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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Stephens’

I am not the first person to notice that it sometimes seems like most of the internet is made up of lists. I’m not necessarily a huge fan of list-writing, and it’s not something I personally indulge in very often, but occasionally I’ll be browsing around one of these things and come across something that piques my interest. I think it was the BFI that were hosting a list of ten often-overlooked British horror classics of years gone by, and one of the films they recommended was Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Shout, originally released in 1978. (Skolimowski is an acclaimed multi-disciplinary Polish artist who is, let’s face it, probably best known to the wider audience for a cameo appearance in The Avengers.)

One of the nice things about the internet, on the other hand, is that you can very often find these slightly obscure films from decades gone by lurking on free-to-view video sharing sites. This may require a slight tweak of one’s ethical subroutines, but it’s hardly in the same league as recording Black Panther on your phone camera in an actual theatre.

Should one be surprised at the obscurity of The Shout? Well, this is a movie which won the Grand Prix de Jury at Cannes, which is not the kind of distinction one normally associates with low-budget British horror movies; also, it features a rather impressive cast of genuinely distinguished performers. The producer suggested that they were attracted by the fact that the film is based on a short story by the acclaimed author Robert Graves (he of I, Claudius renown). (The fact that it’s derived from a short story may explain why this is a rather short film, clocking in well shy of ninety minutes.)

There are various stories within stories and potentially unreliable narrators in The Shout, but the film proper gets underway with a young man (Tim Curry), possibly intended to be Graves himself, arriving to participate in a cricket match at a mental institution. The head of the place (Robert Stephens) gives him the job of scoring, in the company of Crossley (Alan Bates), one of the patients. Crossley proves to be an unusual companion and offers to tell his story.

This proves to revolve around a well-heeled young couple living on the Devon coast, named Anthony (John Hurt) and Rachel (Susannah York). Anthony seems to be an avant-garde composer or radiophonic musician; Rachel doesn’t appear to do much of anything. One day Anthony encounters Crossley, an intense, mysterious stranger, and ends up inviting him home for Sunday lunch.

Over lunch Crossley reveals he has recently concluded an eighteen year sojourn in the Australian Outback, and regales his hosts with various hair-raising tales of his experiences. Anthony seems bemused more than anything else, but Rachel is not impressed by their visitor. However, Crossley claims to have been taken ill  and ends up staying the night with the couple. He also tells Anthony of the strange supernatural powers he has learned from the magicians of the Outback, and offers to give him a demonstration the next day – should he be brave enough…

The Shout was made in 1978, but the source material dates back to the 1920s, and this is one of those films where it kind of shows – it takes place in a very British landscape of cricket matches (suffice to say that rain stops play), lonely sand dunes, country churches, and quiet cottages where people live comfortably with no visible means of support. One would imagine that some of the story would have felt a little dubious in the seventies; it certainly feels that way now, especially when Bates announces that he has been trained in the use of the terrifying death-shout of the Australian Aborigines. It comes perilously close to resembling the kind of spoof you would expect to find on The Goon Show or possibly an episode of Ripping Yarns.

The money sequence of the film, obviously, comes midway through when Crossley takes Anthony out onto the dunes and unleashes the eponymous bellow. You’re kind of aware that this is either going to be an utterly awesome cinematic moment or something slightly absurd and rather embarrassing; in the end it really is on a knife-edge as to which turns out to be the case – the cinematography and sound design are up to the job, Hurt’s performance helps, and cutaways to local wildlife dropping dead also add to the effect. But on the other hand it is still just someone shouting on a beach, and the fact that the camera angle gives us a very good view of Alan Bates’ dental work is also slightly distracting.

It’s not even as if the shout is really that important to The Shout; it’s a big moment in the film, but not really in the story, which is much more about (it is implied) Crossley using rather subtler magic to displace Anthony and have his brooding way with Rachel (this being a serious, cultural movie, it is full of artistically-significant nudity, and I will leave you to guess which of the three leads is required to take her clothes off the most). In a way, it almost feels like an extra-long episode of Hammer House of Horror as written by Harold Pinter – although, to be honest, one would hope that would be a little more coherent as a story. This one is full of unanswered questions and people behaving in a way no normal, reasonable person would.

I suppose the film’s escape clause for this is the fact that, after all, the central narrative is a story being told by a mental patient, and one should therefore not expect it to be completely coherent – the script even quotes Macbeth’s line about ‘…a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ On the other hand, the film does seem to suggest that there is a deeper truth to be teased out from close viewing of the film – Hurt and York both appear in the framing sequence set in and around the mental institution, but it’s not completely clear whether they are playing the same characters or not. It is certainly strongly implied that there is some truth to Crossley’s tales of the killer shout.

Perhaps one of the reasons why The Shout is so little known these days is because it is essentially a thing on its own – it comes from a point in time when all the big British horror studios of the 60s and 70s had essentially packed in their operations, it’s not quite part of the folk-horror tradition… in fact you could argue that it doesn’t really feel like a genuine horror movie at all, and only gets lumped into the genre because it’s the closest thing to a good fit. It feels like much more of an art movie than anything really intended to stir the emotions – although in places it has an effectively eerie and unsettling atmosphere. I wrote recently about the peculiar new phenomenon of the ‘post-horror’ movie, and were it to be made now The Shout would certainly be a candidate for this new sub-genre. As it is, perhaps we can call it a pre-post-horror movie?

The cast certainly work hard to give some heft and depth to a fairly unlikely tale, with John Hurt on particularly good form. Stephens and Curry aren’t in it that much, though. Making a very early appearance (and one unlikely to appear on his showreel, one suspects) is a 28-year-old Jim Broadbent, as a participant in the cricket match. To say this concludes with Broadbent showing a side of himself not often seen in his other movies is probably a significant understatement.

Even the producer of The Shout was quick to make clear that in 1978 the Cannes film festival is not the corporate juggernaut that it is today, which may explain why such an odd little film managed to win a major prize there. I would say this has cult movie written all over it, mainly due to its wilful obliqueness and peculiar atmosphere. But one of the great lost classics of British horror? I would say that is pushing it a bit.

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Never a sniff of Tiptoes, as it turned out. Hey ho. It has been a pleasant five or six years with Lovefilm, though, and it would be remiss of me to be too harsh on the service for its persistent failure to provide one particular probably-dreadful dwarf-themed Matthew McConnaughey rom-com. To the end, the mechanics of how the company decided what discs it was going to send me remained obscure – was it ever anything more than a form of eeny-meeny-miney-mo? I expect I shall never know. It’s hard to discern any particular significance to the final disc that was sent to me, fine and welcome though it is: Billy Wilder’s 1970 film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

plsh

As is fairly well-known in interested circles, the version of this film which is generally available includes only a portion of Wilder’s original ideas for it – the initial intention was to make almost an anthology, with four linked stories casting Baker Street’s most famous residents in a different light. Two of the stories were removed at the insistence of the studio (what remains of them are available as additional material), meaning that what remains is a little curious in its structure, to say the least.

The film, naturally, concerns various exploits of Sherlock Holmes (Robert Stephens) and his faithful amanuensis Dr Watson (Colin Blakely). Initially we find them between cases, with Holmes contending with the depression inactivity always brings on in him, and Watson trying to dissuade him from his cocaine habit. Then they are invited to the ballet, where the prima ballerina has a rather eye-opening proposition to make to Holmes. His delicate attempts to evade the entanglement which she has in mind end up seriously annoying Watson. Almost wholly played for laughs, this is indeed a very funny segment, although rather politically incorrect by modern standards (there are many jokes about gay ballet dancers). Plus, it poses the question at the centre of the film: what kind of personal life does Sherlock Holmes have? Is he even capable of an emotional involvement with a woman?

This is developed in the rest of the film, all of which concerns a single, rather peculiar case which Holmes finds himself involved in, albeit unwillingly to begin with. A young woman (Genevieve Page) is delivered to 221B Baker Street late one night, having been fished out of the Thames. The only real clue is that she has Holmes’ address on a scrap of card in her hand.

It transpires that she is Gabrielle Valladon, a Belgium woman whose engineer husband has gone missing somewhere in Britain. Initially reluctant, Holmes finds the case has enough unusual features to pique his interest, the trail taking them to the Diogenes Club and his brother Mycroft (Christopher Lee), and then on to the shores of Loch Ness, while also including a mysterious party of Trappist monks, bleached canaries, the Book of Jonah, and, if not a midget submarine, then certainly a submarine for midgets…

The story is undeniably rather bizarre, but not very much more so than many Conan Doyle tales, and I suppose the key qustion must be whether this is intended as a spoof Sherlock or simply a pastiche. Much of the film is played somewhat tongue-in-cheek, of course, but it is less broad than, for example, Thom Eberhardt’s Without a Clue (my research has just turned up the news that Judd Apatow is doing a funny Sherlock Holmes with Will Ferrell: oh, God), and it has a rather wistful, melancholy quality which is not what you’d expect from a straightforwardly comic film. The movie is somewhat impertinent towards some elements of the canon, but affectionately so, and in the end I would say this was much more a pastiche than anything else.

Certainly, Mark Gatiss and the Unmentionable One, creators of the great Sherlock Holmes pastiche of our day, have spoken openly of the influence of Private Life on their own version of the Great Detective, especially with respect to its presentation of Mycroft Holmes as some kind of spymaster. You could even suggest that Gatiss’ own performance as Mycroft is basically his interpretation of that given by Christopher Lee in this film.

It is traditional to suggest that Robert Stephens gives us a rather theatrical Sherlock in this film, and this is true: none the worse for that, of course, I would say. He’s a rather good one-shot Sherlock, and the same is true of Colin Blakely as Watson; Blakely plays the part for laughs when it’s called for, but also keeps the character grounded and credible in the film’s more dramatic moments.

As well as a piece of Sherlockiana, of course, the film also seems to me to have a curious place in the cultural history of the Loch Ness Monster. Most famously, one of the Monster props made for the film sank to the bottom of the loch and was only rediscovered in 2016, briefly causing a degree of excitement amongst monster hunters. However, the film also presents the monster phenomenon as being well-known in the 1880s, with various characters making reference to it as an established mystery. This, of course, was not the case, with the Loch Ness monster legend only acquiring currency in the early 1930s (very shortly after the release of King Kong, indicatively enough) – the film gives the impression of a lengthy history of monster sightings prior to the 20th century, for which there is no real evidence, and so you could argue it has contributed to the perpetuation of this charming myth. It’s hardly grounds to criticise the film, either way.

This is a lavish, charming, funny film, and not without grace notes of darkness and melacnholy, as noted. Most of these one-shot Sherlock Holmes seem to vanish without much of a trace, with only the film and TV series seeming to linger in the memory – Rathbone, Cushing, Brett, Downey Jr, Cumberbatch. That this one has not, quite, may be a result of what a singularly unusual take on the Great Detective it presents, but it also surely has something to do with the overall quality of a superior movie.

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You could be forgiven for thinking that, back in the late 60s and early 70s, the exclusive rights for the making of low-budget British horror movies resided with Hammer films and their somewhat less-celebrated rivals at Amicus and Tigon. Hammer in particular have such name- and brand-recognition that these days virtually any genre film from this period often gets ascribed to Hammer even by people whom you might expect to know better (it wasn’t that long ago that an acquaintance of mine was casually referring to ‘the Hammer Doctor Who films with Peter Cushing’, for instance).

But other people were having a go as well, and some very distinctive and interesting films were the result. Probably my favourite is the otherwise-obscure Harbour Films’ Theatre of Blood, probably Vincent Price’s magnum opus, but also noteworthy is the 1973 movie The Asphyx (also trading on some releases as Spirit of the Dead or The Horror of Death), made by Glendale Productions and directed by Peter Newbrook.

asphyx

The movie is bookended by a very brief frame story set in the present day. The police arrive on the scene of a serious car accident, where a man’s body is dragged from between two smashed cars – and yet somehow he still lives. How can this be? Thereby hangs the tale…

The rest of the movie is set in 1875 and concerns the doings of the Cunningham family, a bunch of wealthy, good-natured toffs. Head of the family is Hugo (Robert Stephens), whose surprisingly diverse portfolio of interests include social reform, psychical research, and experimental photography (not as kinky as it sounds). To some extent these hobbies dovetail unexpectedly well, as Hugo’s snaps of people at the point of death seem to show something nebulous and invisible to the naked eye close to their bodies. But what is it?

Hugo’s researches are suspended when his son and wife are killed in a freak punting accident, but when he gets around to developing the cine film he just happened to be shooting at the time it also shows a vague shape close to them – but rather than being the impression of the soul leaving the body, it appears to be moving towards them rather than away…

Working with his ward Giles (Robert Powell), Hugo concludes that his film is picking up an entity he calls an asphyx, which manifests close to a person and enters their body at the moment of death. Further experiments reveal that someone’s asphyx can be controlled and imprisoned, using the right equipment: and if the asphyx is unable to reach its host, the moment of death can be infinitely postponed – that person becomes immortal. Still grieving over the deaths of his own loved ones, Hugo sets out to put this knowledge to practical use, despite the misgivings of his remaining family members…

As you can probably tell, this is not strictly a gothic horror in the classic sense, but it is very clearly a tale of hubris-filled scientists meddling with forces of which man was never meant to know, with the kind of results you might expect. On these terms it is somewhat successful – there’s never any real doubt that things are bound to end badly, and the film works hard to try and make Hugo and Giles’ researches and experiments logical and credible, but the extent to which things keep going wrong does not speak well of standards in mid-Victorian amateur science. One also has to wonder at Hugo’s ability to produce small portable gas chambers and guillotines seemingly out of nowhere at very short notice, and indeed at the fact that no-one in authority seems at all interested in the succession of corpses his failed experiments generate.

To be honest, the film is certainly based on an interesting idea, but that idea is also deeply bizarre. The implication is that, rather like soul-mates, there’s only one asphyx out there for any given person – but why? How is this arranged? Many questions are left hanging. The kind of immortality achieved by banging up your asphyx in a box somewhere is not of the cool, cinematic, I’m-from-planet-Zeist kind. The film clearly shows that while you may not be able to actually die, you don’t stop ageing, nor do you magically become invulnerable. There’s nothing to stop you ageing into a withered old mummy, or being horribly brain-damaged, or finding yourself reduced to a pile of dismembered-but-still-living-pieces. If I ordered immortality from Amazon and that was what turned up, I’d be inclined to send it back and have another go.

The film is all about these kinds of ideas, but the curious thing is that it’s actually not that graphic or gory: it’s nearly as well-behaved as a Hammer movie from ten or fifteen years earlier, in that there’s barely a hint of sex in it, and scarcely any gore. It’s all about ideas, and proper actors in wigs and waistcoats having intense and slightly windy discussions about metaphysics and ethics. Perhaps this is what makes the film feel a bit dry and cheerless these days.

On the other hand, it could just be the subject matter. This, after all, is a film which is actually about the nature and process of death. The themes of it are grief, suffering, death, and suicide, and it handles them with a relentless intensity that’s almost enough to make one concerned for the mental state of the scriptwriters. Compared to a jolly Amicus black comedy portmanteau or a brazen Hammer flesh-and-blood extravaganza from around the same time, The Asphyx is a notably bleak and restrained film, flooded with darkness and despair. Without wishing to spoil the film too much, the climax concerns a battle of wits between two characters, both of whom want to be the first to kill themselves – now that’s a properly gloomy way to finish a film.

Perhaps this why The Asphyx is rather easier to admire than to actually enjoy. The production values, other than the freaky asphyx glove-puppet itself, are decent throughout, and the performances of Stephens and Powell are solid as well. And on first viewing, the concepts involved in the film are weird and intriguing enough to keep you watching – it’s certainly a hard film to predict the exact details of, plot-wise. But once you know the story, and particularly the ending, it’s not really a film which stands up well to return visits. In its own way this is an accomplished film – but as a piece of entertainment, it has its own flavour, which will probably repel many more people than it attracts.

 

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