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Posts Tagged ‘Tim Curry’

I mentioned the other day the unusually long theatrical releases enjoyed in years past by films such as The Wild Bunch (seven years or so, in one UK cinema at least) and Reservoir Dogs (not quite as long, but over a wider area). However, as chance would have it one of the ‘high number’ TV channels in my region happened to be showing a film which puts both of these in the shade, by which I mean it was originally released in 1975 and is technically still running in some cinemas today (even if only at midnight on the weekends). No ordinary film gets a 44 year theatrical run, and whatever else you want to say about it, Jim Sharman’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show is not what you’d call an ordinary film.

From a certain point of view it resembles a fairly typical film adaptation of a successful stage show, but then this is to miss the unique nature of the Rocky Horror phenomenon. Rocky Horror is, of course, synonymous with its creator, Richard O’Brien, who is something of a genial self-mythologiser (at least where the origins of the show are concerned). One version of the story has it that O’Brien was appearing in Jesus Christ Superstar in London’s West End when the creator of that show, Andrew Lloyd Webber, attended a show and was sufficiently unimpressed by O’Brien’s performance that he had him sacked on the spot – unable to get work as a result, O’Brien wrote Rocky Horror as a way of making some money (other versions are less dramatic and suggest the actor started work on the project simply to amuse himself). Richard O’Brien has also suggested that the tone of the show was a calculated choice based on the fact that the two most successful film series in British history are the Hammer horrors and the Carry On films, and that Rocky Horror is intended as a kind of mash-up of the two. This strikes me as disingenuous, to say the least – it sounds good, but the film itself doesn’t really seem to show either as a significant influence.

The film concerns the travails of (initially) wholesome young couple Brad Majors (Barry Bostwick) and Janet Weiss (Susan Sarandon); the setting feels like it should be the Fifties but there is a very deliberate choice to show the characters listening to Nixon’s resignation on the radio at one point. Anyway, having recently become engaged, Brad and Janet are travelling to visit an old friend when their car breaks down and they have to take refuge in the mansion of eccentric (to say the least) scientist Dr Frank N Furter (Tim Curry), who is hosting a gathering of like-minded friends. The occasion is to celebrate the fact that he has recently completed an extraordinary experiment, and created a man in his laboratory! Although his motives for doing so are probably best not dwelt upon…

One thing you can say about The Rocky Horror Picture Show is that it has a visual identity of its own like few other films: if you come across it while channel-surfing, it’s instantly obvious what it is, perhaps (given the remarkable cultural penetration of the show) even if you’ve never seen it before. The movie is consumed by a camp sensibility in a way matched by few others, and this extends to the costumes, the set dressing, and most of the performances. It is its own thing much more than it is a spoof of any other film or genre.

As I say, I’m dubious about O’Brien’s suggestion that Rocky Horror has much to do with the Carry Ons or Hammer (though I detect a certain commonality of approach with the Dr Phibes films). The closest real link between the House of Horror and Rocky Horror (unless you count Charles Gray’s appearance) is that the latter re-uses some old props from Revenge of Frankenstein, and was filmed on location at Hammer’s old base at Bray Studios. It doesn’t really have the relentless innuendo or slapstick (or indeed the actual sense of innocence) you usually find in a Carry On film; compare The Rocky Horror Picture Show with Carry On Screaming and you’ll see that these two films are actually quite far apart in tone and approach.

The film seems to owe at least as big a debt to American sci-fi movies of the Fifties as it does to any English influence – the litany of films invoked by O’Brien in the iconic opening number is mostly American, after all. The setting is certainly American and the plot refers to things like the UFO flap of the 1950s. The clincher, for me, is the musical score, which is stuffed with pastiche rock ‘n’ roll songs intended to recall the same period. If Rocky Horror starts anywhere, it is as a piece of fake Americana, eventually subverted by notions of campness.

Whatever it’s supposed to be, I always find The Rocky Horror Picture Show to be terrifically watchable, mainly because the songs are so good. The slow ones are generally at least pleasant and easy on the ear, while the up-tempo numbers are fun and witty (the complaint that they all sound the same seems to me to be a bit unfair, given they were all written in the same rock ‘n’ roll mode). The cast put them over well, too – I can’t honestly claim to ever have been fond of ‘Let’s Do the Time Warp Again’, but I really like ‘Science Fiction Double Feature’, ‘Damn It Janet’, and many of the others.

If there’s a problem, it’s that – viewed as a piece of conventional musical theatre – The Rocky Horror Show is all over the place. It does contain ‘I Am’ and ‘I Want’ songs, but they’re often in very peculiar places – the most obvious example of an ‘I Want’ song is ‘Touch-a Touch-a Touch Me’, but it’s nearly halfway through the film (much later than is normal). The plot of the film basically falls to bits even earlier than this, at least in terms of normal narrative progression. There’s really no point in worrying too much about the story, because it simply doesn’t make a lot of sense or follow any real logic. Well before the end, the film simply becomes a collection of (pretty good) songs – tellingly, it also becomes essentially sung-through, after the opening includes a reasonable amount of dialogue.

Devotees of the film and the show would doubtless say that Rocky Horror is about an attitude more than a narrative, and I couldn’t honestly argue with them. You could perhaps make a case that the film is about the way in which strait-laced American society in the 1950s was undermined and subverted by the permissiveness of the 1960s and early 70s, symbolised here by rock ‘n’ roll music and the film’s obsession with cross-dressing and minority sexual practices, but looking for a serious subtext to The Rocky Horror Picture Show is surely missing the point by an enormous margin.

I do wonder, though, if the show hasn’t been a victim of its own success. It’s hard to get a real sense of what society was actually like back in 1973 when the stage production opened, and it may be that it was a genuinely startling and transgressive new show at the time. These days, as I say, it has achieved a remarkably high profile and perhaps this has given it a cosiness and sense of familiarity which has to some extent pulled its teeth. I saw a revival on stage in 1994 and despite the large number of slightly puerile sight-gags it was very much a family show, with people taking their children along for a pantomime-like experience of audience participation. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, like its theatrical progenitor, was long ago absorbed into the mainstream and accommodated there, if never completely assimilated – but it remains an energetic piece of entertainment, and practically the type specimen of a cult movie.

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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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