Tuesday, 29 June 2010

VHS Purgatory:
Blood Moon
(Alec Mills, 1989)

PRICE PAID: £1, I think.


“Under a blood red moon, love and grisly murder collide at a private girls’ school when a maniacal killer transforms their world into a living nightmare. When two youngsters in love disappear, nobody worries. When more young couples meet in the woods, truth becomes clear – a campus murderer is lurking, someone who hates love – someone strangling passionate semi-clothed lovers with a barbed wire noose, and then burying them.”

Burying them..? Say it ain’t so!


Ok, so I bought this mistaking it for Jess Franco’s slasher flick “Bloody Moon”. Yes, that’s right - I don’t like slasher films and I’m ambivalent about Jess Franco, but I bought "Blood Moon" anyway on that basis and was somehow disappointed when I discovered it was actually a different film entirely, and… god, someone help me please.

Anyway, by the time I was halfway through trying to watch this thing, I’d have weeped tears of joy if footage from even the shoddiest of Franco’s works could have intervened to save me from the asinine tedium of “Blood Moon”.

How did it come to this, Alec Mills? Blood is good. Moon is good. Blood Moon? Even better! You got a guy in a hood on the front (HE HATES LOVE). You got a girls boarding school. Maybe it could be a bit like the one in "Lust For A Vampire"...?

What sort of effort does it take to scoop up those elements and make a film this crushingly dull?

A thoroughly tepid Australian production gormlessly trying to cash in on the last fading glories of the ‘80s slasher boom, “Blood Moon” is like watching a feature length episode of “Home & Away” where everybody’s on anti-depressants, with occasional bloodless strangulation. Only that sounds kinda diverting, this isn’t.

Music by Brian May, who I’m sure would love to be reminded of his work on this one, is, well…. wank, I think, is the word I'm looking for.

I think the people who made this movie hate love.

BEST DIALOGUE: I find it hard to recall any of the people who were even in this film, let alone what they said.

Friday, 25 June 2010

VHS Purgatory:
The Entity
(Sidney Furie, 1982)

PRICE PAID: I think this was my third pick in a “three tapes for £5” deal, along with two films I actually wanted to watch.

THE BOX SAYS: “’The Entity’ is the ultimate story of supernatural terror. It is based on events which actually took place in California in 1976. Only the names have been changed. The facts remain unaltered…”


You won’t be surprised to learn that certain corners of my DVD collection can tend to attract worried/disapproving looks from guests (damned squares). Beyond the eye-catching glare of such wholesome and artistically defensible titles as “Hatchet For The Honeymoon”, “Rape Of The Vampire” and “Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable” though, it is this innocent-looking ex-rental VHS that I would single out as probably the most genuinely distasteful film I own.

Created and marketed as an earnest ‘based on a true story’ paranormal drama in the vein of “Close Encounters..” or “Poltergeist”, it seems like “The Entity” was a fairly big release for 20th Century Fox back in 1982. Subsequently, I can only imagine it was met with an awkward silence and immediately filed under ‘let us never speak of it again’, as Hollywood moved on with its relentless early ‘80s profit drive.

Perhaps by necessity, the video box is spectacularly vague about the events of the movie within, but let’s get our facts straight from the start: “The Entity” is a film about a young single mother (Barbara Hershey) who finds herself being frequently raped by an invisible ghost/demon.

I suppose in the right hands this premise might have been turned into an interesting and challenging film, and in the *completely* wrong hands (paging Senor Franco), it may at least have been a bracing bit of lunatic erotica, but as it is, TV director Sidney Furie’s blunt and uneven approach to the material results in a real worst case scenario – a boring, sub-Spielbergian exercise in middle-brow ‘seriousness’ mixed with jarring lurches into grotesquely inappropriate sleaze so misguided it’s hard to believe this flick was ever green-lighted by a major studio.

So, for the most part, we get to know Hershey’s character Carla on the basis of her difficult and lonely life history, and the hardships she faces bringing up her two kids-from-previous-relationships on her own, while her current truck-drivin’ partner stays away from home for long periods of time. Pure TV movie stuff. We get to see some eerie ‘stuff-movin’-around-on-its-own-etc’ ‘80s paranormal phenomena antics, and some “sigh, my hair’s a mess but I’ve got to do the dishes” stuff, and we get to see a lot more than we can really be bothered with of the fraught relationship Carla develops with her psychoanalyst Ron Silver. Doing a tedious sub-Al Pacino ‘intense’ turn, Silver is cynical and patronising about Carla’s claims of supernatural shenanigans, and also wants to get into her pants, but y’know, in a ‘good’ “I’m worried about you Carla” sorta way.

So there’s all that. And then there are the rape scenes, which are framed like special effects showcases for Terminator guy Stan Winston, and feature leering, totally unnecessary showering/stripping footage and horrid tit/ass insert shots using obvious body doubles. Seriously – I cannot overestimate how flat-out WRONG these scenes are. I guess they’re not overly explicit or cruel in the way that a ‘70s trash-horror flick might be, but thrown here into the middle of a doggedly serious, supposedly-realist drama and presented as if they should be ‘entertaining’ sequences akin to UFO or ghost stuff in other paranormal type films of the same era, they’re borderline unwatchable.

Like most unintentionally sickening sequences in bad movies, it’s all to do with context and tone. Obviously I can happily waste a Friday night chuckling my way through as much freaky satanic blood-letting as my unwatched-movie-pile can throw at me, but… you don’t know how much I wish I could go back and UNwatch the ‘ghostly latex breast fondling’ shot from “The Entity”.. it’s just – URGH, y’know?

I guess by making these sequences so comparatively extreme, the filmmakers were hoping to imbue the movie with some kind of catharsis for viewers, and to draw some connection with the traumas of actual sexual abuse, or something. But by launching headfirst into failed attempts at softcore titillation at the same time, they manage to completely ruin whatever point they trying to make, to the extent that it’s hard to imagine anyone who’s had any experience of dealing with these issues in their life being anything other than bored and offended by this crap.

Most jaw-dropping of all though is the ending, in which…. well, first off, how would you expect a film like this to end? I mean, after Hershey’s character has rejected both psychoanalysis and the intervention of nerdy paranormal researchers in trying to help her get rid of her invisible molester..? You’d kind of imagine she might perhaps reach some grand understanding about standing up for herself and feeling confident in her own skin etc. and tell ol’ mr.demon to just EFF OFF AND LEAVE HER ALONE, cue contrived happy ending, right…?

Well, yeah. Unfortunately though, this is a ‘based on a true story’ flick, and at the time of filming it seems the real life lady in question had reached no such understanding as regards her, uh, affliction. So basically, we see Carla arrive back at her suburban home for the first time after a climatic failed attempt by the paranormal dudes to freeze her attacker with liquid nitrogen(!?). The front door opens before her, and the grizzly ghost-voice of the demon rapist welcomes her home. She just shrugs, like “oh well, whatever, if you can’t beat ‘em..”, steps inside, and…. roll credits.

Months after viewing, I still can’t find anything to say about that staggering excuse for a conclusion except !!?!?!!??!?!....!!. And !£%£%}[ ‘;;#”!!”$”%@:?@{9}@:0?!!!!!!!.

The sole saving grace of “The Entity” as a serious film might have been the story’s potential to provide insight into, and offer a positive message to, people forced to live within less supernatural abusive households…. and then they go and end it like that. Words fail me.

According to the final ‘what happened next’ caption card, Carla’s real life equivalent had indeed decided to just sorta put up with the ‘attacks’ as best she could, moving her family to a new town whenever the publicity surrounding her case began to get out of hand. I can’t quite bring myself to bother investigating what happened to her subsequently, but I’d imagine having a sleazy, unsympathetic Hollywood movie made out of her story must have really helped with that. Good work, Sidney. Good work, everyone.


I don’t remember precisely, but I did enjoy the bit where a panel of top psychiatrists (all smoking like chimneys) gather to discuss Carla’s condition, and the chief psychiatrist finishes reading up on her sexual history and comes out with something like; “well it’s obvious, isn’t it? Look at her previous lovers – an old geezer and some kid who didn’t know what he was doing. Now she’s got herself a real man [in reference to truck-drivin’ boyfriend], and she just can’t handle it!” – Wow, therapy sessions with that guy must be a blast!

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Killer To Come
by Sam Merwin, Jr.
(Digit, 1962)

“Killer To Come” sounds like a fairly standard, earth-bound mystery, but I love the way the spinning stars and planets emerging from a central vortex on the cover make it look more like some metaphysical sci-fi saga, while the ghostly guy in the hat resembles one of those Dr. Occult / Mister E type inter-dimensional wanderer characters from the DC comics... and then that big, awkward gun hand seals the deal by looking just plain weird.

Unexpected Night
by Elizabeth Daly
(Berkley Medallion Books, 1964; first published 1940)

More unintentional weirdness can be found on the cover of “Unexpected Night”, where a young lady seems find herself being menaced by unearthly floating blobs like something out of “The Stone Tape”;

I also bought this book because I like the concept of an ‘Unexpected Night’ (“What the hell? Nobody told me it was gonna get dark!”), and because as ever with these sub-Agatha Christie efforts, the list of chapters sounds like a whimsical psyche-pop concept album waiting to happen;

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Strange Longing by Orrie Hitt
(Chariot, 1963)

This cover might not exactly be much of a landmark in the internet’s grand archive of scanned pulp, but old smut paperbacks are such a rarity in UK bookshops that even finding one as generic as this is a bit of a thrill.

(Going on anecdotal evidence, I don’t think there was much of a market for ‘em in this country, outside of import copies in sex shops and the like, whereas in America they seemed to have made the transition to newsstands, regular bookstores etc.)

Yep - needless capitals, “FORBIDDEN WORLD”, grubby cheesecake photo – is this the archetypal lesbian sleaze paperback or what?

More info on the redoubtable ‘Orrie Hitt’, who put his kids through college writing hits like “Torrid Wench” and “Hot Cargo”, can be found here.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

The DA Breaks An Egg
by Erle Stanley Gardner

(Total, 1973, originally published 1956)

More pop art awesomeness here, with a real stunning title/illustration/design combo, serving to make a creaky old Erle Stanley Gardner mystery look a damn sight groovier than I assume it to actually be.

For the sake of metaphoric continuity, poetic justice etc, I hope the book ends with the DA enjoying a nice omelette… in the prison canteen.

Interestingly, this volume contains almost no publication info whatsoever, aside from a simple copyright and year of printing, and correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that “Total Special Edition” thing on the front the logo of the oil company Total? A brief google search fails to shed any light on what the hell they were up to repackaging old crime books in the early ‘70s. There's no price on the back either, so I'm guessing it might have been a giveaway as part a promotion or something..? Who knows.

Beyond the fact that it’s a really cool and distinctive piece of artwork, this cover illustration particularly leapt out at me because I’ve seen it before: on the front of the British psychedelic pop compilation Voyage Through The Sugarcube, a record I’ve been vaguely looking for on vinyl for ages simply because I like the cover art so much.

As you can see, the people behind the LP have retouched it all slightly (or at least, drawn over the lines in Microsoft Paint or something), and have given the girl a bit more of a right hand.

It’s strange isn’t it, that seeing this image on the front of a crime book, we instantly assume GIRL = DEAD, whereas looking at the exact same picture on the front of an album, I’ve always seen her as dancing, or enjoying some kind of music-inspired freak-out. I thought at first that they'd redrawn the facial features on the record cover to aid that impression, but on closer inspection they're pretty much identical.

It’s a brilliant bit of pop-art imagery either way, and given the total lack of info on the book and the grey-market nature of the LP, I guess we can take it as being pretty much public domain, so please, spread it around!

Sunday, 13 June 2010

The By-Pass Control
by Mickey Spillane

(Corgi, 1968)


Time for another week of paperbacks methinks, and this eye-catching little number seems as good a place to start as any.

Corgi Mickey Spillane books are ten-a-penny in British second hand shops, but sadly most of them seem to feature pretty drab/ugly (IMHO) cover designs.

Clearly that message didn’t get through to the (uncredited) bad mo-fos who put this master-class in pop art pulp dynamite together though – truly a cover that does justice (of a fittingly unsubtle variety) to the man who brought us “Me, Hood!” and “My Gun Is Quick”.

I’ve never read any of Mickey Spillane’s spy books, but if they’re as dunderheaded and brutal as his Mike Hammer stuff then I’m in for a good time. Here’s hoping ‘Tiger Mann’ does business by waiting for his secretary to point him in the general direction of East Germany then blundering in and shooting and bludgeoning as many commies as he can until someone saps him on the back of the head.

I may have spoiled the ending for myself, but... Final Paragraph Of The Gods:

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Track Of The Vampire
(Jack Hill & Stephanie Rothman, 1966)

First off, I would personally like to thank the world’s movie reviewers, horror bloggers, authors of the various nerd-tastic reference works I like to consult etc., for keeping me in the dark for so long re: the unique qualities of this obscure AIP schedule-filler, thus allowing it to hit me as a real unexpected surprise. Thanks guys - I appreciate it! In some small way, it feels like Christmas when a film I’d never even heard of (well, maybe I read the title once or twice, or saw a poster somewhere..) turns out to be more weird and wonderful than I could ever have hoped.

I didn’t deliberately set out to watch “Track of the Vampire” - it’s the other movie on a double feature DVD I bought primarily to see Barbara Steele in “Nightmare Castle”. Reading the back of the box whilst sitting through the latter in a narcoleptic haze (it’s the only way to watch “Nightmare Castle”), I was intrigued to note that “Track..” is co-directed by two of American International’s most talented b-team directors, Jack Hill (Mr. Spider Baby himself) and Stephanie Rothman (who went on to introduce a welcome dose of feminism into American exploitation in the ‘70s via flicks like “The Student Nurses”). My interest thus piqued, the least I could do was shift this thing up my viewing schedule and check it the hell out. And I’m very glad I did.

To my surprise, “Track of the Vampire” begins not with one of AIP’s trademark animated credits sequences, but with a brilliantly atmospheric ‘town square at midnight’ scene-setter, reminiscent of the way Mario Bava utilised the creepy geometry of old Mediterranean architecture in flicks like “Kill Baby Kill” and “Lisa & The Devil”.

Those can’t be sets, surely…?

Less surprisingly, a monstrous, black-hatted fellow of some description has emerged from the shadows to prey upon a lone female! Fangs! Groping! Cripes, what horrors!

A pretty cool opening, no doubt, but the moment I knew I was REALLY going to love “Track of the Vampire” was when we cut straight to a bunch of beatniks, who are avidly watching what appears to be a severed eyeball attached to a metronome…

In what I assume is a cheeky homage to Corman’s classic “A Bucket of Blood”, our hep-cats begin earnestly discussing the nature of artistic expression, as Karl Schanzer (Schlocker out of “Spider Baby”) explains his new concept of ‘quantum painting’. I think it looks like a lotta fun, and the beatniks seem to agree!

Where the hell is this movie supposed to be set, you may be asking by this point. Europe? America? No my friends, nothing so crude. With a vagueness that borders on genius, “Track of the Vampire” seems to take place instead in ‘60s-HORROR-TOWN, a free-floating principality that those of us who watch too many of these movies may occasionally find ourselves visiting in dreams.

A place where imposing gothic edifices cast leery shadows across cobbled streets and waves crash hypnotically and unceasingly upon the eerily deserted beach, where beatniks beat their chops in cantinas, eccentric artists skulk in their converted crypt studios, and a seemingly endless supply of beautiful, dark-haired girls practice their roles in daring avant garde ballet productions.

Throughout this whole movie, I don’t think we meet so much as one ‘normal’ person – no squares, no policemen, no shopkeepers, no reporters – just the way out kids, occasional surly innkeepers and seekers after truth… and the guy with the fangs.

Damn, I love it here, I wish I could stay forever. It reminds me of happy times in my youth, staggering around seaside towns by night, pissed out of my brain, with the sobering sea air on my face and all of life stretching out ahead of me… (again, guy with fangs notwithstanding).

Anyway, another thrilling stalk n’ strangle sequence is up next, serving to perfectly illustrate the strange and pleasurable art/trash disjuncture that seems to be going on throughout “Track of the Vampire”…

Seriously - one moment we could be looking at brooding, expressionistic framing straight out of a Murnau or Fritz Lang movie, the next it’s like we’re suddenly transported to that stupid bit in “Astro Zombies” where those guys chase each other around a swimming pool for about a hour and Tura Satana shoots somebody…

And as I probably don’t need to remind you, this weird negative zone connecting the two is pretty much EXACTLY where I like to find myself on movie night.

This scene, in which a girl dances across the beach to pad out the running time a little, just goes on, and on, and on, far longer than such a scene ever really should. Being generally in favour of such dreamy nonsense, I was having a lovely time with all the woozy marimba music and compound-eye lenses and stuff, but when it hit the five minute mark even I was thinking “right, that’s enough of that, can we have some kind of event or something now?”

William Campbell plays troubled artist Antonio Sordi, who does a brisk trade knocking out bloodthirsty paintings like this one;


That’s right! Another one bites the dust.

Campbell is superbly creepy, lumbering about and drawling his lines like Robert Mitchum’s punch-drunk older brother.

The scene in which an unsuspecting girl poses for him whilst he stares at a canvas he’s just painted pitch black, ranting about the fate of his ancestor, a controversial artist who was killed by the inquisition in the 11th century, seeing the laughing face of the woman whose evidence condemned him reflected in the black mess, is one of the most grandly ghoulish and unsettling scenes I’ve seen in a gothic horror flick for a long time.

That alone would have done a really nice job of transforming the standard “cornball explanation of why he’s a psycho” sequence into something altogether more enjoyable, but when the scene shifts into a full tilt, Bergman-esque desert dream sequence in which Sordi acts out the drama of his heretical forebear…. man, it’s a knock-out!

If my generalised talk of ‘girls’ in this review seems a tad crass, I apologise, but the fact is “Track of the Vampire”s general sense of oneiric incoherence makes it very difficult to keep tabs on it’s myriad female characters, most of whom look very similar and sometimes even seem to change places, or come back from the dead, or reappear as their own sisters and so on. The whole thing almost has a kind of constantly shifting, Jean Rollin-like drift to it, and if there are some fine and characterful performances from the female cast hidden in their somewhere, I’m damned if I can figure out who was who by looking at the cast-list in order to acknowledge them.

The fact that most of the actresses look distantly familiar from other AIP movies, but that I can never QUITE put names to the faces, only increases this delicious feeling of dislocation, as I stumble through “Track of the Vampire” wondering whether I last saw that girl who was dancing on the beach hanging out in a technicolour castle with Vincent Price, or riding with a wild black & white hotrod gang… or did I just see her out of the corner of my eye in some movie-inspired dream…? Ah, the truth – forever beyond my grasp! Here I sit, like poor old Vincent in one of those Poe movies where his new wife turns into his dead wife or his daughter turns into his mother or whatever, contemplating the possibility that I’m just DREAMING this whole ridiculous movie…

Later on, we get some shots like this one, that lead me to think, holy shit, that’s no back projection – did Roger Corman actually pack everybody off to Europe to make this damned thing…?

Given Corman’s legendary reputation for penny-pinching, I’ve always been kind of curious about how and why he let Francis Coppola go all the way to Ireland to shoot “Dementia 13” in ‘63, so on that basis I guess an overseas jolly for Hill and Rothman wouldn’t have been *completely* beyond the realms of possibility… although the suits at AIP can’t have been too thrilled when they returned with a film this art-damaged and incoherent.

One thing I absolutely love about the best of the black & white ‘60s AIP film is that even as they were poking fun at beatniks and art world pretension, they really do carry a genuine ‘beat’ sensibility that somehow manages to sit neatly alongside their exploitation / pure entertainment agenda. Certainly you’d be hard pressed to find anything in the early ‘60s avant garde as shocking and fragmented as “Dementia 13”, as insightful as “Bucket of Blood” or as uncompromising in it’s rejection of social norms as “Spider Baby”, even as all three still function perfectly well on the level of goofy horror movie fun.

I guess it goes without saying that Corman and Hill and Rothman and Coppola and Daniel Haller were all smart, talented, literate people, and an uncanny sense of vitality and intelligence can’t help but shine through in their work, even as the moneymen crack the whip. And if that latent sense of experimentation can be seen creeping around the edges of those other movies, it’s a pure delight to find it exploding all over “Track Of The Vampire”, a film that, whilst highly accomplished in technical terms, couldn’t have been much more of a free-wheeling daydream if Corman had hired a bunch of Venice Beach hippies to shoot it.

There is a refreshing ‘first thought/best thought’ feeling about the film’s incongruous mix of beautiful, well-executed sequences and total junk, a spirit of knowing good humour and energy that makes the resulting film a hoot, even as the events on-screen make about as much sense as a 3am conversation in the bar at an Italian scriptwriter’s convention.


A starry-eyed rampage through the back roads of the mid-‘60s subconscious disguised as a commercial b-movie, “Track of the Vampire” blows my mind.

Of course, every dream is followed by the crude awakening when you realise you’ve got to put your trousers on and get the hell to work in the next twenty minutes, and a modicum of internet research reveals that my vision of Jack and Stephanie hanging out on the beach together, sharing a few sticks of tea and crafting this mad movie was sadly pretty wide of the mark.

The real circumstances behind “Track of the Vampire”s creation are as follows:

One day, Roger Corman acquired the rights to an obscure Yugoslavian movie, the intriguingly titled “Operation Titian”, for the price of a milkshake, but subsequently deemed it too dull to bother releasing. (I’m guessing this is where all the atmospheric location shooting and chase sequences came from?)

Meanwhile, Jack Hill was busy shooting a whole bunch of footage for another film that never got finished for some reason (all the beatnik/mad artist stuff, presumably?), and Corman, utilising his uncanny ability to pull a feature film out of just about anything, decided he might as well crowbar the two together into, well… SOMETHING, roping in Stephanie Rothman to write and shoot enough additional scenes to establish some sense of coherence.

And if “some sense of coherence” would be a pretty generous description of the film that eventually emerged, I think we’ve still got to give it up for all concerned – “Track of the Vampire”, ladies and gents, a wholly ACCIDENTAL masterpiece of ‘60s weirdo horror.

As a final note, IMDB tells me that Sid Haig turns up in this movie, portraying “Abdul the Arab”.

I’ve watched it twice now, and don’t recall seeing any “Abdul the Arab”.

He’s probably in there somewhere though. Maybe he’s hiding. It’s just that kinda movie.

Sweet dreams.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Expresso Bongo
(Val Guest, 1959)

“Y’know something Dixie? If I didn’t have my bongos to work it out on, I’d flip my lid!”

A modern viewer would be forgiven for not necessarily expecting to find a wealth of thrills n’ spills within a vehicle for none-more-sappy pretty boy Cliff Richard. But with British exploitation legend Val Guest at the controls, I’m guessing a lot of squares got plenty shook up when “Expresso Bongo” hit their daughters’ eyeballs back in ’59.

Before we get to the film proper though, I think it’s the least we can do to briefly salute the terrific credits sequence, wherein the names of cast & crew are cleverly incorporated into restaurants menus, jukeboxes, shop windows and the like. Imagine the effort they must have put into that pinball machine shot in an age before digital manipulation. That’s craftsmanship that is!

Anyway, with Cliff proving just as much of a wet blanket as a movie star as you might expect (he is actually upstaged by his own hair), “Expresso Bongo” is instead largely carried by Lawrence Harvey, fresh from his success in “Room At The Top” the same year. Harvey turns in a human-dynamo performance as unscrupulous hustler/manager Johnny Jackson, a disillusioned jazz drummer trying to make a buck off the music scene any way he can in the cruel environs of pre-Beatles Soho. Johnny is something of a Frankie Machine-like character, and, like Algren’s antihero before him, when Johnny moves, he moves like a street-punk, acting on wild impulses and dishing out hip non-sequitors thick and fast. “Get yourself a car, baby”, he advises a passing hooker, “love on wheels – it’s the only game in town!” At one point he gets in the phrase “beating those pagan skins”, a full five years before Wilfrid Bramble in “A Hard Day’s Night”!

As we follow Johnny through his nightly routine of crazy scams, Guest gives us a surprisingly candid tour of sordid West End nightlife, initiating us into a world of struggling club musicians eyeing up stockings in department store windows on their fag breaks, of down-and-out movie moguls hussling for change (“I was the one who introduced the bubblebath to show-business” yells one), and of teenage girls roaming free, carefully maintaining that post-war balance between innocence and experience, and seemingly with nothing better to do than bicker about how tall Dave Brubeck is (I LOOKED IT UP, HE’S 5’9”, NOW HOW ABOUT A DRINK FOR CHRISSAKE?).

Down-on-the-street as it may be though, “Expresso Bongo” still deviates from the realities of British pop management by making clear that Johnny is avowedly heterosexual. Furthermore, his main squeeze Maisie (Sylvia Syms) is an aspiring singer who pays the couple’s bills by working as stripper, providing Johnny (and Guest’s camera) with a happy excuse to take a butcher’s into one of those basement clubs where the nice boys and girls don’t venture.

And so get this – not only does the opening fifteen minutes of “Expresso Bongo” defy expectations by giving us swear words, wanton caffeine abuse and open references to prostitution… it’s actually got boobs!

And that’s not the half of it!

Jess Franco eat your heart out.

Never mind all that though; we’ve scarcely got time to catch our breath before Maisie drags Johnny along to the Tom Tom Club, where expresso-crazed kids are going wild to the sound of The Shadows!

I think it’s The Shadows anyway – they look like a bit of an uncharacteristically rough lot here, but the twangtastic sounds emanating from my TV speakers leave no doubt that that’s Hank Marvin himself wringing whammy bar gold from his Strat.


The band have a filthy Link Wray-style rumble goin’ on, and in fact this whole scene is freakin’ fantastic, until you-know-who sticks his oar in…

Cliff is a stone drag, but Johnny sees stardust in the highly organized system by which doting girls take charge of his bongos, keeping them constantly within reach of their hero as he roams free around the club, and a fateful 50/50 management deal is inked over breakfast the next morning.

“Nice shooting kid, reminds me of my two weeks in the guards!”

Clearly a big hype and a new stage-name is needed to bum rush Johnny’s new charge into the charts, and in a moment of pure inspiration, Bongo Herbert is born!

Yes, that’s right - Bongo Herbert.

Henceforth, I’m going to make sure I refer to Sir Cliff as ‘Bongo Herbert’ at every possible opportunity.

Anyway, a couple of additional scams pulled on Meier Tzelniker’s almost offensively Jewish Denmark St label boss gets Bongo onto wax, some equally scam-assisted TV appearances provide publicity, and hey presto, the kid’s a hit! (Not that he's outselling "Cha Cha Chinee" or anything, but hey, early days.)

I thought I’d share this shot of Johnny and Maisie’s West End pad, just because the film seems to encourage us to see it as a rat-hole, whereas I think it looks like paradise;

Christ almighty. America gave us Gene Vincent’s black glove, The Killer marrying his cousin, Wanda Jackson’s ‘Funnel of Love’ and Big E himself. Only England could retaliate with Bongo Herbert in a smoking jacket, dedicating “Shrine On The Second Floor” to his mother.

“Bastards!”, exclaims Bongo’s senile father to no one in particular, like some prototype Father Jack. A welcome change of pace.

“Flash those Purleys, Bongo!” Johnny’s retirement fund looks less certain after Herbert is introduced to veteran American singer Dixie Collins (an enjoyably ballsy performance from Yolande Donlan). Dixie takes a shine to Bongo (and his ticket sales), and doesn’t think much of the underage star being taken for a neat 50% by his manager on grounds of highly dubious legality…

So do you think maybe Dixie, Bongo, Johnny and Maisie (who I note is STILL WORKING AS A STRIPPER, despite her boyfriend’s newfound riches) will all learn some tough lessons about the fickle whims of showbiz before this drama is through…? Only time (in this case about twenty minutes that are markedly less interesting than the preceding hour) will tell!

With a screenplay adapted by Wolf Mankovitz from his earlier stageplay, “Expresso Bongo” features a solid backbone of witty, quickfire dialogue, risqué situations and sturdy characterization, the like of which you’d never have expected to find in a cheap-shot pop star vehicle. Add great performances from everyone except Cliff, lively direction and all the additional attractions described above and clearly the result is a veritable rollercoater ride to the edge of oblivion by the excitement-starved standards of British commercial cinema in 1959.

For all the unexpected enjoyment though, there’s also something teeth-grindingly frustrating about “Expresso Bongo” – dark hints of the kind of routine disappointment that Val Guest would make his bread and butter in the dark days of the ‘70s sex comedy boom.

Largely, I think this is because it is a rock n’ roll movie almost completely devoid of rock n’ roll. Sure, the scene with The Shadows is great, but beyond that… Cliff/Bongo’s material is drippy fare indeed, and his on-screen presence carries about as much of a sense of rebellion as the Pope’s Christmas message. In fact, I don’t think anyone even dares invoke the R’n’R beast throughout the movie – characters talk about being “a singer” or working “in showbiz”, and disappointingly that’s exactly what they do. He even seems to lose his bongos after the opening club scene!

This being a 1959 movie in which delinquent teens hang out in coffee bars working out their frustration on those aforementioned pagan skins, you might also reasonably expect to find some choice beatnik action going on in “Expresso Bongo”, but that too is notable by its absence. Johnny may talk pretty hip on occasion, but sadly it’s just part of his constantly rolling patter, and there's nary a goateed hipster or a 'jazz' cigarette in sight.

In fact, the only subculture Val Guest manages to shine a light on here is, I’m guessing, the one he knew best – the seedy world of cutthroat managers, sex workers and low level showbiz hustlers.

Curiously, I found that “Expresso Bongo” also bears a certain comparison to a film whose maker’s intentions were the exact opposite of Guest’s easy-going commercial agenda, Peter Watkins’ Privilege. Both films centre on a carefully stage-managed pop singer who is denied his own voice as his bland good looks are used to channel the agenda of his controllers. And more notably, both films see their stars publicly declaring their religious faith as part of a mutual agreement with the Church of England… not an idea that I think has any real-life equivalent in the world of ‘50s/’60s British pop stars.

It’s also interesting (and faintly chilling) to note that Paul Jones – who in “Privilege” found himself overseeing a fascistic Christian ceremony in a football stadium – actually converted to Born Again Christianity during the ‘80s, following his attendance at an evangelical event in a football stadium… in the company of noted bible-basher Cliff Richard. Bongo Herbert strikes again.