Chris Marker died yesterday, on his 91st birthday.
If you’ve never watched ‘La Jetee’ (1962), now might be a good time to do so.
Monday, 30 July 2012
Tuesday, 24 July 2012
When I reviewed lovably eccentric Louisiana witchcraft movie The Witchmaker a few years back (mental note: gotta get a watchable copy of that some time), I failed to make the connection between producer L.Q. Jones and the gaunt cowboy actor of the same name who turns up in most of Sam Peckinpah’s ‘60s/’70s films. Partly I just wasn’t paying that much attention, and partly it just seems kinda unlikely, y’know? Well, turns out that it actually was that same L.Q. Jones, and that following the success(?) of his first venture into low budget occult horror, he and co-producer/actor Alvy Moore actually took a second shot at the genre, with Jones persuading his frequent on-screen partner Strother Martin to co-star in 1971’s Texas-lensed ‘The Brotherhood of Satan’. (You’ll remember the pair as the hapless bounty hunters in ‘The Wild Bunch’, and the varmints who leave Jason Robards to die in the desert in ‘The Ballad of Cable Hogue’.)
Regrettably, what they came up with is a dull and rather mystifying stab at the early 70s “Satanic panic” sub-genre, mostly lacking the self-contained charm of its predecessor. But, it is at least a lot stranger than the already fairly strange 'Witchmaker’, and that’s gotta count for something.
What manner of madness is this, you may find yourself asking from the outset, as the film opens with motion-blurred close-ups of tank tracks crushing piles of metal, accompanied by grinding machine noise and occasional sounds of people screaming in terror, intercut with shots of a wind up toy tank (shades of ‘Astro Zombies’). When this… whatever it is.. has been completed, we see a small boy walking away from a pile of smouldering wreckage. Climbing a hill, he meets a couple of other children, including a girl who begins to brightly glow in supernatural fashion – cue animated credits sequence.
After that, we’re introduced to a happy family who are having a nice day out near a.. lake? I guess it’s a lake. Driving off, they travel along a desert road, where they discover the crushed car seen in the prologue. Heading to a nearby town to report this rather extreme ‘accident’, they meet with an inexplicably hostile reception, as the cops immediately rough up and interrogate the father, before a crowd of locals descend upon their car in a kind of mass rage. “You took them away from us!”, a man who looks rather like Fidel Castro yells despairingly as the family turn tail and get the hell out of there.
Strange stuff this. Definitely uneasy. Not at all a good end to a day at the lake. But yes – unease, unease, unease seems to be prolific TV director Bernard McEveety’s bag, his apparent disdain for establishing shots and clear transitions leaving us with an uncomfortable mixture of blurry, abstract close ups and cramped, medium shot dialogue scenes that never really settles down into any kind of sensible rhythm.
The actual storyline of the film, once we’ve figured it out, is predictable bordering on tedious – a coven of elderly citizens are using Satanic powers to prevent local people from leaving town, and hypnotising/stealing their children one by one, so that they can transfer their spirits from the older bodies to the younger and continue their unholy existence. Ho hum. A pretty straight-down-the-line set up for horror fans, and unfortunately one that veers closer to the oh-so-‘70s threat-to-the-family vibe of ‘The Stepford Wives’ or Bert I. Gordon’s achingly dull ‘Necromancy’ than to the more decadent, whacked out brand of Satanism I tend to favour.
But linear though this plot may be, it becomes unbearably confusing simply due to the film’s refusal (or inability?) to really communicate anything to us very effectively. Hard to explain quite what I mean, but basically this is the kind of film where at any point characters we’ve never seen before can start wondering around, talking about stuff we have no interest in; in which we’re never quite sure where or why a certain scene is happening, or what pertinent information we should take away from it. Whether the result of incompetent editing, heavy cutting or reliance on incomplete footage, or just an admirable (if doomed) attempt to avoid exposition-heavy dialogue, the result is that we’re often simply lost.
I know at this point you’re probably thinking “great, I love movies like that”, but the kicker here is that not a great deal happens to make any of this narrative heavy lifting worthwhile. Despite some moderate outbursts of violence and fright, the whole thing has an inescapable TV movie feel about it, which certainly gels with McEveety’s CV. But imagine a TV movie directed by someone who seems to be looking to Jess Franco as a paragon of narrative efficiency, and you’ll start to get the idea.
Not that the Franco comparison extends much further than that, unfortunately. Certainly Uncle Jess wouldn’t think much of ‘Brotherhood..’s subdued retiree Satanists, led by head cultist Strother Martin, here mustering little of the energy he brought to his western roles as he intones some totally square Satanic litanies (just yr typical “oh Lord Satan..” sorta stuff really). Admittedly, their hideout does have a couple of pretty cool sets (that cobweb-shrouded giant ankh gateway thing is a bit of an eye-opener), and all that business with making hypnotised children stand motionless on marble pillars is pretty peculiar and subliminally disturbing, but… yeah, not much doing really.
In essence I think ‘Brotherhood of Satan’ is a viewing experience very well suited to the pungent charms of this 1989 Parkfield Entertainment VHS (other titles in the “Hollywood Horror Collection” include ‘Torture Garden’, ‘The Mutations’ and ‘Blind Terror’). As well as the coating of nutritious fuzz, adding an extra layer of unearthliness to otherwise mundane imagery, it’s a good one for drifting in and out of sleep to as the VCR wheels whir.
In fact, good advice for watching this one would be… well actually good advice would be to watch something that provides some degree of entertainment value or emotional/intellectual engagement instead. But if say you were to find yourself stuck on some hellish airline where they’re showing this as the inflight movie, taking some sedatives and just letting it roll over you is definitely the way to go.
Yes, watching whilst fully awake would be a mistake. You’d only start asking questions. Why do the elderly Satanists seem to be letting a a young-ish woman join their ranks? Why - possibly as a result of this, possibly not - does one of the elderly women in the coven have to beg for her life before the altar and then stand motionless on a pillar with the kidnapped children whilst the rest of the cult mock her? What’s the reasoning behind giving Strother Martin’s character a ‘real world’ identity as the town’s mild-mannered doctor? (His secret identity as head Satanist is never revealed to the good guys, and he never uses any of the information he’s learned from hanging around with them to modify the plans of his cult - in fact he does bugger all in either of his identities really). Why, after a typically confusing scene in which it is implied that two people have died, do we see our male lead (who wasn’t there) walking shell-shocked through some hellish basement full of body bags as the police question him?
No, best not to worry about any of that. Just wash half a sleeping pill down with a few stiff drinks. As you drift in and out of consciousness, strange pictures will appear, flickering across your mind’s eye, hinting at far stranger mysteries than this the sober surface of ‘The Brotherhood of Satan’ is able to provide.
Men in monastic robes move hypnotised, formally attired children around on a chequered floor, like chess pieces.
A woman sinks into an armchair, experiencing some sort of seizure, as her husband(?) sits disinterestedly behind her, reading obscure and/or oddly translated bible verses aloud.
A distraught deputy sheriff chases the dust cloud kicked up by a departing car, waving an orange toy monkey above his head.
These are the building blocks ‘The Brotherhood of Satan’ offers the brave somnambulist. Dare you try to assemble them..?
Wednesday, 18 July 2012
Having inadvertently formalised the concept of “70s Backwoods Satanist Movies Inexplicably Featuring Great, Sam Peckinpah-Affiliated Actors” (or 70sBSMIFGSPAA, if you will) in my Borgnine obit post last week, I thought the least I could do was undertake perhaps the first ever deliberate overview of this much overlooked sub-genre, beginning with what is probably its commercial and creative high water mark, 1975’s ‘Race With The Devil’.
Before we begin, I’d suggest having a good look at the UK quad poster art reproduced above. Imagine walking past a cinema and seeing THAT outside!* I’m sure we can all agree that there would be no possible option but to go in and buy a ticket immediately. Clear the diary, family commitments be damned – I am going to see this movie in which Peter Fonda and Warren Oates fight hooded Satanists with shotguns and drive a tooled up camper van off an exploding bridge, and I am going to see it now.
Such is the kind of reaction ‘70s exploitation distributors seem to have been banking on through much of the decade, and so my feeling of having been born several decades too late increases. I mean, fuck Batman, y'know? I know where my hypothetical dollar is going. Not that ‘Race With the Devil’ is exactly an exploitation film in the strictest sense guess, being bankrolled and distributed by 20th Century Fox… but, well, I’ve always been a little confused as to what precisely it is, to be honest. On the one hand, it’s got a totally stupid horror plotline and a mind-blasting, action-packed poster that would put Roger Corman or Crown International to shame, but at the same time, it’s got big studio money behind it and… Peter Fonda? Warren Oates? I mean, those guys maybe weren't A-grade marquee names in ‘75, but they were still proper actors, y’know? Men who picked their projects carefully and tried to make sure they ended up in quote-unquote good films – that being a very definite distinction back in the pre-Spielberg ‘70s, and one that did not tend to embrace crazy-ass scripts about rampaging Satanists and exploding camper vans.
So what happened? How did they both end up doing this film? Did Fox throw their weight behind producers Wes Bishop and Lee Frost (whose Saber Productions brought us the unforgettable mad scientist/race relations extravaganza The Thing With Two Heads in ’72) before or after the talent was on-board? I have no idea, but I bet there must be a good story behind it.
One thing I do know is that Fonda and Oates were good buddies in real life, so maybe that had something to do with it. The pair played out a close, borderline homoerotic, friendship in Fonda’s excellent directorial debut ‘The Hired Hand’ (which I reviewed here), and as the legend has it they spent much of the early ‘70s palling around off-screen as well, buying land next door to each other in Montana, enjoying a relaxing lifestyle of huntin’, shootin’, fishin’, and no doubt male bonding like crazy.
So with its rural location shooting, rip-roaring action scenes and broadly similar tale of two happy-go-lucky dudes enjoying each other’s company, perhaps the script for ‘Race With The Devil’ simply offered them a fun way to collect a pay cheque whilst continuing to have a good time together (and without requiring them to really knock-one-outta-the-court acting-wise, the way they’d have been expected to do in a ‘serious’ film)..? Pure speculation of course, but who knows. I mean, this was the ‘70s. Maybe they just had Bishop & Frost round for dinner one night, busted out the coke, got talking about this great idea they had for a movie and hey…. y’know how these things go. Before they know it they’re sitting in the camper van, taking direction from biker movie/blaxploitation veteran Jack Starrett, wondering how all this might affect their hopes for an Oscar.
And as to the movie that resulted? Well in spite of the talent and studio backing, Bishop & Frost’s script remains pure boilerplate exploitation, reheating some Satanist paranoia from ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, mixing it up with fresh “rich city folk run into trouble in the country” riffs ala ‘Deliverance’, adding last reel car chase appeal and simmering til lukewarm. With correspondingly bland direction and lesser actors in the lead roles, ‘Race With The Devil’ could easily have been rote schedule filler of the William Girdler / William Grefe variety, but thankfully Starrett steps up to the plate with some surprisingly accomplished filmmaking, and Fonda and Oates can’t help but remain as charismatic as ever, irrespective of their intentions in taking on the project.
With a keen eye on the clock, the movie doesn’t spend a great deal of time on “getting’ to know the characters” type set up, but the stars ease into their roles so naturally it feels like we’ve known them for years. Perhaps drawing on their real life friendship, the dynamic between the two is established with scarcely a word needing to be uttered: Pete is the young(ish) hot-shot pro motorcycle racer, Warren his slightly older, crankier mechanic/garage owner buddy, and all is right with the world.
Oates is boastful and belligerent (bringing back a touch of his character from ‘Two Lane Blacktop’), but also sorta down-at-heel and self-deprecating – he realises he’ll never be as handsome or physically capable as his younger buddy, but that’s damn well not going to stop him trying, bringing his greater wealth and experience into play where necessary. This contest for alpha male status occasionally leads the two to bicker, but they always pull back from a full-scale argument, realising that their friendship is more important than their egos. Isn’t that sweet?
Of course, despite the focus on close male friendship, the film would also like to make clear that there’s nothing funny going on here, ya hear?, and to that end, both men have naturally brought their wives along for the ride. And this sadly is where the movie falls down as a potential character piece or small cast survival drama, simply because neither wife is really ever given the opportunity to develop much of a personality. It’s not that the script paints them as inept or empty-headed or anything, and it’s not the fault of actresses Loretta Swit and Lana Parker, who do a perfectly credible job; it’s just that whilst the men are granted fully fleshed out characters with a believable and interesting relationship, the women remain just.. their wives, sidelined to the extent that by the time we reach the end of the movie it’s still hard to tell them apart – a definitive example of the kind of ‘invisibility’ of married women in babyboomer-era culture that Fonda critiqued so thoughtfully in ‘The Hired Hand’ in fact. Oh well. Can’t exactly blame him for not learning his lesson here I guess, as he’s going to work solely with his ‘actor’ hat on. And like I say, this was the ‘70s. Presumably Swit and Parker’s real life equivalents were busy making sandwiches and rolling joints whilst the boys were yakking up a storm about this crazy movie they were gonna make?
Just as poorly served by the script are the film’s Satanists. Admittedly, the central sacrificial ritual that kick-starts our chase / flight narrative is pretty cool and effectively surprising / violent / chilling (plus I just can’t get over the genre-shredding surreality of seeing Warren Oates in an ill-fitting bobblehat inadvertently stumbling across a black mass – “ooh, they got, uh, some robes, and they’re havin’ themselves a dance..”). Beyond that though, the idea of an omniscient Satanic cult controlling a remote Texas county never quite convinces.
If, as if strongly implied, the cult covertly exercises control over populace and law enforcement within their domain, why do they spend most of the movie playing sneaky ‘cat & mouse’ games with the outsiders who have witnessed their sacrifice, rather than just killing them at the first opportunity? I mean, what’s their game-plan here? Do they think that if they just *scare* these people enough, they won’t bother to mention all the sinister goings-on to anyone once they’re safely over the county line? And also, if the cult exerts such omniscient power in a community of well-fed rednecks and ‘regular folk’ (presumably encompassing local officials, politicians, business leaders etc), how come their big ritual gathering is just some threadbare get together on a bare hillside, attended by a few scrawny hippie types?
Going further, we could also ask why the clerk in an apparently Satanist-affiliated gas station happily sells our heroes a shotgun and ammunition whilst they’re on the run, but… such are the questions you’ve got to contend with when you let the guys who came up with ‘The Thing With Two Heads’ write your script, I suppose.
I guess there probably wasn’t much Jack Starrett could have done to patch up weaknesses in the writing (not really your bag when yr a hired director and your producers wrote the script), but thankfully his work here is solid throughout, keeping things tense and well paced, with imaginative mise en scene, plenty of camera movement, tight cutting, bright colours and effective night shooting, plus lots of incidental local colour and period charm - everything you could ask of a no nonsense bit of commercial cinema really. Along with the quality lead performances, it’s this technical professionalism and directorial suss that goes furthest in helping ‘Race With The Devil’ live up to its unique concept, somewhat transcending its origins as a drive-in timewaster in spite of the script’s inconsistencies.
One element I thought worked really well was the ambiguity of the situations our characters encounter in the aftermath of the ritual. In particular, the scenes in which Fonda and Oates report what they’ve seen to the local sheriff are excellently played. Clearly something is awry with the cops’ flippant attitude and shoddy procedures, but to what extent are they implicated? Are they fully paid up cultists, are they just following the orders of some local bigwig who’s told them to keep clear, or are they simply lazy and inept? Even by the end of the film, we’re not quite sure.** A lot of horror stories tend to overplay their hand when it comes to stuff like this, throwing in some obvious giveaway (Lovecraft did so in just about everything he ever wrote, much as I love him), so to encounter a tale where it’s genuinely difficult to judge the trustworthiness of characters or surroundings is refreshingly unnerving.
As paranoia grows, the uncertainty that results from a mixture of incidents that could maybe, possibly be imaginary (broken phone lines in gas stations, creepy, starin’ locals) and threatening intrusions that are clearly NOT imaginary (snake in the cupboard, murdered pet dog) is well-managed, creating a sense of ever-present threat that would have been immediately dissipated if they’d filled the movie with hooded cultists running around at all hours and dudes with highly suspicious pentagram necklaces and so on.
All such subtleties are out of the window as we approach the high octane conclusion however, and, uh, yeah – the whole car chase sequence is pretty nifty, rip-roaring pre-‘Road Warrior’ fare, delivering on the posters’ promise of some wonderfully gratuitous vehicular destruction. This is the part of the movie that could really have been improved by having some red-robed cultists leaping about the place, but still… I ain’t complaining. Rednecks will do just fine. The ending that follows is a little abrupt - I could easily have gone for another fifteen minutes or so of wanton Satanist bashing – but then, I guess it’s meant to be surprising and abrupt, so, mission accomplished.
In conclusion, ‘Race With the Devil’ might not quite be the heavenly Peter Fonda / Warren Oates Satanist-blasting extravaganza of your dreams, but it’s still a lot of fun, and well worth a look as an example of an unusual, well-made mid ‘70s b-flick. Face it, It’s one of those film you’ve gotta see some time, so might as well grab some beers and get on with it.
*Although it cops out on the Satanist angle, this better known American poster for the movie is perhaps even cooler, and this alternate horror-themed effort is great too.
**Actually that’s not quite true – rewatching the movie to get some screengrabs, I noticed that there’s a brief shot of the sheriff amongst the cultists who surround the motorhome at the finale… but my point still stands I think.
Saturday, 14 July 2012
Monday, 9 July 2012
Sad news to wake up to this morning.
Still, he certainly had a good run; I bet there aren’t many movie people born during the First World War still going out to bat these days.
He’s an actor I’ve always really loved, so I wish I could do a proper, comprehensive obit and pick out a few under-appreciated gems from his vast CV etc, but sadly that’s not the sort of thing I’m very good at, at least as far as classic Hollywood and suchlike is concerned. I guess I’ve always just known him on a “that awesome guy who’s always turning up in stuff” kind of level (“oh man, I forgot Borgnine is in this thing too!”), so I’ll leave the precise details to those who know.
Although it’s a film I bet he got sick of constantly being associated with, I’ll admit that I saw him most recently when re-watching ‘The Wild Bunch’, the obvious quality of his performance in which needs no additional boosting from the likes of me. The DVD I watched it on has a great commentary track, in which the assembled Peckinpah experts who’ve been brought together to offer learned insights basically just *lose their shit* and give in to the childlike excitement of sitting in a group watching such a fantastic film. I recall that there are several points at which they drop any semblance of historical / analytical discussion and just start going “Look at Borgnine! Look at Borgnine!” Sound advice for watching just about any scene he ever appeared in, I should think. Dude just seemed to act with every muscle in his body – one of those people whose presence could improve just about any film ever made.
(PEDANTIC NOTE: Whilst on the subject, I’ve read a couple of obits on the web today that have noted that Borgnine is the last of the The Wild Bunch to die, but I can’t help feeling that’s not quite accurate. Whilst it’s true that he was the last man standing from the four who head out for the final confrontation pictured above, IMDB confirms that Jaime Sánchez, who played Angel, is still alive and kicking, and I don’t think Borg’s character would have wanted us to leave him out. [And the fact that I care about what a fictional character in a 45 year old movie might think has got to tell you something...])
Oh, and closer this blog’s usual territory… why haven’t I seen ‘The Devil’s Rain’ yet..?
Surely a vital contribution to the extremely specific sub-genre of “70s backwoods Satanist movies that inexplicably feature great Sam Peckinpah-affiliated actors” (also see ‘Race With The Devil’ (1975) and ‘The Brotherhood of Satan’ (1971)).
Thursday, 5 July 2012
Compelling in an entirely different fashion is the film Andy Milligan made immediately after ‘Nightbirds’, his first UK made horror effort ‘The Body Beneath’. “Filmed in the Graveyards of England!” announced the posters when the film eventually saw release in New York a few years later, and as selling points go, that’s certainly one that works for me. And indeed, a few memorable sorties into Highgate Cemetery do turn up here, adding further atmosphere to a film Milligan primarily shot in and around the Serum Chase estate on Hampstead Heath – a frequent British film location, perhaps most strikingly utilised in Joseph Losey’s ‘Secret Ceremony’.
Although there is absolutely no evidence to support such a notion, it’s fun to speculate that perhaps the sight of Milligan’s bizarrely-attired cast traipsing through Highgate on their no doubt un-permitted excursions might have been witnessed by would-be vampire-hunter Alan Farrant, who claimed he had seen black masses and similar shenanigans taking place in the cemetery in the lead-up to the infamous ‘Highgate Vampire’ flap of 1970. Apparently I’m not the first to have made this (no doubt entirely spurious) connection, and it was nice to see the wonderful ITN News feature on the ‘Highgate Vampire’ (previously exhumed at BFI/Flipside’s Mysterious Britain night in 2010) getting another airing alongside ‘The Body Beneath’ at a Flipside screening in January this year.
Although I’d been fascinated by Milligan and the world he inhabited ever since I read Jimmy McDonough’s book, I’ll admit that up until this point I’d been pretty reluctant to actually watch any of his films. For all that I might sympathise with his underdog status and marvel at the sordid circumstance under which his films were made, I do actually prefer to enjoy the movies I watch wherever possible, and sitting down with a few flicks made by a guy best known for his sadism, misogyny and near unwatchable technical ineptitude doesn’t exactly sound like my idea of a fun Friday night, y’know? At the same time though, there’s often a lot be said for simply taking a deep breath and diving in where good taste fears to tread, and when I saw the announcement of the BFI screening, I knew it was time to take the plunge.
Even without firsthand knowledge of his films, I implicitly understand that Andy Milligan is part of MY cinematic world, and that if Flipside want to go out on a limb and get stuff like his proudly listed in the programme of the National Film Theatre, it’s my duty to turn up and support them in that endeavour. I mean, I’ll bet this was the first time any of the films Milligan made in the UK have actually even been screened in public in the UK! In a weird sorta way, it’s quite a landmark event in his gradual rehabilitation as a recognised filmmaker, and hey, even if the movie itself turned out to be unbearable, just observing the kind of people who show up for it is sure to provide a certain amount of interest.
Well as it turns out, I needn’t have worried. I shouldn’t have brushed off Andy for so long, and I should have trusted the Flipside folks. ‘The Body Beneath’ is… well, it’s just beautiful really. I find it hard to put into words the extent to which the very existence of a film like this warms my heart. Maybe viewers who do not share my particular tastes will think otherwise, but to see such a wonderful, cracked vision of the world, preserved for all these years in faded, damaged, blown-up-to-35mm form, projected flickering and fuzzed up onto the screen for a dedicated few who still cherish and appreciate it, was genuinely moving. An odd claim to make perhaps, given the scorn and cynicism that usually greets discussion of Milligan’s work, but I hope that some of you who read this blog will get what I mean.
Although I’d never seen the film before (never seen any Milligan film in its entirety in fact), I felt instantly at home in the strange world of ‘The Body Beneath’. It was as if some much-loved friends and family members had made a backyard camcorder horror movie, say, ten years ago, and we were all sitting together watching it and chuckling, whilst at the same time marveling at how surprisingly good in actually is, and at how impressive the costumes Uncle Bert made were, and so forth.
There was indeed much chuckling in NFT1 on Andy Milligan night, and rightly so – ‘The Body Beneath’ is hilarious, in that impossible-to-fake way that can only arise from a genuine, unself-conscious descent into the absurd. As long-term readers will hopefully be aware, I am very much opposed to the idea of laughing AT films like this (what kind of heartless swine could do that?). But, like ‘Glen or Glenda’, or ‘Troll 2’, or ‘The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant’, there is a unique kind of linear-yet-impossible logic on display here that simply cannot be rationalised. We do not laugh in order to mock or dismiss, we laugh simply through astonishment, through a mixture of joy and disbelief in what we are seeing; we laugh because there is now other possible response. Again, it’s a difficult feeling to explain, but I hope readers will get where I’m coming from.
Pivotal in holding ‘The Body Beneath’ together is an unforgettable performance from Gavin Reed, in the role of the Reverend Algernon Ford, the smug and officious vampire overlord who presides over assorted diabolical goings on in London’s ‘Carfax Abbey’. The kind of inherently comical looking British actor one could easily imagine trudging through a whole career of bit-parts as camp waiters and toadying butlers (indeed, his only other film credits are walk-ons in ‘Carry On Loving’ and the Dustin Hoffman vehicle ‘Tootsie’), Reed takes to the opportunity to play a lead role (if admittedly a very strange one) with rare gusto, instantly earning Reverend Ford a place in my pantheon of favourite oddball horror movie characters. (It would be nice to think that he’s out there somewhere, running free with Luther The Beserk, Simon: King of the Witches, The Crimson Executioner and the rest of the gang.)
It’s just as well Reed goes at it with such enthusiasm too, because a lesser actor in the role could have torpedoed this whole movie, at least 50% of which seems to consist of Reverend Ford going on, and on, and on about his bloodline, his family history and his nefarious plans. (There’s a great moment where he exclaims “forgive me, I talk too much, it’s a bad habit!” and sits down in silent ‘brooding posture’, leaving the other actors in the scene staring at him in baffled silence until someone nudges him and he gets up to continue his incessant monologue.)
Somewhat unfeasibly, the Reverend claims that ‘the Ford clan’ have been buried in Highgate for over two thousand years, their unbroken lineage dating back far enough to incorporate an unspecified Roman Caesar. This will come as something of a surprise to the historians who claim the first burials in the area took place after the cemetery was first consecrated in 1839, but no matter.
As far as the outside world is concerned, Reverend Ford and his mute, knitting needle wielding wife Alicia have only recently relocated to London from County Cork, but in fact the ‘Ford clan’ are nothing less than a dynasty of vampires, who for centuries have lurked in the tombs beneath the (relatively recently established) cemetery, feeding off the unwary. As their elected leader (they’re a democratic bunch, it seems), the Reverend has decided to go ‘overground’ in an effort to strengthen the family’s bloodline by gathering together assorted distant Ford relatives and imprisoning them in some sort of unholy breeding programme.
(We could probably spend quite some time speculating on quite how a vampire ‘lineage’ functions, and by what circumstances they ended up with an apparent network of healthy, non-vampiric human relatives, but…. let’s just not, ok?)
To help him in this task, Reverend Ford has command over a trio of silent ‘vampire brides’, whom he dispatches to kidnap his unfortunate victims. A visual masterstroke, these ‘brides’ are incredibly striking, appearing out of nowhere as fairie-like apparitions, their bright blonde hair, green skin, scarlet lipstick and primary-coloured diaphanous gowns (no doubt knocked up by Milligan’s costumier alter-ego ‘Raffine’) all blazing from the screen in hyper-real fashion, making full use of the remarkable faux-technicolor palette Milligan manages to wring from his cheap 16mm camera.
I particularly liked the way that whilst two of the ‘brides’ are conventionally attractive gothic maiden types, the third looks like a right bruiser. And when the trio’s shocking appearance and eerie, occult movements don’t succeed in subduing their prey, it’s no surprise that she’s the one ready with plan B – a good ol’ fashioned bottle of chloroform.
Another interesting addition to the Reverend’s household is his faithful hunchback servant Spool (Berwick Kaler, in a rather crushing demotion from the male lead status he enjoyed in Milligan’s previous film). Always the daftest and most questionable of horror movie archetypes, the wretched, drooling hunchback seems to have held a particular fascination for Milligan, who features them in almost all of his horror films, often taking the time to provide them with detailed back-stories and personal motivations – a direct expression of the kind of cracked compassion that can be detected beneath the grubby surface of his films. Here for instance, poor old Spool is allowed a lengthy monologue about the traumas that led him to his sorry station in life (naturally it’s all the fault of his evil step-mother and step-brother, who pushed him in front of a bus at a young age, then beat him and had him thrown out of his family and committed to a home).
Adopting a woollen cap over greasy blonde locks for this challenging role, with some pillows stuff under a torn anorak by way of a hump, Kaler capers about in the strange hopping fashion Milligan seems to have demanded of his hunchbacks, emoting like crazy as Spool finds himself torn between his loyalty to Reverend and his desire to help the female prisoners, who are ever-so-friendly to him as they try to enlist his help in escaping. Of course, we know either path leads to nothing but betrayal and disappointment for Spool, and, having established him as by far the film’s most sympathetic character, it is with a kind of mad glee that Milligan unfolds his terrible fate - crucified by Rev Ford and set alight by ghouls after his duplicity is discovered. Poor Spool!
Although far more ambitious than ‘Nightbirds’ in terms of cast, locations, narrative, production design etc., Milligan’s actual direction on ‘Body Beneath’ is notably rougher, with a lot of awkward, cropped framing, chopped off heads, excess ceiling room and the like in the close-ups, whilst dull, stagey long shots predominate elsewhere. Andy still enjoys his woozy dutch angles and swirling transitions when the mood takes him though, and I actually found a lot of charm in the movie’s sundry examples of technical ineptitude.
For instance, you’ve probably watched scenes in other films in which tied up victims use broken glass to cut their bonds and free themselves, but I’ll bet you’ve never seen anything quite as awkward and drawn out as the one here, in which our notional hero Paul (Richmond Ross) crawls around the floor of a locked room for a good two or three minutes, pushing over a conveniently placed glass vase with his nose, pulling a coat off a shelf with his teeth and wrapping it around the vase so that he doesn’t cut himself when he proceeds to break it with his feet, and so on. Milligan’s insistence on actually showing us this entire operation in real-time, where other directors would simply have used a few quick cuts to give us the general idea, demonstrates an amateurish bloody-mindedness that is actually strangely endearing. (Of course, knowing Milligan, it could just have been a welcome opportunity to linger for a few minutes on the sight of an attractive young actor in a kind of weird bondage situation, but a viewer unaware of the director’s proclivities would be unlikely to make such a connection.)
As usual, Milligan’s dialogue is extraordinarily overwritten. He seems to like commas even more than I do, and it’s easy to imagine actors’ hearts sinking as they were confronted with a script that seems to drag out even the simplest bits of exposition to excruciating length:
“You have brought me here against my will, and in less you release me shortly, my maid, who has no doubt by this point discovered my absence, will notify the police… now do I make myself clear?”
“But without any trace of a clue, how could the London police find such a charming young lady as yourself, in all of London.. and of course its suburbs?”
Milligan’s use of music here is also characteristically unhinged, his technique seemingly consisting of dropping the needle at random on archaic-sounding library records that sound like they’ve been ripped straight from some 1920s melodrama, using the soupy racket that results not so much to accompany the on-screen action as to drown out the camera whir, background noise and muttering that dominate the film’s recorded-straight-to-camera audio track.
In other respects though (the ones that really matter, arguably), ‘The Body Beneath’ is a surprisingly impressive piece of work. Visually, it’s an absolute feast of weirdo gothic imagery, looking unexpectedly splendid in the BFI’s remastered version - still grainy as you’d expect from a 16 mil blow-up, but blessed with deep focus and incredibly vivid primary colours. (Who knows, maybe Milligan’s other films might lose some of their reputation for ugliness if similarly scrubbed up?) With sodden, misty graveyards, extraordinary costumes, garish make up and languid, Rollin-esque walks, the film’s exterior scenes are actually incredibly atmospheric, with the fuzzed out graininess and random, warped music cues only increasingly their dream-like, haunted resonance.
In particular, the closing scene, in which the already pretty vampiric looking Jackie Skarvellis awakes from death and embraces her newly undead fiancée against the backdrop of a chill, blue dawn, is genuinely pretty beautiful – a superb low budget horror moment by anyone’s estimation.
‘The Body Beneath’ reaches its true zenith of visual / conceptual lunacy before this however, as we visit the annual ‘conference’ of the Highgate ghouls, where the Reverend Ford proposes a controversial plan to relocate the ‘family’ to America.
Following the vampiric host through a blue-tinted, day-for-night march across the graveyard, we join them in the family crypt, distinguished from the film’s other interiors through the use of jaw-dropping fogged fish-eye lens effects and swirling, Anger-like psychedelic madness, as the garishly-clad underworld creatures feast lasciviously upon fruit, hunks of meat and… flowers?
With visuals distantly reminiscent of both Anger’s ‘Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome’ and Jack Smith’s ‘Flaming Creatures’ (either of which Milligan may conceivably have encountered via his connections with the New York avant/gay arts scene?), the sense of dementia in this sequence is only heightened when Reverend Ford begins his address, debating with the green skinned, feather-clad Elizabeth Ford (Judith Heard, presumably sister of Milligan regular Susan, in her only screen role) as to the pros and cons whether or not this gang of millennia old British ghouls should relocate to sunny California.
Elizabeth: “I know our bloodline is deteriorating… I know we’re having problems with the police*.. I know we’re on the verge of discovery by the entire world… I realise we must pro-create a stronger breed of Ford… I agree that for us to continue to survive and exist we must make some sort of move. But to go to America?! Never! What is America? What is it made of? Pimps, prostitutes and religious fanatics, thrown out of England but a few small centuries ago! They’re the scum of the earth!”
Rev Ford: “I don’t want to leave my native soil… I don’t want to leave these grounds which are second nature for me… these familiar surroundings, these glorious environs which Alicia and I have enjoyed for so many centuries […] Look around you… all this may come to an end if we do not move to this new continent. Our relatives living in Canada and the United States are fabulously healthy specimens… we cannot exist another hundred years unless we bring them into our family… we must vote in my favour out of necessity […] we know only too well how close we have come to being discovered by the police for what we are… you all know how difficult it is to move around London after 11:30pm! London is a police state after midnight! Anyone can be stopped and asked where they are going at any time of the morning! We can no longer exist under these limitations! So, I have decided that we must move to America […] I have arranged for a chartered boat to take us to the States, it leaves at exactly 2am. […] There shall be some room on-board for personal belongings, it will be a long journey. We shall go round North America through the canal and land at California… we shall entomb ourselves at Forest Lawns, which is very lovely, I have heard…”
And so it goes on. Readers should note that I have excerpted the above quotation from a full speech that it easily twice as long. Surely, no other director in history would have thought to give us this bizarre debate in full.
And so, in conclusion: regardless of Andy Milligan’s dubious reputation and myriad eccentricities, I find it hard to believe that anyone with a love of outsider cinema and gothic horror could fail to utterly charmed by ‘The Body Beneath’.
More visually adventurous and thematically upbeat than yr average Milligan effort (in spite of its knitting needle eye-gouging and flaming hunchbacks),** the film’s mixture of Rollin-esque gothic surrealism, utter goofball craziness and otherly inspired filmmaking technique in fact makes it hard for me to conceive how I could possibly love it more. Maybe a little less yakking and fewer awkwardly framed interior shots might have helped, but let’s not split hairs: to all intents and purposes, this is a real classic of the kind of thing we like to celebrate on this weblog, and, needless to say, I’d urge you to seek out BFI/Flipside’s superb release with all possible haste, in the hope that more of this sort of thing may follow.
Criterion double bill of ‘Torture Dungeon’ and ‘The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves are Here!’ anyone..? After this disc, anything’s possible.
*I love the notion that a brood of outlandishly clad vampire ghouls who’ve been living in a public cemetery for two thousand years should suddenly be having “problems with the police”.
** I’ve subjected myself to quite a few Milligan movies in the past few months, just FYI re: my ability to draw such comparisons having earlier claimed never to have seen any of his movies before January this year…