Sunday, 26 February 2012
I’ve had a really busy weekend with no internet time, but checking in this evening, I’m extremely sad to hear about the death of Lina Romay [life partner and long-time creative collaborator of Jess Franco, and the star of many of his films from the early ‘70s onwards].
Far more than just a woman willing to take her clothes off and do the sexy stuff on film, Romay was an incredible screen presence who brought a ton of imagination, depth and unhinged enthusiasm to just about every role she played – one of those performers who always made an impression, and frequently delivered performances (in ‘Female Vampire’, ‘Lorna The Exorcist’ and ‘La Comtesse Perverse’, to name but a few) so astounding that no viewer is ever going to forget them.
In a different world, I’m sure her natural ability could have taken her far as a ‘legit’ actress. But by throwing her lot in with Franco she instead played a huge role in shaping one of the strangest and most continually fascinating filmographies on record, and, insofar as I can gather from interviews and such, she always took pride in her work, never apologised, never explained, and generally seemed very content with her place in the world.
An awesome lady in all sorts of ways, and it’s sad to see her go. Dumb as it may be to say so, my thoughts go out to Jess, and I hope he’s doing ok.
(Various slightly more together tributes are to be found on the I’m in a Jess Franco State of Mind blog, and concise but moving obits from Mike Hunchback and Stephen Thrower are also well worth a read.)
Sunday, 19 February 2012
With its daft one-size-fits-all title and unassailable front-line of Cushing, Lee and Price, one could easily be forgiven for writing off ‘Scream and Scream Again’ as another entry in the ill-fated cycle of ‘old boys club’ horror movies that began to take off as the box office for old-fashioned horror flicks started to diminish through the ‘70s. All bets are off however the second one sits down to actually watch ‘Scream and Scream Again’.
By some strange quirk of fate, this modest Amicus/AIP co-production turns out to be one of the most beserk, imaginative and unconventional British horror movies ever made - a real kick in the teeth for anyone who bought a ticket expecting to see Vince and the gang rattling around dark old house for eighty minutes. That’s not to say it’s actually all that great, but… well, we’ll get to that in a minute.
The duo of director Gordon Hessler and scriptwriter Christopher Wicking gained something of a reputation in the late ‘60s / early ‘70s for their attempts to single-handedly instigate a ‘new wave’ of British horror, building on the foundations laid by the late Michael Reeves in trying to tear the genre free from mouldy gothic cliché and open it up to more challenging and contemporary ideas. Or at least, that’s what you imagine they might have told anyone who bothered to ask. In truth, their campaign met with what might charitably be termed mixed results – certainly few would hold up the handful of last gasp gothics they made for AIP as shining examples of a bold new direction in horror. But on ‘Scream and Scream Again’ at least, their more ambitious notions of narrative construction and directorial shock tactics were allowed free reign – and perhaps too free, at that.
Regardless of expectations, the initial reaction of anyone sitting through the first twenty minutes of ‘Scream..’ for the first time will likely be WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON? And for better or worse, that’s not a question that won’t have received an entirely satisfactory answer by the time the credits roll seventy minutes later.
The film opens with a jogger being taken ill on a London common. Waking, he finds he is being kept sedated in an anonymous hospital room, being attended to by a sinister silent nurse. In a series of short scenes, we see him repeatedly drifting back into consciousness, only to discover that his limbs are being amputated one by one as he sleeps.
Meanwhile, in what we must presume to be a fictional fascist state somewhere in Europe, an English couple are being pursued across open country by soldiers who wear a curious three-arrowed crest on their armbands. Captured and taken to a dungeon cell after her man is shot, the woman (Yutte Stensgaard) is tortured by a nasty man. Peter Cushing, playing some sort of general, summons the nasty man to his office and gives us his best ‘troubled, reluctantly humanitarian authority figure’ as he tells him that he disapproves of such extreme methods. Unfortunately, the nasty man promptly kills Peter Cushing.
Next thing we know, we’re back in swinging London, where a tough, Sweeney-esque cop (Alfred Marks) is on the trail of a rapist/murderer who has been picking up girls from trendy nightclubs and dumping their bodies in remote locations. You’ll not be surprised to hear that circumstantial evidence seems to link the crimes back to the home of a certain Dr Browning, as portrayed by your friend and mine, Mr. Vincent Price.
Interspersed with all this, just to keep us on our toes, are a few scenes in which Christopher Lee turns up playing some sort of British Intelligence big-shot. He delivers a fairly mystifying briefing to a group of other big-shots, regarding… well he seems to be talking about an aircraft self-destruct mechanism that’s malfunctioned, leaving a British airman in enemy hands – presumably referring to the couple we earlier saw fleeing from the fascists, although I don’t think we ever find out why said airman had his girlfriend with him, or why he was dressed like he was on a camping holiday. Later on, Lee has a covert meeting in Trafalgar Square with the aforementioned nasty man from the fascist country, during which he makes a deal for the return of the airman (no mention of the girl), in exchange for “..all the information your police possess relating to the so-called vampire murders”.
It’s fitting that the story that eventually emerges from ‘Scream And Scream Again’ should involve the creation of 'composite' human beings, as the movie seems pretty damn composite itself, at times almost resembling a slightly classier version of some Al Adamson / Geoffrey Ho cut n’ paste atrocity, as seemingly unconnected scenes are jammed together at high speed irrespective of intelligibility or tonal cohesion. With no central character or guiding voice to help us navigate between these scenarios, the drama in the first half of the movie derives less from any fictional conflict, and more from wondering just how the hell Hessler and Wicking are going to cope with the high wire act of tying all this stuff together into a single narrative.
You certainly have to admire them for trying, and there is a touch of Nigel Kneale in Wicking’s ambitious combination of science fiction, gothic horror and cold war paranoia. But whereas Kneale always managed to blend his elements in a convincingly naturalistic fashion, and was careful to work within his means, Wicking takes a far wilder approach, throwing his ideas around like squash balls and ducking as they ricochet off the walls, with little regard to the limitations and proprieties of low(ish) budget commercial filmmaking.
It’s surprising that such a wayward screenplay made it into production at all really, especially under the noses of such conservative overlords as AIP’s Louis M. Heyward and Amicus’s Milton Subotsky. In fact, the reaction of any hard-nosed script-editor or producer taking a butcher’s at Wicking’s script would seem pretty obvious: drop all the espionage and fascist state stuff entirely, and concentrate on the central tale of Vincent Price and his crazy composites. Simple. I mean, all that other stuff is basically just expensive, unnecessary and confusing, right? And there’s more than enough meat in what remains to make for a tightly focused, action-packed horror film. Hell, with its human/cyborg paranoia, mad scientists, acid pits, gritty police procedural stuff and rampaging bionic mod vampires, it still crams in enough to see most filmmakers through a whole trilogy. Why be greedy? Sure you’d lose Cushing and Lee’s parts, but you could always fit them in elsewhere. Job done.
I guess Heyward and Subotsky must have just been looking the other way at the time though, because such a ‘sensible’ solution was never enforced, and Hessler and Wicking were allowed to plough on regardless. And thank god for that - naturally we here at Breakfast in the Ruins rejoice in the expensive, the unnecessary and the confusing, and offer thanks to whoever let them get away with turning a routine genre movie into an out of control juggernaut of weirdness.
Pity though the poor technicians and designers who found themselves having to help them turn this vision into reality at short notice. With the budget of a modest gothic horror movie stretched across a set of locations, characters and special effects that would have challenged a Hollywood A picture, it’s hardly surprising that the exteriors of Cushing’s fascist state look like a Shepperton car park and Lee’s Whitehall briefing room looks more like a BBC production office, with haphazard lighting and poor sound recording in some scenes veering closer to the kind of ‘cut n’ run’ filler footage found in a Jess Franco movie than to the base-line professionalism that distinguishes most British-made horrors.
Closer to home, the police procedural stuff is far more convincing, with Alfred Marks offering the closest thing the film has to a star turn as Detective Superintendent Bellaver. Hard-boiled banter and two-fisted determination as far as the eye can see, he’s the natural forerunner to any ‘70s fictional British cop you’d care to name, and the scenes in which the camera follows him through the chaotic police station offices are just plain great. (“This bloody chicken wasn’t killed, it died of old age”, he complains, taking a bite out of a leftover sandwich he grabbed off the top of an overflowing filing cabinet on his way to the autopsy room.)
Shocking too is the sheer grimness of the serial killer plotline, as evidenced when Ballaver informs the gentle Dr Browning that his late maid “wasn’t just murdered.. if you know what I mean”, before we cut to police pathologist Kenneth Benda pointing out a few salient features on the victim’s body as it lies naked on the slab. (“I haven’t seen anything like this in donkey’s years”, he says with glee.)
I bet you could hear a sharp intake of breath in the cinema for that scene; as much as British horror might have traded on images of implied sexual violence, instances of rape being actively acknowledged were rare indeed during the ‘60s, and were usually met with extensive criticism and threats of censorship (witness the controversy that greeted Hammer’s attempts to deal with such themes in ‘Curse of the Werewolf’ and ‘Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed’). As such, wading right in proto-‘New York Ripper’ style seems like some deliberate post-Reeves envelope-pushing on the part of Hessler and Wicking – another reminder (as it were needed by this stage) that we’re not in Castle Dracula anymore.
And as to the killer – well he’s quite a piece of work too. In scenes eerily reminiscent of a number of later British horrors, Michael Gothard stalks around a seedy faux-psychedelic nightclub (a brief shot of the doorway reveals that it's named ‘The Busted Pot’) as pop-psyche combo Amen Corner perform in the background (their overblown Shel Talmy-produced theme song for the movie is a hoot). Reeling in naïve girls (Judy Huxtable amongst them) with his Byronic charm, he zooms them off to isolated spots in his Jag, where blood-curdling unpleasantness ensues.
All this leads up to what’s generally regarded as the film’s highlight – a protracted action set-piece that sees the super-powered and apparently unstoppable Gothard fleeing from the combined forces of the British constabulary, screeching down the motorway, scattering coppers like ninepins, charging on foot through a convenient home counties forest like “..some bionic Mick Jagger”, as Jonathan Rigby puts it in his book ‘English Gothic’, and even finding a gruesome new method of escape when he’s finally handcuffed to a car bumper after a dramatic showdown in a chalk quarry.
Impressively staged and edited, this is all pretty frantic, high octane stuff, and it comes as little surprise to learn (via Rigby’s book) that Hessler and Wicking – like Reeves before them – were huge fans of Don Siegel, with Wicking apparently conceiving of ‘Scream and Scream Again’ as “a combination of ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ and ‘Coogan’s Bluff’”, if you can believe that. In fact, with 40+ years hindsight, perhaps the most innovative aspect of ‘Scream…’ is the way it approaches horror via the structure of a thriller (or indeed, fragments of several different thrillers), an idea which prefigures many of the best horror films of the coming decade.
Hessler took a rain check on the horror scene in the early ‘70s, moving on to a steady career in American TV, where we last encountered him presiding over Kiss Meets The Phantom of the Park, of all things. Chris Wicking kept plugging away in British horror though, and the more films I watch based on his screenplays, the more respect I have for the uniquely chaotic vision he brought to the genre. Both troubled and troubling, the films based on Wicking’s scripts may all be significantly flawed, but they nonetheless rattle along with a kind of disjointed, unheimlich fervour that takes them far closer to the core of genuine unease found in the work of Lovecraft or Bram Stoker than most of the films that clung more stubbornly to gothic tradition.
As wildly entertaining as it is inconsistent and baffling, ‘Scream And Scream Again’ perhaps represents the crowning achievement, certainly the most extreme example, of Wicking’s defiantly fragmented approach to narrative, and if it failed to shake up the British horror establishment quite as thoroughly as he and Hessler might have hoped, they had to wait only a few short years for their film’s true legacy to become clear. In spite of all its misfiring lunacy, ‘Scream..’ at every turn seems to anticipate the grimmer, more contemporary vein of British horror that independent filmmakers like Pete Walker and Norman J. Warren would embrace in the decade that followed, keeping the genre alive as the wider British film industry collapsed around them.
Wednesday, 8 February 2012
Yet another obit in a bad winter of notable mortal coil departures (Ronald Searle, Dorothea Tanning amongst others would/should have been covered here had I more time and resources to do them justice), this week I was sad to hear (via Between Channels) about the passing of one Samuel Youd, better known as veteran sci-fi / thriller writer John Christopher.
It’s difficult for me to really assess the work of John Christopher, because in truth I haven’t read any of his novels for the best part of twenty years, but the ones I read as a child had a massive impact on me, helping to propel me toward independent reading of grown-up books for the first time, and (along with John Wyndham and assorted Dr Who novelisations) establishing a love of British science fiction and end-of-the-world adventure stories that endures to this day.
I don’t remember whether I read his trilogy of Tripods books (‘The White Mountains’, ‘The City of Gold and Lead’ and ‘The Pool of Fire’, all published 1967/68) for the first time myself, or whether they were read TO me (I was that young at the time), but either way, I was absolutely mad for them. I remember going into primary school and boring my fellow pupils for hours about the finer details of these great, epic stories I’d been reading. In my memory, they were enthralled, but more likely they were just bored and wondering what the hell I was going on about.
In retrospect, the books sound like a lively mash-up of familiar sci-fi tropes – a ‘what if the aliens in War of the Worlds had won?’ type scenario mixed up with plenty of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers mind control paranoia and served up in the form of jolly Young Adult fantasy quest narrative. It’s great though to think back to a time when my mind was a sufficiently clean slate to allow me to be completely enthralled by these now-familiar notions, to when the end of every chapter was an unbearable cliffhanger and any book over 150 pages seemed like an epic of Count of Monte Cristo proportions.
I’d imagine the kids in the Tripods books were probably pretty stock characters, but I cared about them all deeply, and was pretty moved by the comparative seriousness and realism of their battle against the implacable alien menace. I remember one of the books ending with a character being smuggled inside the Tripods city (where, rather oddly, the unnervingly alien triangular baddies set about whipping him with laser beams and adopt him as some sort of pet), and thinking, jesus, he is actually INSIDE their CITY, and gets to see them outside their armour? That’s insane! That cannot be!
Such is the sense of forbidding, imaginative grandeur that a good author can so quickly establish in written sci-fi – so different to the production value-deprived movies and TV series I could have been watching instead, with characters barging around shoddy looking forbidden zones like their lives depended on it.
I was vaguely aware that the BBC had made a Tripods TV show a few years beforehand, but to this day I’ve never seen it – I think I saw a few photos and immediately realised it would pale in comparison to the imagery the books had established in my imagination. The beeb themselves seem to have realised this too when they decided not to adapt the second and third books, despite the apparent success of their first series – hardly surprising, given that re-reading the plot synopses for this post reminds me that they would have called for scenes of global upheaval, burning alien cityscapes and mass zeppelin bombardment.
Anyway, rather than turning to TV, I was more interested in tracking down Christopher’s prequel, the bluntly titled ‘When The Tripods Came’ (1988). I found a copy in the library and nearly flipped my lid when I saw that the cover depicted a tripod fighting a tank!
From what I recall, the book failed to really live up to the idylls of brutal interplanetary carnage I was hoping for, and was actually more of a faintly reactionary paranoid sci-fi yarn, detailing how the Tripods enslaved humanity by means of – funnily enough - a hypnotic, simpleminded TV show that their mind-controlled slaves pushed into production (shades of Quatermass II or Kneale’s script for Halloween III maybe?). This was ok, but what I REALLY liked about the book was the way that Christopher took the concept the whole distance, setting things up for a cracking end-of-the-world story in the second half.
I loved the gradually rising tone of panic and hysteria (the exact same effect employed by J.G. Ballard in his early natural disaster novels), as what starts out merely as a minor annoyance becomes a growing worry, then a definite problem, and finally a complete apocalypse, with our protagonist’s grumpy decision not to watch a particular TV show eventually leading him to a desperate flight across wartorn, Tripod-dominated Europe to join the resistance in the Swiss alps. Just think on that the next time you purposefully ignore some kinda fancypants HBO shit your friends are trying to get you into!
Christopher already had pretty mighty past form in the sphere of apocalyptic sci-fi by this point of course, and, being a kid with an unhealthy interest in such things, it wasn’t long before I found my way to probably his best known book, 1954’s ‘The Death of Grass’. By this time I was a year or two older, reading frown-up books for myself, but it bowled me over just as thoroughly as the Tripods had. A bleak and sombre work that sits neatly next to Wyndham’s masterpieces from the same era, it’s clearly one of the defining works of the ‘British apocalypse’ sub-genre, and I recall it being by far the grimmest too, as Christopher picks up the old ‘fine line between civilisation and savagery’ theme and really runs with it. I was particularly horrified/impressed by a sequence in which our ‘heroes’ stumble across a family who are sheltering in a remote farmhouse, and promptly shoot the parents, steal their food supplies and move on. I’d never read a story in which people we were supposed to side with did things like that before. And rarely since either, come to think of it. Dark stuff.
I liked the iconic Penguin cover art (illustration by John Griffiths) a lot too. It’s probably more than a coincidence that when I started trying to write my own end-of-the-world tales as a teenager, charred fields and skeletal cattle featured prominently.
I recently acquired a new copy of the Penguin edition in quite good condition, along with a copy of Cornel Wilde’s 1970 film adaptation ‘No Blade of Grass’, and had been planning on catching up with both of them this year.
And that’s that really. I moved on to reading other stuff, never really thought to further investigate John Christopher’s life or wider career, and here we all are. But for those early reading experiences, I owe him a lot.
As the bibliography on his wiki page reveals, Samuel Youd wrote prolifically through the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s under no less than seven different names, following up the success of ‘The Death of Grass’ with a series of similarly themed end-of-the-world novels under the Christopher name, including ‘A Wrinkle in the Skin’ (earthquakes), ‘The World in Winter’ (new ice age) and dystopian class warfare fable ‘The Guardians’. His output seems to have slowed from the ‘80s onwards, with only one novel published during the ‘90s, and the final John Christopher book, ‘Bad Dream’, appeared in 2003.
According to biography on the inside cover of my copy of ‘The Death of Grass’, “John Christopher is married and has two children. His principal recreations are listening to music and, when the English climate permits, watching cricket.”
Friday, 3 February 2012
Say what you like about Nigel Wingrove and his Redemption empire (and there is plenty to be said), I can’t deny that I owe those sleazy mofos a colossal debt of gratitude. Not only for bringing the work of Jean Rollin to my attention (and indeed, pretty much singlehandedly rescuing his films from obscurity during the ‘90s), but also for introducing me to the likes of Bava, Fulci, Argento, de Ossorio, Jess Franco, even George Romero’s ‘Martin’ and ‘The Crazies’. Long before I began to develop a particular interest of the world of cult horror movies, all of these good things came my way in the form of Redemption VHS, all picked up more or less at random from creepy market stall traders during my lunch-break from whatever crappy temp job I was doing at the time, just because they were cheap, and looked weird, and I was bored.
Being Redemption tapes of course, they often had random bits hacked out of their running time, terrible cropped transfers, inexplicable softcore fetish photography on the front and back cover copy written by illiterates. But still, without their formative influence, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here writing this today. God only knows, I might have been somewhere else entirely, writing about some healthy and socially acceptable pastime that I’d taken up instead. Maybe I’d be skiing, or building model boats, or discussing the novels of H.E. Bates. Well fuck that – thanks to Redemption, I’m watching late ‘60s sci-fi sexploitation films, and there’s nothing you can do about it!
And even now, Redemption’s pioneering assaults on the PAL home video market are blazing a trail through my consciousness in an indirect sort of way. Certainly, no other critics or movie distributors have gone out of their way to point me in the direction of something like ‘Zeta One’, but heaven help anyone who’d stand between me and the copy of this ropey looking Tigon quickie I spied in a darkened corner of Edinburgh’s Avalanche Records last year, hidden behind a pile of oversized photo-books, affixed with a sign that said something like “VIDEOS - £whatever”.
For once featuring a Redemption cover model who is posed LESS salaciously than most of the women in the actual movie (what’s up with that?), the humble 84 minutes of this thing turn out to be, well… kind of extraordinary actually. Like a head-on collision between Jess Franco’s ‘Girl From Rio’, one of Lindsey Shonteff’s witless James Bond spoofs and the kind of dream a sixteen year old boy might have after too much cheese and a marathon screening of Gerry Anderson’s ‘UFO’, it’s certainly highly entertaining, if nothing else.
After an agreeably swanky credits sequence soundtracked by a crazy psyche-lounge Bond theme pastiche composed by Johnny Hawksworth (the genius who also brought us the Roobarb & Custard theme, believe it or not), the action, such as it is, begins in the slightly cramped bachelor pad of ‘Department 5’ agent James Word (see what they did there?). Word’s role in British Intelligence seems to consist primarily of being seduced by sexy enemy agents and feeding them a bunch of misinformation (OR IS IT?) when they pump him for secret info during pillow-talk, and his latest conquest is none other than the thoroughly personable Yutte Stensgaard, of ‘Lust For a Vampire’ fame. After a bit of chat and an extended bout of strip poker, they finally hit the sack, where James spins her a yarn regarding his recent encounters with a race of alien women who make incursions onto the earthly plain from a realm called, I’m afraid, ‘Angvia’ (and if you’re having trouble with that one, ask Johnny Alucard). “I think it’s out in space somewhere, or perhaps it’s not… perhaps it’s right here, in a negative time zone or something”, Word helpfully explains.
As you might expect, from hereon in things get pretty weird pretty quickly, as the film explores the earth-bound activities of these, uh, Angvians, who seem chiefly concerned with kidnapping earth girls and indoctrinating them into their “vast supernatural ant colony”, transporting them back to Angvia by means of “some sort of time or space machine housed in a pantechnicon, or in other words, a large van” (thanks James).
As fans of trashy movies and pulp adventure stories have long been aware, societies of women deprived of male companionship will naturally tend to fall back on a dress code consisting of revealing and impractical fetish gear, and the ladies of Angvia are certainly no slouches in this department, adopting a lively variation on the quintessential ‘roman’ look (ill-fitting fringed togas, nipple tassels and heavy golden accessories) before stripping down to some truly startling Guido Crepax style metal & rope bikinis for combat and ‘physical endurance training’.
Although brief, our visits to Angvia are pretty cool, the film’s budget at least stretching to some truly whacked out psychedelic visuals and brightly-coloured, geometric sets – including a ‘self-revelation room’ walled with pulsing mylar sheeting like something out of Ira Cohen’s ‘Invasion of the Thunderbolt Pagoda’ – all accompanied by bursts of demented Sun Ra style abstract electro-blather that provide a stark contrast to the ham-fisted library cues used through most of the rest of the film (sounds like someone in the editing room was jamming ‘whimsical chase themes vol # 27’ pretty heavily, sad to say). I’d like to be able to credit these way-out sounds to composer Hawksworth (they certainly tally with the gratuitous dissonance he threw into the opening theme), but with a movie like this I guess it’s equally likely they just stole them from somewhere else, or cued up ‘fucked up atonal space jazz vol # 12’. Who knows.
Thus far, it seem as if this whole Angvia business takes its inspiration either from cheesy ‘alien women’ flicks like 1956’s Anglo-American ‘Fire Maidens From Outer Space’ (very much the direct forerunner of the kinda stuff we’re witnessing here), and partly from Sax Rohmer’s Sumuru stories. I’ve always been quite fond of Rohmer’s conception of a hidden island inhabited by a race of man-hating female warriors and their all-powerful queen (sort of doing for the gender issue what Fu Manchu did for racial equality), and have always been kinda surprised that the idea wasn’t seized upon more frequently by exploitation/adventure-happy late ‘60s filmmakers. As it is, Harry Alan Towers (don of the Christopher Lee ‘Fu Manchu’ series) did at least commission the aforementioned Lindsay Shonteff to make ‘The Million Eyes of Sumuru’ in 1967, a film chiefly notable (or so I’m told – I’d love to actually see it sometime) for preceding the also aforementioned ‘The Girl From Rio’, which began filming as a proposed sequel, retaining the character of Sumuru and her secret city of Femina, but quickly spiralling off onto some other shit entirely as Jess Franco’s wayward imagination took control.
In terms of both its sci-fi take on the Sumuru mythos and its ultra-kinky pop art aesthetic, ‘The Girl From Rio’ would seem like a natural companion piece to ‘Zeta One’. Any similarities though can probably be regarded as purely coincidental, as ‘Zeta One’ was actually directly inspired (although curiously this is acknowledged nowhere in the credits) by Zeta magazine – a totally bizarre mod/sci-fi ‘men’s mag’ published in London in the late ‘60s. Sadly, very little info on the magazine seems to be available online, but you can look at some scanned pages from an issue here, and you totally should, because they’re really far out! Seemingly an attempt to blend avant/arty softcore photography with some kind of pulp sci-fi photo-story, the scans clearly reveal that the whole Angvia concept, the characters and situations found in the film, and overall approach to costume and design, came straight from the pages of the magazine. Crazy stuff.
Anyway, back to the movie, and back on earth the agents of Angvia take care to adopt appropriate garb, which, this being 1969, naturally consists of bright red mini-dresses, white leather thigh boots and Mary Quant flapper wigs. As they hop around London trying to induct a young stripper called Ted into their ranks, the girls are pursued not by James Word and Department 5 (he’s back at the shack bedding another Angvian agent) but by some curious characters who seem to be their chief antagonists at earth – renegade aristocrat Colonel Broughton, played by James Robertson Justice, and his chief crony Swyne, played by Charles Hawtrey.
Yes, that James Robertson Justice and that Charles Hawtrey.
I know, I know.
By means of assorted capers too convoluted to bother going into here – including a thoroughly incongruous and unconvincing torture chamber sequence in which a poor thigh-booted maiden is subjected to the indignity of having Justice and Hawtrey leer over her going “oh, my dear.. my dear..” and so forth – the Colonel ends up dispatching his private army of ne’erdowells (and seriously, they’re one rough looking bunch – I think the producers just hung around outside a casting call for a Hammer tavern scene and picked up the rejects) to hunt an Angvian prisoner Most-Dangerous-Game style across his ‘Scottish’ estate.
This prompts Zeta herself (the hereforeto unmentioned Dawn Addams) into action, mobilising a squad of Angvian shock troops to take on the Colonel’s men, and thus before long we find ourselves witnessing the delirious spectacle of a gang of deerstalker & tweed-clad bully boys running around some National Trust woodland pursued by squads of buxom, Crepax un-bikini and flapper wig clad Angvians (one of them none other than Hammer fan favourite Valerie Leon), who proceed to zap them to death with invisible laser beams fired from their fingers! What a sight! Surely my eyes doth lie when they present to me with such wonders!
I’d like to think that this singular sequence represents the vision those swinging cats at Tigon had of the coming decade. With censorship on the retreat and the counter-culture encroaching further into mainstream society, who can blame them for picturing the 1970s as a wondrous era in which the fusty guardians of the old order would be roasted alive in their plus fours amid a hurricane of gigantic boobs and invisible laser beams, to the accompaniment of parping, faux-funky chase music?
That such a starry-eyed vision so swiftly ran aground in the face of the three-day week, ‘Mutiny On The Buses’ and close-ups of Robin Askwith’s pimply arse is a tragedy beyond words. No wonder Tony Tenser packed it in to sell wicker furniture.
For a brief moment though, we can watch ‘Zeta One’ and enjoy the last gasp of a rare moment of cultural optimism that extended even into the world of fly-by-night soft porn movies. Full of seedy detail, unlikely conversations, perplexed looking actors, opportunistic location shooting and all manner of mystifying strangeness, almost every shot in ‘Zeta One’ is an unadulterated joy for fans of Vintage British Weird, a perfect piece of bonkers late night viewing on all levels.
With the exception of a 1972 short subject, ‘Zeta One’ marks writer/director Michael Cort’s sole statement in the cinematic medium, but IMDB does at least boast a nice low-res picture of him playing the trumpet. What a fella!
As is inevitably the case with VHS reviews, the images used in this post aren’t my own screengrabs, but are respectfully borrowed from here, there and everywhere – most notably from the ever-wonderful Island of Terror. The poster above was found at the no less wonderful Pulp International.