Thursday, 28 June 2012

An Andy Milligan Double-bill from the BFI,
Part # 1:

Nightbirds (1968)

If you’re searching for sure-fire omens that we really are living in the end-times in 2012, look no further than the fact that the British Film Institute – austere, state-sponsored guardians of Ozu, Cocteau and Cassavetes on these shores – just released a double bill of Andy Milligan films on blu-ray.

This astoundingly unlikely occurrence has of course taken place via the auspices of the BFI’s invaluable Flipside imprint, here working in collaboration with ‘Drive’ director Nicholas Winding Refn, who (rather unexpectedly, it must be said) turns out to be a huge Milligan fan, and also the present owner of the only surviving prints of the films presented in this set.

For any uninitiated readers out there, I’m afraid it’s a pretty difficult task to encapsulate the life and work of Andy Milligan in a few easy paragraphs. Suffice to say, until recently his name was probably best known as a kind of inside joke and/or flashing warning sign within cult film fandom – the man who made trash-horror films so inept and grotesque that not even trash-horror fanatics could stand to sit through them. As Michael Weldon memorably wrote in his ‘Psychotronic Encyclopaedia of Film’, “if you’re an Andy Milligan fan, there’s no hope for you”.

This dismissive view of Milligan’s work has gradually softened over the years, largely thanks to the publication of Jimmy McDonough’s highly acclaimed biography The Ghastly One: The Sex-Gore Netherworld of Andy Milligan. It is a genuinely extraordinary book which fully justifies the plaudits and superlatives thrown in its direction, with McDonough’s achievement is rendered all the more remarkable due the fact that, at the time of publication at least, his subject (who died of AIDs in 1991) was pretty much the most terminally obscure, universally derided figure one could hope to find anywhere in popular culture.

As well as outlining the shape of Milligan’s troubled life, McDonough’s book almost coincidentally ends up shedding new light on his equally troubled films, building a compelling case for them not simply as the work of “morons with a movie camera” (as Stephen King of all people once dismissed 1968’s ‘The Ghastly Ones’), but as the flawed statements of a kind of cracked auteur, their strange logic and mangled storylines reflecting at every turn the personal obsessions of their unusual creator.

Viewed through this lens, Milligan’s work suddenly begins to make a lot more sense, taking on what McDonough characterises as a ‘crippled, incontinent puppy appeal’, allowing the same grainy, misbegotten atrocities that have bored and infuriated horror fans for decades to be reinterpreted as the outpourings of a kind of impoverished, 42nd Street Fassbinder, whose background connects him more closely to the world of confrontational off-off-off-broadway theatre and the birth of New York’s underground gay cinema scene than to the drive-in hucksterism of Al Adamson or Herschel Gordon Lewis. And that, I suppose, is where the BFI pulls on its rubber gloves and steps in.

One of the oddest diversions in Milligan’s already thoroughly odd filmmaking career came at the end of the 1960s, when he upped sticks from New York and spent about eighteen months living in London. During his time in England, he managed to crank out no less than five feature films on his trusty 16mm sound-on-film camera, three of them apparently produced with no financial backing whatsoever, after the production deal that brought him to the UK collapsed following a vicious disagreement with the father of producer & adult cinema entrepreneur Leslie Elliot.

Such was business-as-usual in Milligan’s world, but nonetheless, the time he spent in London seemed – whether by accident or design - to coincide with his most creative and prolific filmmaking period, and the film BFI/Flipside have chosen to lead with on their release – 1968’s ‘Nightbirds’ - certainly marks an interesting change of pace for the man better known to the world (or small parts of it at least) as the director of ‘Torture Dungeon’ and ‘Guru, The Mad Monk’.

(‘For Your Info’ note: In keeping with BFI/Flipside’s catalogue of single feature non-genre films, their BD/DVD package is being marketed solely as a release of ‘Nightbirds’, but in fact it’s effectively a double-bill, with the same year’s ‘The Body Beneath’ included in its entirety as an ‘extra’.)

Almost entirely unseen at the time of its completion and until recently assumed to have been lost completely, ‘Nightbirds’ was the first of the films Milligan made in the UK, and the only non-horror effort. As such, there is a spirit of freshness and naivety about it that is glimpsed only rarely in the director’s grim and claustrophobic American films. It’s easy to speculate that with the opportunities of a whole new city spread out before him, and working for once with a producer/financier whom he actually seemed to get on with pretty well (until he met his dad at least), Milligan perhaps saw this project as a fresh start – a chance to break away from the genre films he’d been grinding out for 42nd Street, and to return to something a bit closer to his theatrical roots. (After all, hadn’t Polanski kick-started his international career in London a few years earlier with ‘Repulsion’, financed by Soho sleaze merchants Tony Tenser and Michael Klinger?)

Well, ‘Nightbirds’ is certainly no ‘Repulsion’, but watching its opening half hour, you’d never guess it was an Andy Milligan film either. The perpetual camera whir and some tell-tale eccentricities in the dialogue may be giveaways for fans, but beyond that, the film’s rough-yet-imaginative compositions and awkward-yet-compelling performances very much have the vibe of a promising student film – the kind of thing that might win the top prize in a college Filmmaking class, or at an amateur short film night. That a guy who’d been working as an embattled commercial filmmaker for about a decade at this point could come up with something so earnest and unabashed perhaps cuts to the heart of what continues to fascinate people about Milligan, in spite of the fact that most of his surviving films are, to put it mildly, not that great.

Much of the ‘freshness’ (for want of a better word) in ‘Nightbirds’ can be traced back to the film’s two leads, Julie Shaw and Berwick Kaler, both young and inexperienced actors whose youthful energy, though stifled by a lack of ‘conventional’ dramatic training, is captured well by Milligan’s roving camera.

Although there is some interesting location shooting here (offering fascinating glimpses of East London’s Commercial Street and Spitalfields market area circa 1968), ‘Nightbirds’ relative artistic success is really down to Shaw and Kaler, with the bulk of the action taking place in a single cramped attic room where the pair bounce off each other both physically and emotionally, developing their own strange needy/predatory relationship which, inevitably, takes a darker turn as the film progresses.

Kaler in particular is a really charming screen presence. An aspiring actor who was apparently working as a doorman in Elliot’s Soho cinema when he was shanghaied into staring in ‘Nightbirds’ with one day’s notice, he has a sort of bashful, indefinably goofy quality about him that Milligan seems to emphasise throughout the film, and – under the circumstances – he gives a fine, mannered performance that reminded me quite a lot of John Moulder-Brown in Jerzy Skolimowski’s ‘Deep End’. Shaw is less of a stand out, with her possible reluctance about starring in such a weird, marginal project creeping through from time to time, but this guardedness is well-suited to the closed and duplicitous nature of the character she’s playing, and, presumably with Milligan’s encouragement, she pulls off a couple of great moments, including an absolutely wonderful shot in which her expression transforms from dazed innocence to witchy malignance in a matter of seconds as Kaler pleasures her off-screen.

As usual, Milligan’s scripted dialogue is somewhat digressive, ‘shocking’ in an audience-baiting, theatrical fashion and sometimes just plain odd, whilst his storytelling – especially in the second half of the film – often collapses into moments of heavy-handed melodrama and beserk cruelty. It’s a testament to Shaw and Kaler (along with the assorted misfits Milligan rounded up for the supporting cast) that they manage to keep a lid on all this excess, keeping things at least vaguely within the realms of believability, whilst the director’s more naturalistic, low-key approach to filming helps to largely avoid the garish absurdity that characterises his horror films.

Rather than a one-off shot at an ‘art’ film however, perhaps ‘Nightbirds’ can be best viewed as a transatlantic continuation of the kind of black & white sexploitation flicks that Milligan spent much of the ‘60s knocking out. I say ‘perhaps’, simply because it’s difficult to tell at this juncture, with most of those films currently filed as ‘missing, presumed dead’. But certainly, many elements found in ‘Nightbirds’ – from the “frank” discussion of masturbation and sexual positions to the hilarious, bitchy trash talk (“there’s a name for girls like you, it begins with a C and ends with a T”, a character sneers at one point) – would seem to chime with the kind of content found in ‘60s East Coast ‘roughies’, particularly those magic few that seem to be balanced on a razor-sharp demarcation between art and sleaze – a trait evidenced by the decidedly peculiar, almost avant garde, approach Milligan takes to the film’s nude scenes.

Zooming in as close as he can to his actors’ furry bellies and pimpled limbs, Milligan films the couple’s assorted gropings in a way that’s not so much voyeuristic as it is entirely abstract, revealing vistas of odd, disconnected body parts, entirely removed from any narrative or erotic charge. Whether adopted as a deliberate aesthetic decision or merely a kind of teasing self-censorship, I thought this technique was actually quite effective, allowing the film to become somewhat explicit whilst simultaneously undercutting the generic expectations of a ‘sex film’, veering more toward the kinda furtive footage you might see in some underground short, or one of Warhol’s films or something.

Proceedings gradually become more recognisably ‘Milligan-esque’ as the film progresses however, and when ‘Nightbirds’ eventually concludes with an uneasy bit of off-screen animal violence*, a laugh-out-loud low budget gore moment and a truly herculean example of the director’s trademark ‘camera swirl’, fans of the man’s work will no doubt find themselves wiping a tear from their eye, raising a glass of whatever the hell it is Andy Milligan fans drink to the heavens, and giving thanks to the BFI for letting this thing happen.

And as for the rest of us, well, in keeping with many of the films released on the Flipside label, it would probably be unwise to try to hype ‘Nightbirds’ as some kind of ‘lost classic’ – with the best will in the world, it’s still a minor film by a director of, shall we say, limited means. But nonetheless there is still something compelling about it, an eerie itch-you-can’t-scratch fascination that just won’t let up.

*One of the best Milligan anecdotes in Berwick Kaler’s commentary on the BFI disc concerns the director flying into a rage when Shaw refused to snap the neck of the film’s pet pigeon, apparently stalking out of sight to do it himself before handing her the dead bird to film the scene, in an almost exact replay of the infamous rabbit story from the making of ‘The Ghastly Ones’ recounted in McDonough’s book.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Gothic Horror Round-Up II:
Cry of the Banshee
(Gordon Hessler, 1970)

And so from the sublime to the ridiculous, as 1970’s ‘Cry of the Banshee’ sees AIP’s long-running series of Vincent Price-led gothics finally spluttering to a halt, with a conclusion as ill-starred as any vengeful witch could’ve hoped for.

Allegedly annoyed that AIP had denied them the preparation time needed for a trip to Scotland to research ancient celtic folklore or somesuch, screenwriter Christopher Wicking and director Gordon Hessler apparently decided to show them the error of their ways by throwing together a screenplay based on nothing whatsoever, reworking Tim Kelly’s initial draft into a hackneyed mess of nonsense set in some non-specific part of 16th century England, where cruel local magistrate Edward Whitman lords it over both the local populace and his own family, in a tepid amalgamation of Price’s far more memorable roles in ‘Witchfinder General’ and ‘Masque of the Red Death’.

Anyone coming to this film hoping to learn a thing or two about banshees and what they get up to will be soundly disappointed, as the fascinating mythology pertaining to said creatures is entirely ignored, leaving us with nothing but some vague were-creature and one of the most annoyingly inconsistent pre-christian witch cults in cinema history to function as thorns in Price’s side.

Hey, wait a minute, pre-xtian witch cults, you say? That sounds like some pretty fun stuff! Yeah, that’s what I thought too, but sadly this concept is handled just as poorly as the banshee stuff, with the sinister, forest-dwelling cult here taking the form of a bunch of obnoxious first-year drama students, prancing about in togas and night-gowns, performing tedious hippie era ‘self-actualisation’ exercises. Head witch Oona, as portrayed by veteran stage and screen actress Elizabeth Bergner, must merit some sort of award as “most irritating witch of all time”, narrowly beating Lila Zaborin from ‘Blood Orgy of the She-Devils’ to the prize as she gurns away under an unkempt fright-wig, rolling her eyes and vocalising her painfully over-enunciated declamations in a voice that’s sort of half Irish, half Romany, and all ‘drunken am-dram auntie’.

The filmmakers seem to have tried to incorporate some belated ‘social commentary’ into this scenario, characterising the cultists as peace-loving drop-outs being persecuted by the cruel and repressive authorities. In fact Wicking is even on record as saying that he meant Price’s persecution of the cultists to remind viewers of Mayor Daley’s crushing of dissent at the ’68 Democratic Convention, if you can believe that. Like most elements of the film through, the execution of this idea too confused and half-arsed to really amount to much.

“Oona is good, Oona heals, Oona is love”, her followers chant, but if these cultists are supposed to be benign and sympathetic figures, why do we also see them praising Satan, conjuring up curses at the drop of a hat, orchestrating the deaths of people who weren’t even remotely to blame for their persecution, and basically doing everything that Vince’s ‘repressive’ regime accuses them of..? Exploiting all the bad karma of Satanism without any of the accompanying cool stuff and gnarly rites, Oona’s cult are just about the most charmless gang of woodland devil worshippers you could ever have the misfortune to encounter.

As regular readers will know, I absolutely loved Hessler and Wicking’s Scream & Scream Again, which they made immediately prior to starting work on ‘..Banshee’. And whilst I suppose a dose of ‘Scream..’s errant pacing and unhinged randomness can be felt in ‘..Banshee’ to a certain extent, the duo’s approach sadly achieves an altogether more negative result here, as a general lack of any of the novelty, enthusiasm or imagination that made the earlier film so unique leaves us with a movie that, beyond just feeling a bit pointless, leaves a bad taste in the mouth in just about every respect.

First and foremost, the film spends much of its run-time exhibiting a distinctly unhealthy strain of cruelty and misogyny that quickly outstays its welcome. If Michael Reeves’ ‘Witchfinder General’ succeeded in introducing a new level of grim realism into period horror films at the dawn of the ‘70s, the makers of ‘..Banshee’ certainly take full advantage of these developments. Unfortunately though, they seem to have missed the point of Reeves’ film entirely, using the ground gained by their predecessor simply as an excuse to fill their own film with as much sleaze and unpleasantness as thought they could get away with.

Throughout the film, breasts are exposed with monotonous regularity, inevitably accompanied by torture, beatings and sexual assault, as the kind of scenes that were powerful and upsetting in ‘Witchfinder..’ are reiterated as pure, mindless exploitation, dwelt upon in a way that, whilst ostensibly less explicit than European efforts like 1971’s ‘Mark of the Devil’, somehow comes across as even more distasteful. In spite – or perhaps because of - its hammy, old fashioned atmosphere, I think ‘..Banshee’ actually stands out as one of the rapiest, most cynically nasty British horror films of the ‘70s (which is saying something, considering the excesses that were to come later in the decade).

Of all the female cast, only Hilary Dwyer (from ‘Witchfinder..’) as Price’s daughter emerges with her dignity intact, and even she has to face up to the challenge of some absolutely senseless dialogue, the script demanding that her character suddenly deliver lines like “it’s as though we were all seeds of evil”, apropos of nothing. It’s stuff like that that dooms most of the performances in this movie, as actors good, bad and indifferent all seem to flounder with the material they’ve been handed. Bergner, despite her storied career, is just plain awful, Swedish actress Essy Persson does the best she can with a thankless role as Price’s much-abused wife, and it’s very sad see the once great Welsh actor Hugh Griffiths wasted (in both senses of the word) as a comic relief gravedigger.

Cheap, ‘who-cares-anyway’ production decisions and highly variable cinematography also take their toll, as exemplified by the face-slappingly awful moment in which two characters casually look out of a castle window at night before their POV immediately cuts to some completely unmatched daylight stock footage of wolves roaming through some woodland. And by the time Persson finds herself being menaced by a disembodied halloween werewolf claw, any hope that this movie might redeem itself has faded pretty much to zero, with not even the ever-reliable Vincent Price able to summon up enough energy to salvage proceedings.

By this stage, Price was apparently already unhappy with the declining quality of the films AIP were offering him, and the half-hearted sleaze and myriad absurdities of ‘..Banshee’ can scarcely have done much to improve his mood. Of course, Price never really gives a ‘bad’ performance, but he’s clearly finding it hard to hide his disgruntlement here, knocking out passages of dialogue that were clearly written with his dulcet tones in mind as quickly as he can before stalking dejectedly off-screen. And it’s hard to blame him really; prior to the upswing his career took in the early ‘70s thanks to such quality vehicles as ‘The Abominable Dr. Phibes’ and ‘Theatre of Blood’, it’s easy to imagine him being a bit worried about where he was headed at this point, perhaps seeing himself descending the same slippery slope toward demeaning trash that had claimed so many aging horror stars before him.

So… yeah. As you might have gathered, I really didn’t like this one much. In the ‘plus’ column, we’ve at least got a terrific, Terry Gilliam-designed animated credits sequence, and a fine, foreboding score by Wilfred Josephs. Some of the woodland scenes are nicely photographed, capturing at least a hint of the mossy, verdant atmospherics found in the infinitely superior ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’. Oh, and the ending is quite nicely executed in a gleeful, twist-in-the-tail kinda way.

But seriously, that’s about all I’m getting here in terms of positives.

I suppose I shouldn’t be that hard on ‘..Banshee’. In the grander scheme of things it’s still perfectly watchable, and it at least tries to explore some interesting ideas, even if it doesn’t get very far with them. In fact, if this was some zero budget regional independent movie from the same era, you’d probably rank it as a good effort. But as a professional production with a wealth of talent and experience behind it, coming at the tail end of a series that had produced almost a dozen far better (and far more *likeable*) movies by this point, it seems like a ropey, embarrassing mess, and a sad way to send the Price/Poe films to their unquiet grave.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Gothic Horror Round-Up II:
L'orribile Segreto del Dr. Hichcock
(Riccardo Freda, 1962)

An unusual figure within the pantheon of Italian genre directors, I remember reading somewhere that Riccardo Freda had become ‘independently wealthy’ by the time he took up making horror films in the late ‘50s, with a fifteen year track record of success in the field of peplums (pepla? I dunno..) and historical epics serving to free him from the commercial considerations that defined the work of other Italo-horror directors, leaving him time to carefully consider the relatively few films he made in the genre, with the studios perhaps seeing them as ‘pet projects’ or indulgences from a guy who’d already proved himself a reliable money-maker.

I don’t know how much truth there is in that view of things, but a rare degree of creative forethought and aesthetic conviction can certainly be felt in ‘L’orrible Segreto del Dr. Hichcock’, which stands as one of the real A+ masterpieces of ‘60s gothic cinema. Released in Italian cinemas 50 years ago this month (funnily enough), it is ‘..Dr Hichcock’, more-so even than ‘Black Sunday’ or Corman’s Poe films, that I think subsequent filmmakers came to regard as ‘the template’ as they mined the gothic style into oblivion over the coming decade.

Packed with overbearing baroque imagery and masterfully orchestrated moments of creepitude, the film can certainly boast a full set of genre clichés. Anyone keeping track on a tick sheet can happily strike off the following in the first forty minutes alone:

Opening grave robbery scene
Eerie, disembodied piano playing
Conflict & confusion between two wives: one blonde, one brunette / one living, one dead
Giant, foreboding portraits of dead wife
Black cat
Randomly appearing skulls
Sinister spinster housekeeper
Disordered family crypt, connected to house via underground tunnels
Constant thunderstorms
Rooms full of furniture covered by ghostly dust-coverings
A mysterious figure creeping around outside bedroom doors at night, trying the locks
A forbidden room that must never be opened
Candelabras all over the joint

And so on.

Rarely though have such familiar elements been as effectively used as they are here. Shooting in technicolor with a wide aspect ratio (I’m not gonna venture into the technical AR talk, but y’know what I mean), Freda creates an incredibly detailed mise en scene within the film’s set-bound interiors, full of dense, dark colours, high ceilings and lavish furnishings that evoke a real sense of shadowed grandeur – a feeling of things lurking in the distance, perpetually unseen beyond the sharp spot-lighting.

Mario Bava had of course worked closely with Freda during the ‘50s (most notably on ‘I Vampiri’ (’56) and ‘Caltiki: the Immortal Monster’ (’59)), and it’s hard to believe that the colour gothic aesthetic perfected by Bava in 1963's Whip & The Body wasn’t veeeery heavily influenced by Freda’s film, utilising many of the same techniques (hell, maybe even some of the same sets – that wrought-iron gate in the crypt looks pretty familiar) to create a similar atmosphere of slow-building tension, borderline supernatural mystery and familial decay.*

Looking further ahead down the influence trail, Freda’s distinctive use here of a POV tracking shot that place us behind the eyes of a mysterious aggressor creeping slowly down glassy, unnaturally lit corridors, followed by close ups of ornate bedroom doorknobs being tested, will have Euro-horror aficionados immediately chorusing “ARGENTO”, and indeed, whether a conscious influence or not, after watching ‘..Dr. Hichcock’ it’s easy to interpret certain shots in ‘Deep Red’ and ‘Suspiria’ as direct nods to Freda.

For all that ‘..Dr. Hichcock’ plays on, and helps create, horror cliché though, there is far more going on here than a mere parade of gothic hi-jinks. To a greater extent than any of his contemporaries, Freda seems determined to explore the deeper psychological aspects of the gothic formula. Drawing (somewhat inevitably) on Franju’s Les Yeux Sans Visage, and pre-empting such psychoanalytical headfucks as Hammer’s ‘Demons of the Mind’, ‘..Dr. Hichcock’s web of sex, surgery and psychiatric dysfunction invests the film with a disturbing, modernist feel that sits oddly with its antiquated visual aesthetic. Sigmund Freud is even mentioned by name at one point, and the whole film is suffused with a sense of neurotic unease that almost bears comparison to a David Cronenberg film.

Whereas most gothic horrors by necessity employ a razor-sharp demarcation of good vs evil, protagonist vs antagonist, for a significant portion of ‘..Dr. Hichcock’ we’re left in uncertainty as to what we should be more worried about: the doctor’s coldness, strange behaviour and apparent duplicity, or his wife’s raging paranoia, unfounded jealousy and unstable grip on reality. In most movies furnished with thunder-claps, decaying gothic piles and sinister scientists, our sympathy with the frightened, loveless bride would be a foregone conclusion. But here, as Freda’s careful manipulation of the film’s emotional drift emphasises the tension between Robert Flemyng’s formal impassivity and Barbara Steele’s harrowing, near-hysterical performance, we’re often genuinely unsure whose point of view we can trust. No one’s, presumably. As in a Cronenberg or Franju film, chances are there’s something pretty off-balance going on with everyone here. Rather than a victim / aggressor scenario, what we’re witnessing could merely be a car crash between incompatible dysfunctions, and we’d be well-advised to keep a close eye on the whole lot of ‘em.

The droning strings and staccato piano of Roman Vlad’s accomplished, Hermann-esque score further heightens the atmosphere of unease, whilst Freda’s compositions constantly exploit the distortions and framing effects of gratings, bars, mirrors and - his personal favourite – having his characters stare through grimy, rain-soaked windows, emphasising a sense of enclosure that reaches its natural conclusion in the genuinely horrifying sequence in which Steele awakes to find herself scratching against the picture window of a sealed coffin.

In one of her few colour appearances and probably her best ever leading role, Barbara Steele is, needless to say, stunning, and it was hard work not to fill all six of my allotted spaces for screengrabs at the top of this review with some of the many, many beautifully realised shots of her looking frightened. Her actual performance here makes just as much of an impression as her unmistakable visual presence though – speaking her own lines in Italian rather than relying on dubbing, she’s as convincing a nerve-shattered gothic heroine as you could possibly wish for. Harriot Medin meanwhile does what she does best as the sinister housekeeper (see footnore below), and if a casual viewer could read Robert Flemyng’s performance as the eponymous doctor as simply being wooden, what he is actually putting across is a very deliberate, emotionless exterior that plays directly into his character’s troubled persona, allowing him to accumulate menace as the movie progresses.

And as the the good doctor’s ’orrible segreto itself, well, let’s just say that, just like Cronenberg’s best works, this is a film that revels in going *just a bit further than is comfortable* with its unsettling ideas in a way that, whilst never remotely graphic, must have been truly scandalous in ’62 and remains pretty iffy territory for a general audience today. If you’ve encountered any other writing about this film you’ll know what’s what, and once you begin watching it you’ll get the drift pretty quickly, but hey - it still says ‘secret’ in the title, so for the moment my lips are sealed.

More often written about over the years than actually seen, ‘..Dr. Hichcock’ has suffered from a pretty spotty release history in the DVD era (allegedly due to the influence of a less than co-operative rights holder), and remains effectively unavailable in officially sanctioned, English-friendly form. This is extremely regrettable, as it’s a really extraordinary film that every discerning horror fan deserves to see at some point. Thankfully though, the bootleggers at least have come through for us here, and a pretty decent looking print of the original theatrical version (sourced from an Italian TV broadcast) is currently doing the rounds, with workable English subs attached. So until such a point as an official release emerges… you know which doors to knock upon, I’m sure.

*There are a number of more concrete connections between the two films as well of course: both are based on screenplays by the ubiquitous Ernesto Gastaldi, and ‘Whip..’ even re-casts Harriet Medin as pretty much the same character she plays in ‘..Dr. Hichcock’. Factor in her unforgettable appearance in the ‘Drop of Water’ segment of ‘Black Sabbath’ and her appearance as ANOTHER sinister housekeeper in ‘..Dr. Hichcock’s follow-up ‘The Ghost’ and Medin definitely seems to have been the Italian gothic horror director’s creepy old lady of choice, although apparently she didn’t have much trouble overcoming such typecasting, going on to a long and varied transatlantic career that saw her appearing in everything from ‘La Dolce Vita’ to ‘Deathrace 2000’ to ‘The Terminator’(!).

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Gothic Horror Round-Up II:
Devils of Darkness
(Lance Comfort, 1965)

One of the more rewarding fly-by-night horror pictures that flooded the UK’s less salubrious screens through the early/mid ‘60s as independent producers tried to catch a ride on Hammer’s coattails, ‘Devils of Darkness’ is brought to us by the mysterious Planet Film Productions, from a script provided by Lyn Fairhurst, who had previously worked as production manager and “stunt supervisor” on the American drive-in classic ‘The Flesheaters’. It turned out to be the swan-song of its director, British b-movie veteran Lance Comfort, who died the following year, having signed his name to no less than forty-four features since 1942.

Ironically for a film that is chiefly notable for the ‘continental’ sensibility it brings to British horror, the opening twenty minutes here are mostly memorable for their jaw-droppingly awful portrayal of the French. As our petulant/loud-mouthed Anglo-American protagonists pitch up in a rural Gallic village where *nothing is quite as it seems*, they find themselves surrounded by a gaggle of underpaid British character actors, all suitably outfitted with the inevitable berets and black moustaches, giving us their very best shifty mannerisms and out-rrrageous ac-cents. Needless to say, and with all due respect to the French people and their culture, as a native-born Briton I found this hilarious (the tolerance of other nationalities may vary).

I particularly liked the scene in which the pigheaded American hero (William Sylvester, who later turned up in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’) confronts the crooked chief of police, who lazily refuses to begin investigating his catalogue of mysterious disappearances and attempted murders until he's enjoyed a leisurely breakfast of black coffee and croissants. Sacre bleu!

Even my tolerance for such deplorable ethnic stereotyping has its limits though, and I’ll admit that it came as a great relief when the action promptly moves to London, saving us from the prospect of another hour of that sort of thing. As it transpires, the plot-line of ‘Devils of Darkness’ is a catch-all assortment of Satanic cult clichés wrapped up in a bit of bonus vampirism, rendered interesting due to the fact that, by my reckoning, none of them were really clichés yet at this point. Most witchcraft-related British movies of the early ‘60s (cf: ‘Night of the Eagle’, Don Sharp’s ‘Witchcraft’) take the lone witch / folk magic / vengeance-from-beyond-the-grave angle, with only John Llewelyn Moxey’s decidedly weird ‘City of the Dead’ really springing to mind as an example of a movie from this period that features a full-on devil cult, and as I recall even they more or less kept themselves to themselves, rather than jetting between countries and using an international network of bourgeois followers to persecute a designated victim, as is portrayed here. In fact, ‘Devils of Darkness’ manages to take on board many of the elements that became commonplace in post-‘Rosemary’s Baby’ Satanist movies, despite pre-dating that “trigger film” by a number of years.

And whilst we’re giving Comfort’s film the chance to call ‘shotgun’ on stuff, it can also proudly stake its claim (sorry) as the first British vampire movie with a contemporary setting, and perhaps also as the first film anywhere to explore the inexplicable idea of a vampire leading a Satanic cult (hey, why not, right?). Additionally, the ritual scenes in ‘Devils..’ seem directly to pre-empt (in terms of framing, colour scheme etc) those later seen in ‘The Devil Rides Out’, whilst the film’s plotline, visuals and even locations all exhibit a veeery strong similarity to Sergio Martino’s supernatural giallo ‘All The Colours Of The Dark’, released almost a decade later.

So.. there ya go. Put that in yr pipe and smoke it, genre historians. As such a catalogue of unintentional ‘firsts’ might imply, Fairhurst’s script is actually a bit of an eyebrow-raiser within the repetitive constraints of the ‘60s gothic formula, rambling hither and yon across all manner of slightly unusual territory, and, unfortunately, suffering under the accompanying yoke of severe pacing issues, arid plains of meandering exposition and some truly dismal performances. All of which merits pointing out in passing, but I mean, we’re not watching a ‘60s gothic horror for the tight plotting and dramatic intensity, are we?

If we’ve got any sense, what we ARE watching it for is primarily the film’s wonderful visual sensibility. Probably one of the most brightly-lit gothic horrors ever made, Comfort and cinematographer Reg Wyer here take the more extreme elements of Hammer’s technicolor style and run wild with them, crafting a blunt but beautifully realised tone poem of blinding reds, mossy greens and oceanic blues that, aided by the loose and rambling narrative and excellent use of set dressing, costumes and props, helps mark the film out as a an interesting halfway point between the meat n’ potatoes approach of traditional British horror, and the kind of dreamy thrills purveyed by such decadent continental types as Bava, Freda and Vadim.

Particularly notable in this regard is the fairytale-like pre-credits sequence, in which a red robed, hooded figure strides through a mist-strewn woodland graveyard holding a black candle aloft, ready to oversee the resurrection of the recently deceased ‘Comte Sinistre’. Meanwhile, Carole Grey (from ‘The Young Ones’ and ‘Brides of Fu Manchu’) appears as some kind of wild gypsy girl, performing an uninhibited bare-footed dance for her fiancée… until she’s struck down by the malign influence of the Comte, marking her for death as he flies overhead in the unmistakable form of a big ol’ rubber bat.

The fantastical, hyperreal quality of these sequences is startling – a feast of absolute prime Satanist / witch cult imagery, ready to be plundered, boiled down and filtered through the depths of popular culture over the following decade or so, making their way onto paperback covers, tabloid exposes and porno photo-shoots. Oh, and did I mention there’s a scene with a snake dancer later on too, and some pretty broad implications of lesbianism, including an obvious sub/dom couple in supporting roles? That always helps.

Another highlight is a great decadent bohemian party scene in London (I think the implication is supposed to be that it's a pot party, but it seems more like a party for people who just really like smoking), which introduces us to the astonishingly beautiful Tracey Reed (a relative by marriage of both Carol and Ollie, she’d achieved immortality of a sort as General Ripper’s secretary in ‘Dr. Strangelove’ the previous year). Reed’s presence, along with a plot-line that sees her working as an artist’s model, provides Comfort and Wyer with all the excuse they need to indulge in a feast of Pre-Raphaelite style ‘painterly’ mise en scene, framing her against couches, silk sheets and – naturellement – sacrificial altars in a manner that would do the aforementioned Euro-directors proud.

Though subject to some of the regrettable drawbacks you’d expect of an unheralded ‘60s schedule filler (in particular, Sylvester’s gormless leading man and charisma-free vampire mastermind Hubert Noël drain the picture’s energy so badly you’d suspect they were sneaking it home at night in plastic bags), ‘Devils of Darkness’ is still a beguiling oddity within the canon of ‘60s gothics, well worth tracking down for fans of this-sorta-thing.

Gothic Horror Round-Up II.

Torrential rain in June, four day weekend put aside for unappealing patriotic celebrations… what more excuse could be needed to bang out a few write ups of gothic horror movies I’ve seen recently? None, clearly. Reviews commence… pretty much immediately, I hope.

Monday, 4 June 2012

French Crime at the BFI.

Last month, the Bristish Film Institute held a series of screenings celebrating the work of legendary French actor Jean Gabin. Alongside the more revered items on his filmography (La Bête Humaine, Pépé le Moko etc.), the season also incorporated a few diversions into less familiar areas of French cinema – in particular, the numerous crime films that Gabin appeared in from the ‘30s right through to the early ‘70s. Having recently cultivated a keen interest in the way crime films developed as a genre in different countries in the post-war era (not that you’d know it from this blog), I thought catching a few slices of pre-Melville French noir might be good fun, and dutifully laid down my money for a triple bill.

First up, the translation-proof Razzia sur la Chnouf (Henri Decoin, 1955). Never released with an English title, the word ‘chnouf’ seems to have caused some confusion - seemingly an obscure slang term for drugs or narcotics, that leaves us with a less than elegant literal translation of ‘Raid on the Drugs’? I don’t know whether this title-related uncertainty harmed the film’s profile overseas, but I hope not, because ‘Razzia..’ proves to be a cracking bit of hard-boiled Parisian business, worthy of anyone’s attention.

Gabin wasn’t my main reason for watching the film, but nonetheless, it’s hard to deny that he’s absolutely brilliant here, portraying a veteran mid-level operator (‘Henri from Nantes’) hired by the boss of a Paris drug cartel to oversee his distribution network. Brutally efficient, but also calm, restrained and strangely compassionate in his approach, Henri wastes no time in establishing a kind of patriarchal respect from his underlings as he sets up HQ in the restaurant that serves as his cover, swiftly dispatching traitors, punishing slackers and even casually setting up home with the cute waitress (Fellini regular Magali Noël) that all the younger men had their eye on.

Extremely well-written and beautifully photographed and directed, ‘Razzia..’ builds up a rich picture of the Paris underworld, with much of the movie’s pleasure deriving from the scenes in which we follow Gabin as he goes about his day-to-day (well, night-to-night) business, breezing through opium dens, crash-pads, jazz clubs, farmhouse drug labs and all-black marijuana hang-outs, with Decoin’s panoramic shooting style and excellent, naturalistic performances from the entire cast helping imbue the film’s environment with a sense of depth and realism that goes well beyond the claustrophobic confines of yr average set-bound crime flick.

It helps too that the movie is hard as nails content-wise, full of stuff that you’d NEVER see in an English language film from the ‘50s, ranging from graphic drug use to explicit/non-judgemental portrayals of homosexuality and prostitution, not to mention a graphic axe murder(!) and some of the most enthusiastic cursing I’ve ever heard in the French language. (The bursts of guttural obscenity as the English subtitles offer us ‘fucking dickhead’ and ‘wide-legged whore’ etc are pretty hair-raising.) The gangster action, when it gets going, it handled in a merciless, gun-crazy style reminiscent of a ‘30s Warner Bros flick – an element which is nicely parodied in a scene that follows a police raid on Henri’s restaurant, when we see cops with brooms sweeping up the dozens of shooters that have been abandoned under the tables.

The only bum note in this otherwise wonderful film is struck by the ending. Presumably realising that up to this point they’d made a film in which presents a ruthless, drug-pushing criminal as a sympathetic, essentially decent man, the filmmakers seem to have felt the need to square things up with some more conventional movie morality, orchestrating a final reel turn-around that feels face-slappingly false – the equivalent of one of those jive-ass moral lectures that were tacked onto the end of movies like ‘The Asphalt Jungle’, but executed here without the benefit of any “ok, you’ve had your fun, now here’s this other bit we had to put in” wink n’ nod routine from the director. All the same though, a sappy conclusion can’t spoil the strength of what’s gone before, and ‘Razzia sur la Chnouf’ is about as daring, riotous and stylistically accomplished as genre cinema was ever allowed to get during the ‘50s – highly recommended.

Jumping ahead almost a decade, it’s difficult to summon quite the same enthusiasm for Henri Verneuil’s Mélodie en Sous-Sol (1963), variously known in the English-speaking world as ‘Any Number Can Win’, ‘The Caper That Sank’, ‘The Big Grab’, and, most sniggersomely, ‘The Big Snatch’.

What we have here is basically a variant on the old “bunch of guys rob a casino” template, although it lacks either the intensity of Jules Dassin’s ‘Rififi’ or the pessimism of Melville’s ‘Bob Le Flambeur’, steering far closer to light-hearted japery of Lewis Milestone’s ‘Ocean’s 11’, made two years earlier. There are somewhat fewer guys at work here at least, with the job (and the movie) basically comprising a two-hander between Gabin and his young protégé Alain Delon, and the most likeable aspect of the movie arises from the fact that instead of suave criminal masterminds, they’re basically just a pair of low-level shmucks punching above their weight – Gabin a haggard old jailbird stuck with a bungalow in the suburbs and a wife who doesn’t quite get him, and Delon not much more than a slack-jawed teenage punk.

Efficiently staged and competently directed, there are numerous nice moments to be found here – I particularly liked the surprisingly arty/modernistic opening credits that see Gabin returning home from jail to find that newly-built towerblocks now surround his country cottage, and the ending is really well done too. But somehow the movie just never really takes off. No problems or antagonists ever really emerge to threaten Gabin and Delon’s well-rehearsed plan, meaning much of the time leading up to the robbery is spent treading water in comedy/romance mode, following Delon as he makes the best of his ‘aristocratic playboy’ cover persona, hanging around a Cannes hotel seducing a Swedish heiress.

Which is all well and good I suppose, but rarely has a film cried out quite so desperately for a splash of tehnicolor. I realise that sounds like a strange complaint, and I guess a mid-budget movie like this could have gone either way in ’63, but as Delon spends scene after scene cruising ‘round the sea-front in his flashy motor ogling chicks in bikinis, the decision to shoot in black & white starts to seem plain perverse. Some suitably blaring, oversaturated colour would really have brought things to life, marking ‘Mélodie..’ out as an early example of the kind of frothy, jet-setting thrillers that proliferated through the following decade. But the stark black & white photography (together with the weighty presence of Gabin) unfortunately invites comparison to an older, more serious mode of crime film with which this one can’t hope to compete, content as it is to never really rise much above the level of a pleasant rainy afternoon time-filler.

And speaking of those older, more serious kinda crime films, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more austere shot at the genre than Jacques Becker’s Touchez pas au Grisbi (1954) (literal translation ‘Hands off the Loot’(?), otherwise known as ‘Honour Among Thieves’). A quintessentially French affair, this one sees Gabin playing an aging mobster who seems to drift through life in a cloud of sheer ennui, caring for nothing beyond a nice glass of champagne, the company of a pretty lady and, as the programme notes from Criterion’s Geoffrey O’Brien put it, “listening to that harmonica tune he seems to like so much”.

The tune in question is a melancholic, minor key melody that reminded me of the kind of thing that tends to play at the end of Japanese gangster movies, as the entire cast lies dead in some wasteground and the tragic hero limps off into the sunset nursing a bullet wound, or whatever. Apparently taking such doomed sentiments to heart before anything remotely bad has even happened to him, Gabin’s character Max likes to put this number on the jukebox wherever he goes, and, when we follow him back to his apartment, it’s pretty unsurprising to learn that it seems to be the one record he owns, a reflection of the doleful, resigned nobility that seems to radiate outward from Gabin’s performance and gradually overtakes the entire film. (Perhaps it’s just me, but I can’t help thinking that you could draw a direct line across innumerable aesthetic and cultural boundaries from Gabin’s performance here to the kind of ‘sad tough guy’ archetype that Takashi Kitano made his own in movies like ‘Violent Cop’ many, many years later.)

If the three films covered in this post are any indication, Jean Gabin is the kind of actor whose performances tend to rule his films with fists of iron, setting the tone of the piece as definitively as any writer or director, and that particularly seems to be the case here, in spite of an extremely strong supporting cast. As in ‘..Chnouf’, Lino Ventura (later the star of Meville’s superb ‘Army of Shadows’) acquits himself well as a dead-eyed thug, and Jeanne Moreau practically burns a hole through the screen in one of her earliest defining roles. (I love the fact that in all these movies, Gabin – who looks like a portly, even more weather-beaten David Lynch – seems to have girls a third of his age fawning over him, and somehow actually manages to make that seem plausible, rather than indulgent and creepy.)

Although far less graphic and incident-packed than ‘Razzia sur la Chnouf’, ‘..Grisbi’ is in many ways an even better crime film, one in which violence is rarely seen, but forms a constant, lurking threat beneath the film’s respectable veneer, revealing itself in a quick cutaway shot of a would-be assassin brandishing a cosh under his coat as he steps out of a car, or in the sudden back-hand slaps that Gabin delivers to anyone who pisses him off. Things do kick off in pretty explosive fashion during the brilliantly staged finale in which the two criminal factions meet up on an isolated country road for a hostage / loot exchange, but despite this ‘..Grisbi’ is a film in which criminal face-offs and gang violence are merely incidental to the lives of our characters – an unfortunate inconvenience, rather than a central focus.

Although still functioning as a bloody and effective crime film, ‘..Grisbi’ also manages to acquit itself as a more ‘high brow’ piece of French cinema, telling a simple, emotionally resonant tale full of dense and believable characterisation that, though highly stylised, never tips over into melodrama. A good litmus test for these things I think is the fact that it would still be a thoroughly watchable movie even if Max never stooped to picking up a tommy gun and just sat around for ninety minutes drinking champagne and listening to his harmonica tune. Classy stuff indeed.