Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Saturday Night And Sunday Morning
by Alan Sillitoe
(Pan paperback edition, 1960)

I was sad to hear of the death of Alan Sillitoe this week. Like most other people I suppose, my knowledge of his work rests solely on two excellent books he wrote at the start of his career, and the two excellent film adaptations that have become almost inseparable from them.

I recall hearing Sillitoe on Desert Island Discs a few years ago, and he seemed the very definition of a quiet, down to earth sort of guy, completely lacking that ‘I’m a writer, I have opinions and such’ mindset that even the most quiet, down to earth writers usually have. Despite the fact he continued writing throughout his life, he didn’t seem terribly bothered about discussing his work, and I remember him saying something to the effect that he’d far rather be remembered on his own merits by his family and friends than by the public at large on behalf of a couple of stories he wrote over forty years ago and no longer feels much connection with, etc. So with that in mind, I’ll leave my attempted memoriam right there.

I haven’t had a chance to read any of the obituaries – I actually learned of his passing from a colleague in work who knew him personally, and who pretty much confirms the impression given above and recommends I should give some of his later works a go – but I wonder if any journos are going to make a point of noting that the author of ‘The Loneliness of The Long-Distance Runner’ died without fanfare in hospital in Charing Cross, whilst the hullabaloo of the London Marathon was taking place just down the road on the North bank?

Strangely, I was in same area myself at the time, with the intention – completely independent of either of those events - of buying a pair of running shorts for the first time in my life. Goddamn hippie synchronicity rubbish – why won’t it leave me alone?

Naturally the only solution is scan and post this lovely old paperback edition of Sillitoe’s OTHER great book – a design notable I think as an artefact of a period in British literature when simply writing a book with a working class protagonist was enough to render it *brave* and *shocking*. I also like Pan’s ever-so-gentle attempt at sleaze-selling on the back cover: subtle mention of adultery + slipping nightgown + invocation of ‘Lady Chatterley’ = THERE WILL BE SEX, FELLAS. Classy.

Anyway, flicking through ‘Saturday Night..’ for the first time in years, it’s interesting to note how dense it is with the kind of highly specific period detail that by rights shouldn’t mean a damn thing to anyone born after about 1960, and yet how strongly Arthur Seaton’s determination not to let the bastards grind him down still resonates with me, and with others I know who’ve enjoyed the book or the film. So thanks for this one Alan – books don’t come much better.

Monday, 26 April 2010

TV Eye:
Imaginary Sharks, Blind Gunfighters and Sex in Space…

Apologies in advance for this post - it's pretty stupid. But I wrote it, so it might as well go up.

“AAh AAaaaooooOWWW!”, as Iggy Pop proclaimed at the start of about seventeen continuous takes back in the hazy days of 1970, pretending to be electrified a-new each time by the leftover fizzle of Ron Asheton’s stacks cooling down from the previous run through. And all things considered, I guess it’s not bad, as far as exclamations go. It is perhaps distantly comparable to the rather less extravagant n’ unabashed noise I made when discovering the prurient joys of 21st century junk TV a few weekends ago, which is what this post is about.

I guess I’ve touched upon my overriding disdain for modern television every now and then on this blog, and indeed, my rejection of the idiot lantern has become so ingrained in recent years that I’m basically completely ignorant of the forms modern Television takes, and the methods by which modern people watch it.

The last time I actually bothered to hook up my little movie-watching TV for television viewing, folks still did that by plugging a cable into the back that led up to an aerial on the roof, and we lucky UK residents four or five fuzzy channels to choose from. And the only things I deemed useful on any of ‘em were The Simpsons, Buffy, and the occasional movie. After all, TV rots the brain, right? Everyone knows that. And MOVIES ARE ART, and thus good for you, so I choose movies. And if today’s movie happens to be about bikini-clad surfer girls being strangled by an unconvincing slime monster with a mouthful of wieners, whilst TV is showing a documentary about the integration of non-religious imagery into Florentine art in the 16th century… well the theory still holds, damn it – don’t ask questions. Look, here comes the slime beast again!

Anyway… as I think mentioned a few posts ago, I was cat-sitting for some friends a few weekends back. Said friends are the owners of one of those new fangled boxes that you plug ya TV into that gives you like a zillion channels or something. A new experience for me, so I thought I’d sit down with the cats and bravely jump in at the deep end, checking out the kind of audio/visual stimulus that the rest of the world is getting beamed into their homes whilst I’m busy with more hermetic and self-improving pursuits, like watching old Vincent Price movies and such.

C’mon TV; I’ve got three or four free nights ahead of me; show me how rotted my brain can get!


For a while, things were looking pretty grim out there…. page after page on the channel guide of nada, zilch, boredom – hundreds of varieties of anti-matter anti-entertainment, just as my curmudgeonly anti-TV standpoint had led me to expect. I was gonna pack it in and watch a DVD instead when I started scrolling through channel numbers in the 500s, but it was THEN, just before the slide off into home-shopping and xtian stations, that we started to hit the, uh, ‘good stuff’. Three words for you: THE HORROR CHANNEL. I mean… wow … they have one of those? That’s pretty cool.

As it turns out though, The Horror Channel kinda sucks. When I tuned in, they were showing another thrilling installment of Friday The 13th: The Series, the existence of which is certainly news to me. I mean how the hell does that work? Does Jason whatshisname go traveling from town to town, solving the problems of simple, smalltown folks by means of stabbing them, before wondering off into the sunset for next week’s adventure? It was pretty bad anyway, so I didn’t stick with it long enough to find out.

Later on, The Horror Channel were showing entries III and IV in an unknown-to-me vampire franchise called Subspecies. Full Moon Productions guy Charles Band was prominently mentioned in the credits, so hell, I thought it might be a laugh. Alas no. These movies seemed to feature interesting looking European locations and a pretty solid vampire-hunting heroine, but mostly Subspecies just gives us a load of really bad ethnic stereotyping, shoddy sets and endless scenes in which a chubby sub-Black Metal vampire guy who looks a bit like Mortiis skulks about the place throwing out garbled mouthfuls of vampiric claptrap. Seemingly this is some kind of ‘saga’, which I suppose is modern horror parlance for “people talk bollocks for hours and nothing fun ever happens”. The whole thing seemed quite bone-crushingly earnest. Ho-hum.

Satori awaited but a few clicks away though, as I discovered ‘Movies4Men’! Christ, what the hell do they show on there, I hear you ask; razorblade adverts? sports biopics? porn? No, get this: ‘Movies4Men’ show second-string Spaghetti Westerns (and occasional action/gangster flicks), pretty much all the time! Hot dog! Now let it be said that I usually go out of my way to avoid any product specifically marketed at ‘men’, but I swear, I’ve never before felt as manly as I did when Movies4Men let me watch Antonio Baldi’s ‘Blindman’ and Abel Ferrara’s ‘King of New York’ in quick succession. I could have damn well gone out and cut down a tree and turned it into a fence whilst wearing a sweat-stained vest right there and then.

Thanks to ‘Movies4Men’, I also got to watch a happy handful of Spaghettis so obscure and underachieving no one’s even bothered to review them on IMDB in some cases. No Alex Cox plaudits for YOU, ‘Brother Outlaw’ (1971) and ‘I Want Him Dead’ (1968)! The chunks of them I watched were ok though. One of them had Tony Kendall in it. Watching Italian westerns is kind of the movie equivalent of listening to the Grateful Dead; I can all too easily just zone out let them ramble on endlessly, critical faculties disengaged, appreciation of stuff that’s actually good long forgotten.

Blindman was pretty great though! By ‘great’, naturally I mean it was totally stupid, pointless and objectionable, but what can I say? Baldi and co kick it with the kind of gusto and good humour that clear befits the tale of a blind crack-shot gunman and Ringo Starr escorting a wagon full of kidnapped prostitutes across a backlot desert, and as such it’s the kind of movie that’s impossible not to enjoy on some level. Plus, a good Spaghetti always stands or falls by its ending, and the one here is total comedy genius – as an off the cuff “ah, screw you” to anyone who was expecting the requisite shot at Leone style majesty/tragedy, it’s inspired.

Somewhere in the midst of all this I flicked over to a nearby TV movie channel and became one of the few sober adults to have ever watched Mega-Shark vs. Giant Octopus in its entirety. C’mon, don’t lie, I know you watched the trailer on youtube. And basically, I’d recommend you keep on doing so rather than investigate further, as MS vs. GO stands as perhaps the preeminent example of a film built around two ten second ‘cool bits’ to grab people’s interest on Youtube, and 89 minutes 40 seconds of cynical clock-watching.

So naturally I kinda enjoyed it, in a disconnected K-hole car-crash observation sorta fashion: guys portraying submarine captains sit on sets, shouting stuff into headphone mics and clicking Atari ST joysticks as lights flash and the camera goes shaky, interspersed with the same few unimpressive CGI shots of our prehistoric beasties, repeated ad-nauseum. Our heroes are scientists, and they spend a great deal of time DOING SCIENCE, by means of decanting brightly coloured liquids between beakers and test tubes, whilst nodding and half-smiling at each other in a “damn, we’re a great team, we’re doing good work here” sorta fashion. It was quite nice, kinda hypnotic, like that bit in “Astro Zombies” where John Carradine spends about an hour farting about in his laboratory, doing meaningless things reaaally, really slowly. God I love “Astro Zombies”. ANYWAY, back to MS vs. GO - if anyone ever explained what all this food-colouring related jollity had to do with repelling Mega-Shark before he eats California, I must have missed it, but as I say, I liked it just fine. There were ‘beautiful’ sunsets, and there was limp ecological moralizing, which was less good.

There is something deeply sad about the psychology of an industry that makes a movie called “Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus”, utilising technology by which said beasts can be realised with handy pixels rather than cumbersome model/effects work… and then delivers a film almost entirely devoid of either Mega Shark or Giant Octopus. In fact there was so little Giant Octopus it was beyond a joke – it’s like those lazy potheads with the animation software were just like, “Eight arms? Fuck that man – let’s just do another one with the shark instead”.

Gone are the days when noble gentlemen like Ishiro Honda recognised that the desire to watch movies about giant monsters hitting each other is a perfectly reasonable one, and treated their audience with appropriate respect, providing content, incident, drama, visual excitement, ideas and fun for everybody, alongside lashings of painstakingly realised monster-bashing.

By contrast, the unspoken message emanating from MegaShark vs Giant Octopus’s creators seems to be that anyone watching a film like this is probably a retard, and thus they deserve whatever tossed off crap they get. Then I bet they go home and work on their abstract photos of electricity pylons or pilot scripts for ‘intelligent’ high concept TV shows or whatever crap it is they’re REALLY into, leaving the rare opportunity to make a great bit of popular cinema they’ve been handed to wither on the vine. Fucking assholes.

I know I said ‘sober’ a few paragraphs ago, but I guess by now I must have been pretty plastered, or else suffering some kind of psychotropic trash overload, because the next thing I remember I was trying to watch something called Emmanuelle in Space, which… well fuck it, I don’t have to justify myself to you. I think it was a TV series rather than a movie, but either way, sub-Red Shoe Diaries ‘erotic encounters’ interspersed with occasional repetition of the same model spaceship fly-by shot and some footage of guys wearing flimsy-looking virtual reality headsets seems to be the somewhat puzzling score here. What’s the betting that the dire softcore stuff was originally a different show/movie, and they just threw the other bits in Al Adamson style, new title, and hey presto, money in the bank! If any of your local zillion channels ever happen to be showing this one, I recommend tuning in just for the credits sequence / theme tune – I think it actually made some part of my brain melt. My hand/eye co-ordination is shot, but it was worth it. It’s truly incredible.

Even more puzzling, there was another barrel-scraping Emmanuelle spin-off on another channel that didn’t seem to have anything to do with faux-European decadence and crap softcore sex at all, and instead was some kind of made-for-TV movie about Californian lifeguards fighting CGI sharks so shoddy they make Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus look like a natural history seminar. What the hell? I don’t know who it was who originally came up with the Emmanuelle name/concept (assuming “chick has lots of sex” can be claimed as a concept) all those years ago, but I bet they must get up each morning and ritualistically punch themselves in the face for not copyrighting it.

Friday / Saturday:

Ok, so sadly the evening related above was by far the best day of my TV excursion. After that things get a bit hazy, and I resorted to watching some decent(?) movies on DVD, and even talking to people and doing other things, but I still have some mixed up memories or what transpired TV-wise. Memories that seem to confirm that when it’s not Spaghetti Westwern night, ‘Movies4Men’ show a lot of war films, and revenge thrillers and stuff. One of them was old, and Italian, and had Klaus Kinski in it, but it didn’t really hold my interest. The rest were ‘90s, and American, and blah.

The Horror Channel meanwhile continued to prove themselves the world’s leading purveyors of godawful vampire claptrap – hours upon hours of it. Jesus, somebody stake those fuckers, then at least they might shut up! If you manage to stay up late enough though, they do at least have the decency to show a weirdo cult movie or two on the weekends – usually hitting at that magic “must stay awake till the next ad break” point in the early morning, when lunatic movie imagery flows into dreams, and vice versa.

I recall seeing most of The Gore Gore Girls, and thinking, Christ, this is even more vile and deranged than I remember it being. Really fucking morbid and brain-damaged and almost psychedelically primitive, even by HG Lewis standards. Not good to fall asleep to, but somehow I managed. I think the cats enjoyed it. All the bright colors and sudden movements and seething mush – repetitive barbarity on a level so basic, I think most mammals would probably get the point.

Sadly none of the TV series/TV-movie based trash I encountered during the weekend proved even remotely watchable, but somehow I soldiered on. I remember nothing.

2:30am on the third night, I should really have gone to bed, but The Horror Channel had something on their schedule called Lips Of Blood. No advance info on its contents, and naturally that’d be an obvious title for yet more ‘90s vampire claptrap, but…. there is a chance… it COULD be…. Yes, yes, it actually is! It’s a screening of the only ‘70s Jean Rollin movie I’ve never got round to watching! Hallelujah!

Obviously it was a hell of a lot better than anything else I watched this weekend, but on first go-round I don’t think it was one of my favourite Rollins. Kind of a transitory work between his earlier fun-packed vampire flicks, and the slower, more existential approach he went on to develop in ‘Fascination’ and ‘Living Dead Girl’ maybe..? Too much of the latter to really make an impression on me when I was fighting to keep my eyes open I’m afraid, although I do remember some characteristically wonderful shenanigans with the ubiquitous vampire twins.… were there four of them this time, or did I dream that? I’ll have to give ‘Lips Of Blood’ another watch when I feel more up to it.

And that makes the perfect conclusion to my TV odyssey really: staying up all night in order to blearily watch an example of precisely the kind of weird old horror stuff I usually watch at home anyway.

So, TV: it’s quite good on Thursdays, but beyond that, fergeddaboutit.

And if my hosts for the weekend (who shall remain nameless) ever read this: I’m sorry I made your cats watch a Herschell Gordon Lewis movie when they should have been out doing healthy nocturnal cat type stuff. They seemed ok about it though, I think.

Monday, 19 April 2010

(Lindsey Shonteff, 1970)

Most social histories have tended to portray 1970 as a fairly grim year for the British Isles. In the ‘mainstream’ of British life, it was the year in which Harold Wilson’s boom years ground to a halt and Ted Heath’s tory government took back the reigns of power in preparation for decade characterized by strikes, shortages, the collapse of national industry, rising unemployment and general entropy. In the underground meanwhile, 1970 was the year of dead rock stars, bad drugs, despondency and the slow death of the ‘60s dream, in which addictions deepened and acid disappeared, in which free festivals started to become disaster areas, bland post-Cream AOR trudge-rock became the norm and drab wool n’ corduroy replaced the paisley and chiffon of yore. And the weather sucked too. It was a bummer, in short.

Not that such generalisations should be taken at face value, of course – I’m sure there were still loads of people who had a blast in 1970 – kids growing up, falling in love, having adventures, as they are apt to do, and grown ups doing the same, whilst savvy cats like The Edgar Broughton Band, Mick Farren and The Pink Fairies just blitzed through the whole period on a cocktail of booze, feedback and righteous indignation, bumping straight into punk on their way out. But nonetheless, it is this overall impression of 1970 as a colossal downer that concerns us here, as we examine ‘Permissive’, a confoundingly bleak attempt at a sexploitation flick that plays out more like an extended funeral for all the dreams of the preceding decade.

Long discussed in hushed tones in the spaces where rare DVD-R traders meet underground music fans, largely thanks the presence of incidental music from acid folk enigmas Comus (British music geeks of a certain age reach breathlessly for their tape recorders), ‘Permissive’ can now be revealed as a film that is sullen, sordid and about as erotic as a beer-soaked hiking sock, but that is nevertheless a strangely fascinating cultural quagmire, making a perfectly obtuse addition to the BFI’s Flipside series.

With only a dufflecoat to her name, young Suzy (Maggie Stride) steps off the train in London – no back story, no hope and dreams, no nothing. Just think, a few years earlier she could have had a Smashing Time. But she’s too late; that ship has sailed, never to return. This is the London where club-footed pigeons hobble around looking for a place to die, where the only things swinging are wrecking balls and the autumnal fog never lifts. Somewhere up the road, Presuming Ed is snoozing in the bath listening to The White Album as Danny contemplates the rat in the oven.

Suzy’s only contact in the Smoke is her friend Fiona (the excellently named Gay Singleton), who has found a niche for herself as groupie-in-chief to Forever More, a real life folk-rock combo who put out a couple of records on RCA in the early ‘70s. “He’s a bit hairy”, observes Suzy, regarding Fiona’s main squeeze Lee with understandable distaste. “Hey, would you like to meet the group?”, her friend responds, and Suzy’s fate is sealed.

In the movie as presumably in reality, Forever More are a bore – a bunch of surly hairfarmers who hammer out their lethargic, over-complex odes to pastoral idealism in dank basement clubs before retreating to safety of the nearest soul-crushingly anonymous, new-build Travelodge to ‘party’ with a few bottles of Newcastle Brown, a few joints and some weak-willed and sad-eyed runaway girls.

“It’s a pretty happening scene, huh?”, somebody says with a faint edge of desperation, and at that moment you feel like stopping the film in order to step in and say – look man, I’ve seen some ‘happening scenes’ in my time, and this REALLY, REALLY is NOT one of them, ok?

Usually, it is part of the deal of rock n’ roll movies, and groupie/tour straggler narratives like this in particular, that they will present the corner of the music world they happen to be portraying in exciting, escapist terms – as a wild, dazzling demi-monde whose denizens laugh in the face of plebian reality. That’s essentially what we wanna see, and from ‘Summer Holiday’ through to ‘Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls’, that’s what we’re used to getting. Just look at the way Cameron Crowe took this same grim era of stale corporate rock and routine statutory rape and managed to turn it into a bucolic wonderland of sun-dappled dreams in ‘Almost Famous’ a few years back. Face it, if we wanted reality, ‘Cocksucker Blues’ would be playing down the multiplex instead, and ‘Permissive’ right beside it.

Even in the murk of the British exploitation industry, it’s hard to believe that there was time when making a sex film featuring a bunch of guys who look like Uriah Heap and some pasty-faced, malnourished girls in faded Grace Slick get-up seemed like a good idea. More likely I think, ‘Permissive’s backers (70s Britsploitation powerhouse Tigon) were counting on a more frivolous, feel-good sex/rock/youth culture flick. Director Lindsay Shonteff, still reelin’ from the sights and sounds of the ‘60s, thought he could cut some corners and get some good shit by filming reality… but unfortunately, reality had already fucked up.

‘Permissive’ is at least pretty well made for such a quick, low budget affair, with some interesting directorial decisions, rich and detailed cinematography (a brief woodland sequence looks like the cover of the first ‘Sabbath album) and excellent London location shooting, not to mention some great music from the aforementioned Comus, jamming on some early versions of tunes from their classic ‘First Utterance’ LP.

The film’s chief innovation is the use of strikingly unusual time-fractured cut-up editing, in which characters seem to flash forward to their death/fate/future circumstances as soon as they’re introduced. Possibly these experiments could have been inspired by Nic Roeg’s recent work on ‘Performance’ and ‘Walkabout’, or perhaps they’re just the result of the director and editor trying to liven things up in the editing room. But either way, it works extremely well, imbuing ‘Permissive’ with a sense of disjointed artiness that the banal storyline and lifeless performances would otherwise have lacked, and helping cement the fateful, funereal atmosphere that seems to spread slowly across every aspect of the film, inadvertently allowing ‘Permissive’ entry into the strange international pantheon of off-beat sex films (mainly Japanese, it must be said) which continue to demand our interest today largely thanks to the way they inexplicably reject conventional eroticism in favour of crafting cinema that is jagged, unsettling, nihilistic and horrid.

Not that ‘Permissive’ is really jagged, nihilistic or horrid. In typically reserved English style, it’s more just… deeply MIFFED. Fed up. Washed out. A vengeful cinematic hangover. Despite the film’s title, none of the characters’ sexual exploits really bother attempting to be shocking or unconventional. So they shag each other a lot - well, why not, what else is there to do? Musicians and groupies alike seem like rats caught in the same trap, wondering forever around a maze of box-like hotel corridors, occasionally bumping into each other to share warmth and dissipate the boredom. Through most of the film, I don’t think anyone even smiles, let alone gives any indication of enjoying their partners’ company. Allan Gorrie, who went on to lead the Average White Band (never has a group been so aptly named), is presented to us as Forever More’s main man/prime catch, and even he looks like Whisperin’ Bob Harris’s uglier brother and seems to pay more attention to his cups of milky tea than he does to his lovelorn maidens.

About the biggest excitement in the world of Forever More comes when they cram themselves into the back of a Transit van for a few days playing gigs ‘up North’, and get to see some fields zooming by at the side of the motorway. And to think, these are the guys lucky enough to be signed to a major label and getting regular work! God I’m glad I wasn’t ‘on the rock scene’ in 1970. Watching ‘Permissive’, I found myself almost counting down the hours waiting for Ziggy Stardust and Roxy Music’s first album to come and save us all.

Anyway, it’s at one of the band’s unsavoury Travelodge hoedowns that Suzy bumps into a pretentious, meditating hippie kid about her own age who calls himself ‘Pogo’. In perhaps the film’s most heart-rending moment, Pogo rhetorically asks Suzy what she’s looking for in life, and she tearfully replies that she just wants something to eat. Pogo says he knows where they can get some grub, but first they have to go to “where it’s at”. After a freezing walk across town, “where it’s at” turns out to be a luggage locker in Kings Cross station where Pogo’s stashed a stale crust of bread and a lump of cheese. Clearly Pogo is a colossal twat.

So timid and starved of affection is Suzy though that rather than punching him in the face there and then, she accepts this irritating weirdo’s hospitality, and elects to sleep rough on the street with him rather than returning to the groupie treadmill, busking in the subway and sharing a sleeping bag under the stars on a derelict bombsite. Despite Pogo’s unrelenting twattishness, this is probably the film’s most compelling and upbeat segment, with lots of beautifully desolate period location work and an almost touching chemistry between he two youngsters.

Hey, things still aren’t going great for this girl, we think, but at least she’s got a friend, even if he is a twat. That’s until Pogo is unceremoniously hit by a car anyway, the camera mobidly zooming in on his mangled body. Christ. With a broken heart and seemingly no other options, Suzy heads straight back to Forever More and proceeds to absent-mindedly sleep her way through band’s hierarchy, cruelly usurping whatever passes for ‘power’ in groupie-world from her former best friend, with tragic results.

Beginning with an overcast sky and ending with a lurid bathtub suicide, ‘Permissive’ is about as miserable as it gets, veering closer to the ultimate downer of Lukas Moodyson’s ‘Lilya 4Ever’ than to the kind of dubious entertainment a contemporary audience was presumably expecting; the film’s only instance of full frontal nudity is a corpse.

Whilst not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, ‘Permissive’ is certainly a unique curiosity, and on some level I suppose we should thank Shonteff for daring to rub the raincoat brigade’s noses in the dead dreams and blighted hopes of the young people they’d presumably paid their ticket money to get all hot and bothered by. And if ‘Permissive’ can be seen to present an accurate picture of youth culture in Britain circa 1970, it’s a wonder any of us made it through alive. Please, someone, bring on the glitter before it’s too late…

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Old Movie Reviews, Part # 2:
Originally Posted October 31st 2005

The Black Cat (Lucio Fulci, Italy/UK, 1981)

Not under any circumstances to be confused with the Edgar Ulmer’s classic 1934 Lugosi / Karloff loon-fest, this is an Italian / English co-production that would have looked pretty crappy even at the height of Euro-horror mass production, and which must have been an embarrassment to all concerned in 1981. Fulci has made some films which are almost good, but this certainly isn’t one of them. Expanding on the Edgar Allen Poe story with all the subtlety you’d expect from the director of Zombie Flesh Eaters, this is – and I wish I was making this crap up – a film about an evil, serial killing cat. Yes, that’s right; picture dimly lit shots of the hapless moggie wandering around, overlaid with menacing Psycho-esque music, interspersed with extreme close-ups of his victims going “nooooo!”, and you’ve got some idea of the level of hilarity we’re dealing with here. Patrick “Would you like some WINE?!?!?” Magee reprises the same OTT acting style he used in A Clockwork Orange to play the cat’s mad scientist owner, who hangs around the graveyard at night recording the voices of the dead on tape recorders. Mimsy Farmer delivers her lines and waits for the pay cheque as the sassy reporter who has a dreadful suspicion she knows who might have crawled through the ventilation grille to kill that honeymooning couple in the locked boathouse. In short, Magee and the cat are brilliant. Everything else is rubbish. Best line: “If he were human, he’d be HANGED!”

[2010 UPDATE: Once again, I would just like to make clear that I love this film dearly, and don’t know what I was thinking re: declaring it to be ‘crappy’ and ‘rubbish’. What a clueless arse I was back then.]

Horror Hospital (Antony Balch, UK, 1973)

By god, this film is horrible. Not horrible in the way horror movies are supposed to be horrible, but just stupid, distasteful, baffling and wrong. It’s a British effort staring Robin Asquith from the ‘Confessions of..’ movies, and given the goofiness of the acting and the astonishing crapness of the story, I think it was intended to be a comedy, except that they seem to have forgotten to include anything even remotely amusing. The plot, such as it is, involves a wheelchair-bound evil doctor (Michael Gough) who uses his detox centre / country retreat as a front for his hobby of turning young people into zombies and making them morbidly dance around in their pants while he goes “look at them, they are under my power, ha ha ha” and so on and so forth. So naturally Robin and has lady-friend check in and are subjected to an hour or so of sub-Scooby Doo running around type bollocks. More worrying than the inherent rubbishness of the whole venture though is the extent to which an atmosphere of inexplicable and nasty sadism seems to work its way into every scene. Long sections of this film seem to dwell with leering and repetitive glee on scantily clad teenagers being restrained, beaten, drugged and generally mistreated by faceless men in leather and motorcycle helmets. There’s a LOT of syringes, leather gloves, punching, screaming and cold, dead-looking flesh – all of this creeping latently through the cracks of a lame, cringe-worthy ‘70s British comedy. The aura of general NOT RIGHTness surrounding this film is massive, and, combined with its utter z-rate banality, I feel somewhat ashamed to have been born and raised in a country whose national consciousness decreed this film should be made and people should pay money to see it. On the plus side though, there’s quite a fun gory beheading, the evil doctor turns into some kind of slime monster at the end and – I can’t help but be touched by the tragedy of this – the midget butler totally steals the show, putting his heart and soul into a fantastic, dignified and charming performance that outclasses everybody else present by a factor of ten. Were he of regular height he’d no doubt have been concerned with far better things, but, being a ‘comedy dwarf’, he finds himself relegated to supporting roles in god-awful films like this. A damn shame.

[2010 UPDATE: I’ve not subsequently had the chance to watch ‘Horror Hospital’ again, but needless to say, I remember it a lot more fondly than the above review suggests, and these days I think I’d really enjoy it. Michael Gough doing his creepiest Lugosi impersonation, motorcycle-based beheading, suit of armour enhanced sex scene, inexplicable slime-beasts and an ocsar-worthy turn from the diminutive butler (Skip Martin, whose credits also include The Masque of the Red Death, Vampire Circus and Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan)? What more could one want from an oddball horror/sleaze quickie for christsake! Dreary snob that I was/am, I’d probably have seen the film in whole new light had I known at the time that Antony Balch was a venerable Beat Hotel-affiliated boho who co-directed the “Towers Open Fire” and “Cut Ups” films with William Burroughs & Brion Gysin, and who became a big player in film distribution and exhibition in ‘70s soho, taking pleasure in blurring the boundaries between porn, exploitation and the avant garde at every opportunity; his applaudably detailed wikipedia page has more info.]

Mesa of Lost Women (Herbert Tevos / Ron Ormond, USA, 1953)

My god, where to start... A mad scientist who lives on a haunted mesa in the ‘Muerto Desert’ is creating an army of invincible super-women with the minds of insects! And giant spiders too! And he’s played by Jackie Coogan - Uncle Fester from the Addams Family! There’s a thunderous voiceover delivering dire warnings! A vampiric Mexican femme fatale performs a fantastic erotic dance in a cantina, gets shot at the climax, and then comes back to life as astonished patrons look on! The same piece of crazy mariachi music plays THROUGHOUT THE ENTIRE FILM! A plane journey is represented using a model on a string, some cotton wool and a mocked up cockpit! There’s an escaped lunatic who talks like Kenneth Williams! There’s the laziest attempt to apprehend an escaped lunatic in cinematic history! For some reason the invincible monster-women hang around with a bunch of dwarves who look like Lon Chaney Jr! There’s a stereotypical Chinese man-servant who dispenses cryptic ancient wisdom and is secretly in league with Uncle Fester! There’s an even more embarrassing stereotypical Mexican who dresses like Speedy Gonzales and introduces himself as “Pepe”! There’s an alpha-male lead whose response to insane terror and imminent death is “let’s hit the hay and we’ll deal with it in the morning”! There’s a thoroughly lame-brained romantic sub-plot! There’s even a weirdly plausible pseudo-scientific explanation! And it’s all neatly wrapped up in under 70 minutes! Basically, this is B-movie heaven.

[2010 UPDATE: Well at least I got this one right. ‘Mesa of Lost Women’ ROCKS!]

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Old Movie Reviews, Part # 1:
Originally Posted July 1st 2005

The Night Caller (John Gillings, UK, 1962)

This is a really odd black and white British sci-fi – starts off very much in the vein of Quatermass (only less good) as some scientists try to make sense of a mysterious glowing orb found in a meteorite crater whilst being gently hassled by some bullheaded military folk. Stiff upper lips and stern b-movie psuedo-science all round. Things take a turn for the ridiculous when an alien emerges from the orb and proceeds to creep around in the shadows, frightening our plucky lady lab assistant with his big, hairy claw(!) The creature runs off into the night, and – I certainly didn’t see this one coming – poses as a human, rents some offices above a Soho sex shop and places an advert in ‘Bikini Girl’ magazine(!!). He lures teenage girls to his phony modelling agency and proceeds to, er, ‘touch them with his claw’. This unexpected shift in tone from high-minded SF to sleazy weirdness is truly inexplicable. The pretty glum selection of policemen, soldiers and scientists who constitute the film’s ‘heroes’ take it all in their stride however, calmly making plans to apprehend the extra-terrestrial scallywag as if this sort of thing happened all the time. The film makes a really big deal out of the fact that the alien keeps his face hidden at all times, but when he’s cornered at the end and forced to explain what he’s up to (trying to repopulate his dying planet – always the same excuse with these bloody aliens, isn’t it?), he removes his mask… to dramatically reveal that he’s actually a fairly handsome, human chap with a bit of a burn on his right cheek. You’d have thought hiding that fucking great werewolf claw would be more of a priority, wouldn’t you? Anyhow, a very strange film whichever way you look at it.

The Vampires’ Night Orgy (Leon Kilmovsky, Spain, 1972)

No orgy I’m afraid, but plenty of vampires. Spanish horror outting in which a bus-load of domestic servants en-route to a manor house get a bit lost and end up in an eerie, deserted village whose residents turn out to all be… no, really, take a guess. The dubbed dialogue is atrocious, the characters are dreadful and the ropey plotline barely hangs together, but nevertheless, this is a surprisingly well made film with a few imaginative ideas, visual flair, a modicum of tension and an all-pervading atmosphere of general wrongness which is satisfyingly unsettling. The vampires here seem to be practicing a pretty strict class system – the village notables swan around elegantly in traditional Euro-horror fashion, whilst the peasants feed on their leftovers like a pack of misshapen zombies. Other highlights include a scary barbarian hatchet-man who goes around cutting peoples limbs off to feed to the outsiders for dinner, and a Jean Rollin-esque sub-plot about a girl who makes friends with a weird little ghost/vampire boy. Pretty good movie overall – I have a hunch that ‘From Dusk Till Dawn’ might have ripped off a few elements from it. It looks a bit embarrassing on my video shelf, but as a long-time horror movie / comics fan you’d better believe I’m way past caring about the odd raised eyebrow.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Old Movie Reviews: Introduction.

As usual, I’ve got to apologise for the recent lapse in posting here – I’ve been busy moving house and taking care of all manner of related running around, and am now cat-sitting for some friends – which is all going pretty nicely thanks, but it does tend to rather put a hole in my schedule when it comes things like getting drunk and writing overlong diatribes about weird old movies, scanning the covers of old detective books I found in charity shops and so on – y’know, the real two-fisted ride into the danger zone that is my day to day life.

So until I manage to pick up steam again with all that, I thought it might be interesting to take a trip back to the heady days of the mid-‘00s, when I used to occasionally post movie reviews on my music blog, Stereo Sanctity. They’re fun little reviews, and they’re not doing much business gathering dust in the archives over there, so might as well give ‘em a new home here.

Reading them back today, it’s interesting (well, interesting to me anyway) to see how much my approach to things has changed over the past five years. Back then, my interest in horror/cult movies was still at a pretty embryonic stage… I enjoyed watching ‘em whenever I got the chance, but I never really went out of my way to obtain them or to do any research/reading on the subject. Also, I’m surprised at the extent to which I seemed to lack an understanding of the simple aesthetic pleasures of weirdo film – for instance, my comments on Lucio Fulci’s “The Black Cat” are quite sneering and derisory, whereas these days I hold that film close to my heart as an example of everything that’s wonderful about this kind of cinema. I guess my watching these films and writing these reviews back in ’04 and ’05 marks the beginning of an infection which has either turned my brain to mulch or raised my artistic sensibilities to a higher plain entirely, depending on which way you look at it.

As I say, I didn’t make much effort to actively further my weird movie viewing at this point in my life, but for a wonderful year or so, my existence of boredom and poverty led me to a wealth of random viewing opportunities, and hey, only a fool swims against the tide. For one thing, I’d just managed to hook up my little TV with an old-fashioned coathanger aerial that gave me pretty good reception, and I discovered that BBC 2 were showing a British horror movie every Friday night as an after midnight schedule filler after the end of Newsnight Review. And they weren’t just showing obvious/familiar ones either – for some wonderful reason, they were screening stuff that was TOTALLY FAR OUT, and often completely unavailable on video/DVD. It was on one of these fateful Friday nights that my jaw first hit the floor as “Psychomania” flickered across the screen, closely followed by “The Sorcerers”, Anthony Balch’s “Horror Hospital”, “Incense For The Damned”, and god only knows what else, padded out with generous servings of moderate-to-good Amicus and Hammer fare. And this wasn’t some fancypants “re-evaluating British horror” season or anything either – some hero in the scheduling department was just throwing this shit on at random intervals with no fanfare whatsoever, like some last stand for weirdo-friendly broadcasting in an era when they’d even replaced the Saturday morning cartoons with cookery shows (not that I ever got up early enough to confirm this vile treachery, having stayed up til 3am waiting for “The Blood Beast Terror” to stumble toward it’s conclusion). Anyway, god bless whoever was responsible, I hope they’re doing well.

My appetite whetted, I also never missed a chance to visit a stall which used to set up for business every Wednesday in Leicester Market (and maybe still does), manned by an appropriately scary and hag-like old lady who seemed to have access to a seemingly endless supply of totally killer VHS – tons of Redemption tapes, French New Wave movies, ‘60s concert films, anime… I don’t know where it was all coming from. It was by the grace of this scary market lady that I got to see my first Jean Rollin movie, George Romero films other than NOTLD, “Faster Pussycat Kill Kill” – oh, heady days. There was this great record stall there too that used to do cheap jazz records and garage/psych represses and stuff… social life? Who needs one!

But anyway: I’m gonna republish a bunch of those old movie posts, beginning this weekend. Please bear in mind that my feelings about a film THEN doesn’t necessarily reflect what I think about it NOW, but that aside, I hope you at least enjoy their brevity, which makes a refreshing change from my usual bullshit.

(Messiah of Evil pics borrowed from Monster Music Music.)