste, nor does it really make ideal use of its biggest asset (Price himself), and so for me the real significance of this movie comes from the fact it represents a first attempt at the formula which Theatre of Blood later perfected so wonderfully. Still highly entertaining in its own right, though, of course.

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