Wednesday, 23 December 2020

Best First Time Viewing: 2020.
(Part # 1 of 3)

I realise I’ve been pretty late off the mark this year in getting this list underway, but, like a somewhat less aesthetically pleasing version of Anneli Sauli in the above screengrab from Der Hexer, I’ve been busy, busy, busy in my day job through December, and personal projects such as churning out a load of rambling crap for this blog have unfortunately fallen behind schedule as a result.

Now that the holidays have hit and we find ourselves legally prohibited from mingling with other humans or indeed leaving the house without a reasonable excuse however, I daresay I’ll find myself catching up pretty quickly.

As mentioned back in October, one unexpected plus point arising from the travails of 2020 is that I have managed to watch more films in the space of a single year than I ever considered possible. I’ve not done the math yet (for indeed, the year hasn’t ended), but I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m averaging out at just under one film per day across the past nine months. Imagine that!

As a result, there has, naturally, been a lot of really good First Time Viewing going on. Getting the list down to a mere 45 was tough going, so I’d like to emphasise that, more so than in previous years, the exact numbers assigned to the movies below is pretty arbitrary, and that basically, if a film made it onto this list, that means that I really, really liked it.

Also, I’m going to count down rather than up this year, because, well… that seems like the sensible way to do these things, right? Anyway - let’s get on with it!


45. Seven Blood-Stained Orchids 
(Umberto Lenzi, 1972)

In 2020, I watched four Umberto Lenzi-directed gialli for the first time, and four of them are on this list. Nuff said? Anyway, kicking off the director’s second, early/mid ‘70s run of films within the retrospectively ring-fenced genre, ‘Seven Blood-Stained Orchids’ actually makes a pretty good case for the giallo aesthetic having been both recognised and consciously exploited by the era’s filmmakers. Sitting at the dead centre of the post-Argento/Martino venn diagram, it delivers pretty much everything a 21st century cult film fan might be liable to expect when they hear the word “GIALLO”, and does so with all the energy, excess and pulpy gusto said fans have no doubt come to expect of the indefatigable Senor Lenzi.

So comprehensively in fact does it lock into the genre’s post-1970 conventions and stylistic tics that, were someone to jump out in front of you and enquire, “so, this giallo thing, what’s it all about?”, passing them a copy of ‘Seven Blood-Stained Orchids’ could provide a far more enjoyable ninety minute answer than launching into that whole dog-tired, “yellow - old crime paperbacks - Krimis - Mario Bava” routine for the umpteenth time. I doubt this one would make many connoisseurs’ top ten lists, but if you’ve already cracked open the chianti and/or J&B of a Friday evening and feel like getting down with some bloody murder in the intoxicatingly exotic environs of mid-century southern Europe, then by jove, it does the business.

44. The Walking Dead
 (Michael Curtiz, 1936)

AKA, the one in which Boris Karloff is framed for murder, executed, and gets resurrected by a for-once-actually-benevolent scientist, proceeding to take his revenge upon the clique of gangsters who put him down.

The courtroom drama / underworld intrigue plotline which takes up much of the first half is needlessly convoluted, with a ton of fast-talking Warner Bros yakking failing to disguise a hatful of just-plain-ridiculous contrivances, but for a low budget ‘30s programmer, Michael Curtiz’s direction during the more horror-y / less talk-y sequences is extraordinarily stylish, with elaborate, gliding camera moves, dutch angles and expressionistic shadowplay to beat the band.

The scene in which Karloff is led to the electric chair whilst a fellow prisoner plays his favourite piece on the cello remains powerful to this day, whilst the crazy equipment in the brief resurrection sequence does a pretty good job of trying to top ‘Frankenstein’, as indeed does Karloff himself - when he eventually returns as a stuttering, hunched undead avenger, his performance ranks for me as one of the great man’s very best, with his quiet, mannered speech, slow, lumbering movements and icy stare all in full effect.

When the assorted bad guys are invited to witness Karloff performing a piano recital, he glowers at them with such withering intensity that these hard-nosed gangland heavies more or less flee the room in terror, wiping sweat from their brows and pulling at their collar buttons, such is the malignancy of Boris’s evil eye. Amazing stuff.

43. The She-Creature 
(Edward L. Cahn, 1956)

As I tried my best to convey in my review from October, I was pretty thoroughly entranced by this utterly bizarre esoteric/idiotic SoCal beach-set AIP creature feature. Who may chart the further reaches of its multitudinous aesthetic/cultural tentacles…? Not I!

42. Lethal Panther 
(Godfrey Ho, 1990)

Wonderful, ultra-sleazoid girls-with-guns mayhem from the great Godfrey Ho, proving once again that he really had the chops to deliver a solid action movie when he was allowed to actually shoot one front-to-back without any of the usual IFD cut-and-paste / day-glo ninja type shenanigans getting in the way.

By “solid” of course, I mean that this is shamelessly trashy, opportunistic brain-breaking nonsense, shot for peanuts in The Philippines, complete with hilariously inept English dubbing, eye-watering late ‘80s sartorial carnage and frankly terrifying interior décor.

Shovelling in masses of utterly gratuitous (fairly strong) sex and nudity in between equally herculean quantities of squib-happy gore and surprisingly high quality action choreography, and including what feels like about 30 solid minutes of of perfectly made up (and no doubt under-paid) sexy assassin ladies firing multiple machine guns at each other in slo-mo in assorted insalubrious locales, this is basically a thing of beauty and a joy forever. Do not watch sober - you’ve been warned.

41. T-Men 
(Anthony Mann, 1947)

Are John Alton’s jaw-droppingly beautiful photography and Anthony Mann’s no nonsense tough guy story-telling instincts enough to save this mixed up noir from floundering under its producers’ determination to turn it into a PSA on behalf of the U.S. Treasury Department? Read my review from back in August, and find out!

 40. The Crimson Kimono 
(Samuel Fuller, 1959)

What the hell is this anyway? A film noir? A romantic melodrama? A treatise on racial integration and post-war combat angst? A downtown L.A. travelogue? The simple answer is, it’s a Sam Fuller movie. As his admirers will be well aware, Fuller was one of those filmmakers possessed of such a unique sensibility that watching one of his films feels more like spending ninety minutes furiously bouncing around inside the writer/director’s brainpan than settling into any more comforting variety of Hollywood genre upholstery. Disorientating and potentially headache-inducing, perhaps, but a richly rewarding experience if you’re if you’re able to leave your expectations at the door and just go with the juddering, out-of-control street trolley flow of the whole thing.

As a movie, ‘The Crimson Kimono’ certainly has its drawbacks - the whodunit / crime story angle is never very well integrated with the tale of a love triangle played out between a Japanese-American cop, his white partner and a quasi-bohemian art teacher, leaving the narrative feeling rushed and disjointed, and performances are variable to say the least, whilst Fuller’s perverse determination to explore the notion of “reverse racism” seems misguided, even as his spirited enthusiasm for documenting Japanese culture on-screen, and for celebrating it’s U.S.-based adherents as his fellow countrymen, is extremely refreshing by the WASP-centric standards of the 1950s.

Despite all this though, the film is still more vibrant, thought-provoking and attention-grabbing than just about anything else bankrolled by a Hollywood studio in 1959. Beginning with the sight of a scantily-clad burlesque dancer getting gunned down in the middle of a busy street, it moves like a rocket, with the subsequent action taking in kendo tournaments, Buddhist temples and alcoholic beatnik lady artistes amongst a wide variety of other off-the-beaten-track, quasi-documentary sights and sounds, whilst the reactions of Fuller’s characters - expressed in explosive bursts of crazed, short-hand jive never actually uttered by any human being, excepting perhaps the writer himself - are never remotely predictable.

39. It! The Terror From Beyond Space 
(Edward L. Cahn, 1958)

Another smash hit from Eddy L. Cahn, this quintessential two-fisted sci-fi slugger not only partially inspired Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett’s script for ‘Alien’, but, somewhat less significantly, also served to cheer me up considerably as I adjusted to the lifestyle changes necessitated by lockdown back in March of this year, reigniting my enthusiasm for ‘50s American SF movies in process. See my review from back in May for more!

38. Orgasmo 
(Umberto Lenzi, 1969)

The second Lenzi giallo on this year’s list (or the third, depending on which direction you’re counting in), the director’s first collaboration with exiled American star Carroll Baker gets his contribution to the Hitchcock/Clouzot-derived ‘psychological thriller’ era of the loosely-defined genre off to a cracking start, as Baker’s anxious, psychologically scarred and loaded-in-more-ways-than-one divorcee is seduced and subsequently terrorised by a pair of incestuous (or are they?), terrifyingly free-spirited young people, memorably played by Lou Castel and Colette Descombes.

Many directors, faced with this kind of minimal, performance-driven / single location three-hander, may have favoured a subtle, carefully planned slow-burn, but not our Umberto, no sir. Instead, the perennially undervalued prince of cinematic pulp turns the movie into a shrieking, raging maelstrom of crash zooms, screaming faces, blaring music, eye-scorching colours, woozy drunk-o-vision, shocking-for-its-day peekaboo nudity and endearingly low rent psychedelic freak-out effects, battering the audience into submission, even as the double/triple cross heavy plotline gradually runs out of steam.

Particularly interesting in this one I thought was the way that the unbridgeable generation gap which separates Baker (who was 37 years young at the time of filming) from her younger, more uninhibited tormentors is obsessively frayed and worried by Lenzi and his co-writers, eventually raised to a degree of outright hysteria which presumably reflects the fear and resentment actually experienced by slightly older creative/professional types at the tail-end of the 1960s, as the relentlessly youth-fixated counter-culture generation reshaped culture slash n’ burn style around them. Case in point: that f-ing pop song the evil kids use to drive Carroll out of her mind…. goddamn, you will never get that thing out of your head. It’s like garage rock reconstituted as an instrument of psychological warfare or something.

37. Into The Night 
(John Landis, 1985)

As crass, self-indulgent and OTT as you’d expect of a mid-‘80s John Landis production, this comedy/action/romance type palaver seems oddly pitched, marketing-wise, what with being slightly too slick and commercial to make it as a ‘cult movie’, but too weird and violent to appeal to a mainstream crowd. Nonetheless though, it fights its way onto the side of the angels simply by virtue of being remorselessly, unrelentingly entertaining.

As far as story ideas go, I’ll admit that the concept of an insomniac suburban husband (Jeff Goldblum in this case) deciding one night to jump in his car and set off in search of free-form adventure on the nocturnal streets of L.A. very much appeals to me. This being a Landis movie of course, the frantic, macguffin-chasing adventure Goldblum finds himself embroiled in after Michelle Pfeiffer unexpectedly lands on the hood of his car chiefly involves outbursts of mindless violence and automotive destruction interspersed with a seemingly endless series of outrageous cameos, all soundtracked by sleazoid yuppie blues jammin’ from ‘80s-era B.B. King, but… well, the thing is you see, I like mindless destruction and outrageous cameos, and nocturnal L.A. and sleazoid blues jammin’, so no complaints from this quarter.

I mean, at the end of the day, it’s pretty difficult to prevent one’s critical faculties from short-circuiting when faced with a knife fight between Carl Perkins and David Bowie, even as their characters, along with so much else, subsequently dissolve into a tangled mess of unresolved plot threads and unrealised potential.

Meanwhile, the film also finds Landis taking the old “Hitchcock cameo” concept to frankly absurd extremes, cracking open his phonebook and effectively transforming the picture into a 90 minute ‘Where’s Wally?’ puzzle for movie nerds as he orchestrates walk-ons for something in the region of seventeen different noteworthy film directors, turning the banter from our sofa into a constant litany of, “hey, was that guy in the hotel lobby Brian DePalma? Is that Sam Fuller driving past? OHMYGOD, that guy in the ambulance is Dario Argento!” (A public screening event with complimentary bingo cards and prizes for a full house seems like a must for the post-covid world, methinks.)

36. The Love Witch 
(Anna Biller, 2016)

Much as I wanted to love Anna Biller’s magnum opus, I must confess, I couldn’t quite get over the sense of cognitive dissonance which seemed to result from mixing what seems to be a heartfelt and rather tragic tale of a woman’s search for empowerment and self-definition with a set of archly mannered performances whose self-parodic dialogue seems to be delivered from behind a Teflon screen of cantilevered eyebrow-level irony.

But - perhaps that’s just my problem. In every other respect, ‘The Love Witch’ is an incredible achievement. The film’s obsessively detailed production design and colour-saturated photography in particular are breath-taking, transcending easily parroted accusations of “kitsch” or “camp” to instead achieve a kind of overpowering totality which I can only really liken to some kind of ultra-feminine, vintage-furniture-market equivalent of the work of Alexandro Jodorowsky. (The Renaissance Fayre sequence in particular nearly sent me over the edge into a state of pre-sugar coma delirium.)

The affectionate send ups of early ‘70s Satanic horror movies, made-for-TV melodramas and suburban occultism meanwhile are all spot-on and frequently hilarious, whilst the thread of fetishistic eroticism running through the film is admirably bold and forthright. Notwithstanding my griping above, Samantha Robinson’s performance as the deeply troubled title character is also superb - ambiguous, disturbing, and ultimately even moving in precisely the way the material demands.

It feels fairly ridiculous to describe Biller as a “bold new voice” or some such, given that she’s been toiling away in the trenches of independent filmmaking for a quarter century at this point, but nonetheless, it’s difficult to overstate just how fresh and unique a film like ‘The Love Witch’ feels within the current genre movie landscape, essentially carving out it’s own niche from scratch amid a marketplace whose ideas of what is and isn’t viable have been defined for decades by the tastes of 30/40-something hetero males such as myself. Well worth tracking down if it passed you by on release.

35. The Astrologer 
(James Glickenhaus, 1975)

The most brain-breaking exemplar of WTF Cinema I’ve experienced since chancing upon 1984’s Furious a few years back, I’ve been meaning to write a review of this one all year, but just haven’t quite been able to face the prospect of trying to corral my thoughts into words. It sure as hell wasn’t what I was expecting from James Glickenhaus (future director of ‘The Exterminator’ and ‘Shakedown’), I’ll tell you that much.

I won't go in to too much detail here (otherwise we’ll be here all night), but… trying to make sense of it all, I can only assume that the source novel upon which the film was based (written by Glickenhaus’s father-in-law, no less) must have been some sprawling, new age-y / conspiracy theory-filled airport blockbuster kind of thing. And, in attempting to do it justice, the young and inexperienced filmmakers decided to try to retain all of the various sub-plots and characters for their adaptation. But, being essentially self-financed amateurs at this point, they only managed to get about 50% of the material necessary to tell the story onto the screen, resulting in full spectrum bafflement for anyone who has ever tried to sit through it.

Viewed through this lens, ‘The Astrologer’ can almost be seen as a master-class in how NOT to adapt a book for the screen, full of total non-sequiturs, inexplicable jumps in time and space, characters who serve no purpose, numerous scenes in which people sit around making extraordinary metaphysical pronouncements whose relevance to the wider narrative is never really established, and other bit n’ pieces which seem like meaningless remnants of plot-lines which have otherwise been discarded… all leading up to a “what?! Is that it?!” unresolved ending for the ages.

Strictly in terms of its quote-unquote “quality” and conventionally-defined entertainment value, ‘The Astrologer’ would certainly not merit a place on this list, AND YET, go into it cold (as most viewers picking up Severin’s recent blu-ray will, I suspect) and the sheer, overwhelming sense of WTF-ery you will experience is a rare and wonderful thing - a powerful hit of a strange and exotic draught from an ancient and undisturbed celluloid vault, the like of which I’ve not experienced for quite some time. Pure “weird movie” nirvana, pretty much. Press play and drink it in!

 34. Nightbeast 
(Don Dohler, 1982)

Perhaps swayed by numerous reviews which emphasised their general tedium, I’d never bothered watching any of Baltimore-based indie monster movie specialist Don Dohler’s work prior to 2020 - but more fool me apparently, because this one was absolutely delightful. It basically plays out like a film made by a 12-year-old boy who has read a how-to guide for making a movie (including the basic rudiments of professional lighting, editing and special effects), and has meticulously carried out its instructions step by step, recruiting largely uncomprehending adults from his local area to help out.

As I'm sure other commentators must have noted, the Nightbeast does much of its rampaging during the daytime, so, more of an All Hours Beast really, but I still couldn't help exclaiming “look out - Nightbeast!” each time the inexplicably well-dressed alien marauder popped up to bloodily slaughter somebody - which, happily, was frequently.

Our hero, the local sheriff, resembles Wayne Coyne from The Flaming Lips if he'd never gone near a controlled substance and instead dedicated his life to law enforcement, and his calm and collected responses to the escalating crisis unfolding around him are truly a thing of beauty (“someone call Bill Perkins, he’s a crack shot”). The scene in which the sheriff fails to convince the town’s venal, drunken mayor to cancel his pool party for the eminently sensible reason that there’s a Nightbeast on the loose is really one for the ages (and pretty topical this year, in particular).

Factor in scenes of sex and nudity which seem to have been co-ordinated by someone who has no idea how these things function within human society (but just knows that they need to be in films), the strangely sad exploits of ‘Drago’, the town’s lone obnoxious biker guy (I guess the budget didn't stretch to giving him a gang), plus *the* best laser gun battles ever (as appreciated by Nicholas Cage and Andrea Riseborough in Mandy), and this really is regional American filmmaking at its strange, life-affirming best. Totally enchanting.

33. Nightmares 
(Joseph Sargent, 1983)

How have I managed to make it through near two decades of adulthood without being aware of this one? An out-of-nowhere ‘80s American portmanteau horror anthology which becomes stranger and more inexplicable with each passing segment, ‘Nightmares’ begins in fairly conventional territory with a suspenseful Topanga Canyon-set take on the old “killer in the back seat” urban myth, but then, before you know it, Black Flag-listening video games junkie Emilio Estevez (a close cousin of Repo Man’s Otto, I’m assuming) is fighting for supremacy against the computer-generated (in 1983!) ‘Bishop of Battle’, angst-ridden desert priest Lance Henriksen has his faith restored after tangling with a Satanic monster truck, and, last but not least, Veronica Cartwright heads up a family attempting to deal with cinema’s most sympathetic (and also quite possible most poorly animated) giant, cat-killing rodent. Will wonders never cease?

32. Satanico Pandemonium 
(Gilberto Martínez Solares, 1975)

Though its reputation may have suffered over the years as a result of its reticence to dish up the kind of immediate sleaze n’ thrills viewers might reasonably expect of a movie named ‘Satanico Pandemonium’, this extremely unusual Mexican nunsploitation picture nonetheless has far more to offer that merely its extraordinary nomenclature.

Beautifully photographed, full of eye-popping primary colours and bucolic, rural landscapes which more resemble central Europe than anyone’s preconceived ideas of Mexico, the film taps into a vein of rustic, fairy-tale magical realism more frequently encountered in Czech or Eastern European cinema, patiently building a picture of day-to-day life within its geographically dislocated, quasi-fantastical convent, only occasionally allowing hints of institutional hypocrisy and racism to upset the placid surface prior to the inevitable arrival of sexy Old Nick himself.

Characterised as a vampiric, gothic seducer, the movie’s spectral Satan duly proceeds to throw a few sparks into the hormonal tinderbox of our previously chaste protagonist-nun, who before we know it has covertly pledged herself to evil, indulging in taboo-breaking acts of gross indecency whose matter-of-fact presentation proves more authentically disturbing than anything encountered in more hysterical/exploitational entries in this most specialised of horror sub-genres, leading eventually to a mind-boggling final act whose far-out imagery seems destined to linger long in the darker reaches of my messed up psyche.

As critics/podcasters Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger discuss at length in their audio commentary (included on Mondo Macabro’s blu-ray reissue of the film), the fact that director Gilberto Martínez Solares, an elderly industry veteran whose earlier work encompassed a brace of Santo movies alongside innumerable popular comedies, decided to throw his weight behind such a daring, transgressive and apparently sincerely intended production seems downright inexplicable. It would indeed be fascinating to get some behind-the-scenes background on how this project came together. Failing that though, all we have is the movie itself, and it’s… quite something.

 31. Psycho II 
(Richard Franklin, 1983)

In cvase you’re wondering, I think we can place this one firmly in the “far better than it has any right to be” category. Nearly four decades after the fact, the sheer audacity of trying to turn Hitchcock’s storied classic into a character-driven, slasher-style franchise may still rankle with cinephiles, but the sheer breadth of the talent behind this one should help win over most doubters.

Having already proved his Hitch-devotion with “Rear Window in a truck” classic ‘Roadgames’ (1981), director Franklin really goes all out here, digging deep into the nuts and bolts of the master’s technique without ever resorting to mere pastiche, whilst Anthony Perkins’ perverse determination to re-invent Norman Bates as an essentially sympathetic protagonist works far better than anyone might have imagined. A strong supporting cast, including Meg Tilly, Dennis Franz, Robert Loggia and Vera Miles (reprising her role in the original) certainly helps in that regard, whilst photography from John Carpenter’s main man Dean Cundey is beautiful, John Corso’s entirely set-bound production design is pitch-perfect, Jerry Goldsmith absolutely nails it on the score…. you get the idea. Even the great Albert Whitlock contributes a few matte paintings here and there, helping to create an autumnal, twilight atmosphere which really works wonders.

Best of all though is ‘Fright Night’ director Tom Holland’s script, which basically spends the best work of two hours pulling audience expectations through the most twisted series of reversals and handbrake turns his apparently devious intellect could come up with. Never quite veering into “too clever” territory, it’s just-clever-enough to keep us hooked, and if the story perhaps doesn’t quite succeed in transcending the project’s cynical origins or achieving any kind of deeper significance, as far as psychological thrillers reimagined as rollercoaster rides go, it’s a pretty smashing time. 


To be continued….

Wednesday, 16 December 2020

John le Carré

To my shame, I’ve been a late-comer to John le Carré’s work. Scanning over his books (which have always been gifted by their publishers with singularly boring cover designs) in innumerable charity shops through my youth, I’d long assumed that they must be dry, procedural, unappealingly nationalistic affairs - the kind of spy novels read by grey-faced, commuter-belt dads, padded out with tedious detail about the firing rate of sniper rifles, the mechanics of phone-tapping and the precise dimensions of expensive suitcases. Not my bag man, especially in those relatively hopeful, paranoia-free years which followed the fall of the Berlin Wall.

To his eternal credit, it was my brother who convinced me to think again, passing on a copy of ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’ (1963), and solemnly instructing me that I needed to read it. He was right - I did need to read it. Not simply one of the best cold war thrillers, I’d class it as one of the best novels written in the second half of the 20th century, period.

Reportedly composed by the author in a kind of frantic fugue in the months following the Cuban Missile Crisis, ‘The Spy Who..’ turns the reader’s expectations of a ‘spy story’ inside out, obscuring the methodology and purported grander purpose of espionage and focusing instead upon the fragmenting identity of its protagonist and the ugly human cost of low level cold war brinksmanship.

Building to a suitably bleak crescendo of morally bankrupt existential absurdity, the novel is a match for any of Graham Greene’s tonally similar masterpieces, and the widespread acclaim with which it was received could easily have seen le Carré undertaking a similar leap toward the realm of literary fiction. The fact that he chose not to, instead remaining firmly ensconced within the more comfortable terrain of genre / ‘popular’ fiction across the decades as he eyed the critical establishment with suspicion, very much counts in his favour, I feel.

Though it veers a little more toward the kind of procedural detail I was initially dreading, ‘The Looking Glass War’ (1966) is a solid follow up, doubling down more directly on the earlier novel’s core theme of men and women being left to die ‘in the field’, solely in order to satisfy the petty, bureaucratic jealousies of London’s administrative hierarchies.

With those two under my belt, I took a step backwards and read le Carré’s second novel, ‘A Murder of Quality’ (1962). Noting that the author’s famed intelligence agent George Smiley was the protagonist, and aware of le Carré’s low key approach to his art, I began the book convinced that their must be some sort of nefarious international conspiracy underlying what initially seemed like a fairly benign whodunit, remaining alert for hidden inferences and code words which would blow the whole thing wide open.

At one point, I recall seizing upon a passing reference to a character’s wife collecting donations for an Eastern European refugee charity, thinking, “aha, finally, that must be the connection”, only to realise in the last few pages that I actually had just been reading the kind of innocuous Home Counties murder mystery which Inspector Morse might have sorted out of a Sunday evening a few decades later. Ho hum.

Back on safer ground, my next (and to date most recent) foray into le Carré’s world was what most people would probably consider his second masterpiece, 1974’s ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’. In stark contrast to his ‘60s spy novels, this labyrinthine tale of George Smiley’s quest to identify the Soviet double-agent operating within the highest echelons of British intelligence is at heart a genre potboiler, complete with clearly defined goodies and baddies, as the absent spectres of Control and Karla loom like a sainted elder and a red devil over the chessboard upon which le Carré’s grey-faced cast of inscrutable, tormented middle-aged men endlessly circle one another, seeking a momentary advantage.

You would not immediately grok this however from the dense lexicon of ministerial hierarchies, committee membership lists, coded filing systems and obscurely named internal departments through which the author tells his tale. I’ll be honest, the pointed avoidance of sensationalism or directly expressed emotion which characterises le Carré’s quote-unquote ‘mature’ style can take some getting used to.

If the idea of a thriller written by an administrator doesn’t sound like too much of an oxymoron though, ‘Tinker Tailor..’ embodies this idea beautifully, and as you allow yourself to sink into its quiet, judicious world of painstaking information gathering, and let the full scope and resonance of the author’s vision become clear, the eventual impact is staggering. 

(Well I remember sitting on a long haul flight a couple of years back, taking a brief break from reading and realising that I’d become breathlessly excited at the prospect of Smiley managing to remove a confidential file from a reading room without the necessary permission.)

Ideally I think, ‘Tinker Tailor..’ should probably be read in conjunction with watching the 1978 BBC TV series, directed by John Irvin - a brilliant adaptation which retains the core structure, characters and feel of the novel, whilst also finding time to depict some of the more conventionally exciting, action-packed diversions which le Carré decorously left off-page.

As much as tributes have naturally concentrated upon the plotting and realism of le Carré’s novels though, I’d also like to highlight what a fantastic prose stylist he was. Though his characters may initially seem like little more than surnames wearing old school ties, his knack for humanising and differentiating them through seemingly casual asides or tantalising suggestions of hidden depths, is often extraordinary.

Each one of the le Carré novels I’ve read thus far has contained indelible, seemingly random, references and descriptions which stay with me long after I’ve read them - from the protagonist of ‘The Looking Glass War’ somehow finding malign intent in a child’s toy as he idles at an airport en-route to his fatal mission, to the description in ‘Tinker Tailor..’ of a small-minded finishing school headmaster “beating the flanks of his dachshund like a drum” as he casts uncharitable aspersions in the direction of a supply teacher whose actual achievements and experiences he couldn’t even begin to imagine, or to Smiley’s instant dismissal of a rumour that Control has been seen alive and well in North Africa on the basis that “the only place he ever felt at home was Surrey, or the Lords Cricket Ground”.

Whatever subject turned his attention to, le Carré was, above all else, an exceptionally gifted writer, and gradually acquainting myself with the rest of his extensive oeuvre is a task I’ve been greatly looking forward to over the coming years and decades.

On a personal note meanwhile (as if any of this has been anything but), I also can’t help but mention how much I’ve appreciated le Carré’s re-emergence as a public figure in the 21st century. Interviews such as those featured in the excellent 2000 documentary ‘The Secret Centre’ (which sadly doesn’t seem to be available to view on line, but can be found as an extra on the recent blu-ray reissue of the ‘Tinker, Tailor..’ series) left me with an impression of le Carré as a wise, compassionate and clear-headed thinker, and it has subsequently been gratifying to discover that, whilst a lifetime of opposition to communism lent him a distrust of the political left which I do not necessarily share, his views on many subjects closely echoed my own, and he expressed them with a directness and eloquence which I greatly appreciate. [In addition to the link above, I’d also refer you to the concluding paragraphs of this BBC online obituary.]

What le Carré referred to as “[his] England” is, I would hope, mine too, and as our nation continues to toil under the yoke of assorted bullies, bastards and dead-eyed incompetents, the loss of one of the all-too-few affirming flames who are able to make me feel proud, rather than ashamed, of my nationality has been especially keenly felt this week. RIP old chap - you will be much missed.

Friday, 4 December 2020

Hugh Keays-Byrne

And so the bad news continues to roll in. Just a few weeks after Sandy Harbutt passed away, it’s time to say farewell to his ‘Stone’ co-star and the preeminent bad-ass of ’70s Australian cinema, Hugh Keays-Byrne.

Born in India to English parents, Keays-Byrne was raised in the UK and honed his acting chops working for the Royal Shakespeare Company from 1968 to 72. After touring Australia with a production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in ’73, he decided to stick around and try his luck, and the rest, as they say, is history. His role as the freaked-out Toad in ‘Stone’ was followed in quick succession by Brian Trenchard-Smith’s ‘The Man From Hong-Kong’ in ’75, Philippe Mora’s ‘Mad Dog Morgan’ in ’76, and, eventually of course, his unforgettable turn as The Toecutter in George Miller’s ‘Mad Max’ in ’79.

A wildly charismatic, powerhouse performer whose screen persona combined booming, Shaekspearean diction with feral outback grit, Keays-Byrne is fantastic in every film I’ve ever seen him in. In particular, he totally kicks ass (sometimes literally) as the rogue, long-haired cop in ‘The Man from Hong-Kong’, completely stealing the show from Wang Yu and George Lazenby (if not necessarily from frequent co-star Roger Ward, playing his more laconic partner).

By the time we get to 2015’s ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’, well, much of the time it could have been anyone under all that get-up he wore for the Immortan Joe role, but it was nice to at least know that he was buried in there somewhere, and to appreciate some of menacing, stentorian gravitas he still managed to put across - his Shakespearean roots showing through to the end.

He always seemed like a really great guy in interviews too (I particularly recommend the Mad Max episode of The Projection Booth in that regard), and will no doubt be much missed by many. RIP.

Monday, 30 November 2020

Double Deathblog.

Daria Nicolodi 

Like all euro-horror fans I’m assuming, I was very sad to hear last week that the great Daria Nicolodi has passed away at the age of 70.

Personally, I've always subscribed to the belief that Nicolodi played a big part in the writing and conception of Dario Argento’s ‘Suspiria’ and ‘Inferno’; not that there seems to be much hard evidence for this, but I just really want it to be true. The former masterpiece in particular seems to herald the introduction of a distinct, new voice into Argento’s cinema, and, be it coincidence or otherwise, the sharp nosedive in the quality of the director’s work after the estranged couple ceased working together at the end of the 1980s speaks for itself.

Always a bold and outspoken figure, Nicolodi’s own account of her subsequent career seems, sadly, to have revolved around the notion of her creative input being ignored or misinterpreted by male filmmakers - first by Luigi Cozzi on Paganini Horror and the disasterous ‘De Profundis’/ ‘The Black Cat’/ ‘Demons 6’ (both 1989), and then latterly when her proposed script for the concluding chapter of the ‘Three Mothers’ trilogy was again disregarded by Argento as he set to work on what eventually became 2007’s ‘Mother of Tears’.

In all likelihood, we’ll never know the true extent of her behind the scenes contribution to the films she was involved with, but for her acting roles alone, she was one of the greats - eccentric, charismatic and super-cool in pretty much everything she appeared in, from her breakthrough in Elio Petri’s ‘Property is No Longer Theft’ (1973) to her defining role playing opposite David Hemmings in ‘Profundo Rosso’/’Deep Red’ (1975), to Mario Bava’s ‘Shock’ (1977) and beyond. 

Now and forever, Daria rules. RIP. 


Sandy Harbutt 

And meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, we must also say farewell to another guy whose creative artistry never really got its due, Sandy Harbutt, pioneer of independent Australian cinema and writer/producer/director/star of the greatest biker (sorry, bikie) movie ever made, 1974’s ‘Stone’, which I reviewed on this blog way back in 2010.

A landmark of outsider/psychedelic cinema, positively overflowing with talent, energy and raw craziness, ‘Stone’ remains an absolute blast, and the fact that Harbutt managed to single-handedly pull it all together in a country that basically didn’t have a film industry at that point remains an incredible achievement.

Subsequent leading lights of the livelier end of Australian filmmaking, from Peter Weir to Brian Trenchard Smith, and most particularly George Miller, owe Harbutt a huge debt of gratitude from essentially clearing the ground and establishing the parameters of the nation’s highly specific genre cinema aesthetic, and the fact he was never allowed the opportunity to follow up his debut feature or make a living from his film work is little short of criminal, given the phenomenal promise shown by ‘Stone’.

If you’re unfamiliar with the film, just watch the trailer here, and I’m pretty sure you’ll want to rectify that ASAP.

Raising a glass to you Undertaker - RIP.

Wednesday, 25 November 2020

Two-Fisted Tales:
Brother Cain
by Simon Raven

(Panther, 1965)

Though the brightly-hued cover photo affixed to this edition of Simon Raven’s second published novel ‘Brother Cain’ carries a distinct whiff of pop-art / psychedelic chic, Panther’s paperback was actually printed in February ’65, too early to have really hitched a ride on the ‘swinging sixties’ bandwagon, whilst the book itself was first published back in the grey, buttoned up world of 1959.

One of those renowned-in-their-day-but-now-largely-forgotten authors whose work always sparks a certain fascination, Simon Raven (1927-2001 - and yes, that was indeed his birth name) wrote voluminously through much of the latter half of the 20th century, and, read today, his books feel both strikingly modern (in terms of their frank and non-judgemental approach to sexuality and general air of shark-ish cynicism) and hopelessly old fashioned (being largely concerned with a segment of upper crust British society whose values and behaviours now seem entirely alien, probably even to those lucky enough to have been born into it).

Freely mixing elements of personal / social writing and thinly veiled autobiography into popular genre thrillers, Raven’s more noteworthy works include Oxbridge vampire yarn ‘Doctors Wear Scarlet’ (loosely adapted into Robert Hartford Davis’s disastrous Incense for the Damned in 1971) and, on the other side of the coin, the ten volume ‘Alms for Oblivion’ sequence, which follows the lives and loves of a cadre of toffs, set against the changing social and political mores of post-war England. (I read the first few chapters of the first volume of this epic saga a few years back and actually found it quite compelling, but unfortunately I lost my copy on a train and haven’t got around to picking it up again since.)

Throughout his early literary career, Raven seems to have been fixated on the dilemmas faced by male scions of the English upper classes who, whether through conscious rebellion or mere lethargy and personal weakness, have squandered the privileges conferred to them by their noble upbringing and must find alternative paths through life. This theme is certainly front and centre in ‘Brother Cain’, whose protagonist Jacinth Crewe (note the Moorcock-ian initials) finds himself in a predicament closely mirroring that apparently faced by the author himself a few years beforehand.

Having been expelled from Eton on the grounds of moral turpitude and subsequently forced to curtail his studies at Cambridge due to what we might charitably call a self-inflicted lack of funds, the novel joins Crewe as he is invited to offer his resignation to the British army’s elite training academy at Sandhurst, having accrued gambling debts sufficiently gargantuan as to bring his entire regiment into disrepute.

“Honour and dishonour are conventions,” Captain Crewe’s understanding commanding officer advises him during their final interview, effectively establishing the theme of the novel to follow. “They are relevant in the world in which you have so far existed: they will not be relevant in the world for which it is clear you are now destined.”

Retreating to London with his tail (amongst other things) between his legs, Jacinth throws himself upon the mercy of his regiment’s allotted merry widow, one Miss Kitty Leighton, who, after a night or two of wild passion at her Chelsea flat, places a call to a mysterious contact who may be able to assist her disgraced and destitute young lover before the debt collectors come knocking.

Thus, Jacinth is summoned to a lunch date at the Trocadero in Piccadilly (decades before it became the tourist-choked hellhole we know it as today), where he is greeted by dirty mac-clad, brown ale supping “professional messenger” Mr Shannon - a character I found it impossible not to imagine being played by Donald Pleasance.

Though highly suspicious on all levels, the proposal Mr Shannon’s anonymous employers wish to convey to Captain Crewe is entirely too good for the desperate young layabout to resist. In short, his gambling debts will be covered in full, and he will be issued with sufficient funds to allow him to fly to Rome and install himself in the swank Hotel Hassler overlooking the Spanish Steps, there to await further instructions.

What with this being the height of the First Cold War and everything, you’ll be unsurprised to hear that when those orders do eventually arrive, they direct Jacinth to an appointment at a shabby ‘Institute for the Promotion of Mediterranean Art’, a flimsy front for a top secret wing of the British government whose job, to all intents and purposes, is to create new James Bonds.

Which is to say, Jacinth and the other young rascals corralled by the nameless ‘organisation’ are pointedly not being groomed as spies or intelligence agents. Instead, they are basically just hatchet men - proponents of what one of their instructors (who is of lower middle class extraction, and so naturally a graceless, grudge-bearing git) bluntly calls “the cold art of murder”.

Taking a more refined view on things, the Big Cheese of the whole operation, who naturally enjoys the benefit of a ‘proper’ education, instead waxes lyrical to his new recruits about how, in the light of communist infiltration and so forth, the democratic institutions so cherished by western nations can only be preserved through the unilateral execution of acts which the champions of democracy would find impossible to countenance, should they become aware of them.

(Being unfamiliar with Raven’s own political leanings, assuming he had any, it’s difficult to get a handle on whether this justification for extra-judicial murder and mayhem, which continues at some length, is being presented as satire, or simply as a statement of the author’s own beliefs.)

Furthering the Bond parallel, Jacinth and his fellow recruits are essentially allowed to adopt the lifestyles of globe-trotting playboys, so long as they follow their orders precisely, ask no questions, and leave whatever moral scruples they may once have possessed at the door. And, if they have any thoughts of ducking out and taking their chances in civilian life, well…. their more ruthless classmates will simply have an easy first assignment to look forward to, won’t they?

Despite his military rank, Jacinth Crewe is still more a feckless dosser than a cold-blooded killer, and, still bedevilled by confused notions of personal honour and brotherly conduct, he is naturally terrified by the prospect of having to immerse himself in the paranoid, compassionless world promised by his new profession - all the more so when, with a neatness which surely defies mere coincidence, he is paired up for training with one Nicholas Le Soir, the former schoolmate whose charms led to his being expelled from Eton for corrupting the morals of a younger boy. (This incident directly mirrors Raven’s real life expulsion from Charterhouse public school, incidentally.)

Now a qualified surgeon, Le Soir has arrived at the ‘organisation’ after being struck off and effectively exiled from the UK for performing an illegal abortion upon the daughter of a prominent Catholic family (oops), and the plot is further thickened once both Jacinth and Nicholas find themselves drawn into an embryonic love triangle with Le Soir’s promiscuous yet sexually dysfunctional cousin Eurydice, who is also resident in Rome, working for an equally questionable ‘cultural mission’…. and who seems suspiciously keen on pumping her two mixed up suitors for information on the nature of their employment.

And, there I will leave my plot synopsis, but suffice to say, Raven proves himself eminently capable of setting up a fast-moving, exquisitely intriguing yarn here, even if his story’s conclusion - following an incident in a bat-infested railway tunnel, a scheme to virally infect the whores of a high class brothel and a head-spinningly convoluted murder scheme set against the backdrop of a Venetian masked ball, amongst other diversions - eventually veers more toward the kind of existential, internecine futility in which John le Carré would later specialise than the two-fisted action-adventure stuff beloved by Ian Fleming’s fans.

In view of the fact that ‘Brother Cain’ was first published a full decade before the legalisation of male homosexuality in the UK, one of the most striking aspects of the book for modern readers is Raven’s forthright and unapologetic presentation of his male characters’ bisexuality. Not only acknowledging this dark secret of the English public school system, which tended to be referred to only through implication and innuendo by other writers of this era, he seems keen on eagerly exploring its every nook and cranny, pushing the book’s language about as far as the era’s censorship would allow.

“I’m not a homosexual, or at least, not very often,” Jacinth muses to himself as he drifts into introspective reverie in the flight to Rome. (“What shall I do about women? Well I suppose there must be brothels..,” he charmingly adds, as if to bolster his own sense of masculinity.)

As soon as he falls asleep though, he finds himself dreaming of a beautiful American boy he once briefly courted at Cambridge (and who will, of course, play an integral role in the unfolding plot), and as the book goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that Jacinth’s most significant and long-lasting relationships have always been with other men.

In spite of its attention-grabbing plotline in fact, ‘Brother Cain’ often reads more like a semi-autobiographical personal novel than it does a thriller. More specifically, it seems like an attempt on Raven’s part to take stock of his life to date, and to redefine his place in the world as he hit his early 30s. As noted, the parallels between the background of the book’s protagonist and that of the author himself are considerable, and, given the multiple accusations of libel which were levelled against Raven as a result of his writing over the years, it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that many of the secondary characters in ‘Brother Cain’ were simply thinly veiled versions of his own friends, lovers and acquaintances.

Suffice to say, Raven was presumably not actually press-ganged into committing top secret outrages on behalf of the British crown, but, at a push, you could perhaps see Jacinth Crewe’s recruitment by the ‘organisation’ as a reflection of Raven’s own unique arrangement with the publisher Anthony Blond, who, when the author found himself in particularly dire straits, is reported to have agreed to pay him £15 a week in perpetuity and to publish his books as and when he completed them, on the understanding that he should leave London and never return.

Elsewhere, the book’s story is jammed with sinister, wisdom-dispensing potential father figures and unbalanced, mothering women, whilst Jacinth’s ruthless generational contemporaries all seem ready and willing to trample on his yearning, sensitive soul, creating a maelstrom of weird moral / psychological angst which can only really end with our protagonist becoming entirely consumed by it as he slips helplessly between the cracks separating the world of ‘honour and dishonour’ from the one in which most of us now live, in which such concepts are simply a quaint irrelevance.

Normally of course, I’d be pretty pissed off to find a book which has all the makings of a rip-roaring mid-century thriller derailed by such a load of ponderous navel-gazing, but Simon Raven was such a fascinating character, and the lost world of foppish decadence in which he dwelled such an enticing one to visit, that in his case, I’ll happily make an exception. 

Whatever you may think about his conduct or way of life, Raven was a strange and unique literary talent; even at this early stage of his career, his prose and plotting are crisp, witty and ruthlessly efficient, and I’ll certainly be redoubling my quest for more of his work as soon as the doors of the world’s surviving second hand bookshops begin to creak open once again.


Wednesday, 18 November 2020

Noir Diary # 12:
Big House U.S.A.
(Howard W. Koch, 1955)

With a plot that takes in extortion, kidnapping, blackmail and child murder whilst offering up an utterly unsympathetic, morally reprehensible protagonist and setting him against a supporting cast of equally loathsome, cut-throats heavies, John C. Higgins’ screenplay for ‘Big House U.S.A.’ (from a story by George Slavin and the supremely named George George) seems to scream its film noir credentials to the rafters. Director Howard W. Koch and producer Aubrey Schenck’s presentation of this grim subject matter however..? Not quite so much. (1)

Indeed, I was rather taken aback as the film begins by taking us to some kind of summer camp in the picturesque mountains of Colorado, where a plucky young lad wants to compete against the other boys in running races, despite his chronic asthma. After descending into a coughing fit and being threatened with a big needle by the camp’s nurse, the humiliated kid runs away into the wilderness, and search parties are dispatched to find him.

In unhurried fashion, we are subsequently introduced to the steadfast local sheriff, to the missing boy’s panicked (and apparently very rich) father, and to assorted forest rangers, cops and such. Meanwhile, the tearful lad is discovered hiding on the undergrowth by a wandering fisherman, who would seem fairly benevolent at first, were it not for the fact that he’s played by Ralph Meeker of ‘Kiss Me Deadly’ fame - an actor who, rather uniquely, combines the energy and good looks of a traditional Hollywood leading man with an aura of sheer malevolence which clearly marks him out as a grade-A piece of shit.

And, thus he proves to be; instead of alerting the authorities, Meeker leaves the boy imprisoned in a remote/abandoned lookout station whilst he calls up Panicked Dad and gives him the low-end on what appears to be a pre-meditated kidnapping scheme. This in turn prompts the introduction of a smug FBI agent (Reed Hadley), who arrives in good time to drone on and on about the fool-proof, scientific methods utilised by the feds to deal with such cases.

Complete with all the thrills and spills of an episode of ‘Little House on the Prairie’, this kidnapping plotline proceeds to plod along for ten minutes, then twenty, then eventually a full half hour, as I gradually found myself wondering whether the good folks at Kino Lorber had mixed up the reels with some other movie when they created their transfer of this film. Where was this “Big House U.S.A.” we’d been promised? And what of the incredible rogue’s gallery of b-movie sluggers promised by the poster? When are they all going to to factor into things?

Well, our journey toward them eventually gets underway when, in the first of several moments of startlingly callous brutality which punctuate the movie, the kidnapped kid takes a fall and dies whilst trying to escape his captor. Without so much as a second thought, Meeker picks up the kid’s body and hurls it over the nearest cliff into the rushing river far below.

After this shocker, things understandably take a darker turn, as Meeker is caught red-handed attempting to leave the National Park after retrieving (and secretly stashing away) the ransom money provided by the father. He tells the feds that he never actually laid eyes on the kid and was merely taking advantage of the situation by shaking down the dad for some quick dough, and, unable to prove a definite connection between Meeker and the kid’s disappearance, the cops have no choice but to allow the faux-fisherman - who has earned himself the tabloid nickname “The Ice Man” for his both determination to stick to his story and his refusal to disclose the location of his ill-gotten gains - to cop a plea on an extortion charge.

Thus we get to see Meeker merrily shipping out to spend a year or two cooling his heels on (FINALLY) a thinly-veiled fictional analogue of Alcatraz Island - but of course our man’s troubles are far from over. Despised by his fellow inmates as a probable child-killer, he finds himself transferred - via the connivings of Mr Smug FBI Man - to a cramped cell housing the worst of the worst of the prison’s hard-nuts.

Headed up by sly mob boss Broderick Crawford, this happy crew also comprises Lon Chaney Jr (“a nice guy, so long as he’s locked up”), a young Charles Bronson (introduced as a mad-dog killer, his character is really more of a practically-minded, musclebound moralist), and best of all, William Talman (‘The Hitch-Hiker’ himself!) as Crawford’s jittery, bug-eyed lieutenant.

The general idea is that, placed in such tough company, The Ice Man will soon melt and spill his guts to the feds. Unbeknownst to the powers-that-be however, Crawford and the gang are mid-way through planning their Big Break Out, and the prospect of taking Meeker with them and forcing him to hand over his hidden loot is just too good to resist.

Unsurprisingly, this central ‘prison movie’ section is by far the most entertaining part of ‘Big House U.S.A.’, ploughing through the usual clichés with gusto, whilst the gang’s escape plan presents a sublime bit of craziness straight out of a Men’s Adventure magazine. Basically, they’ve been stockpiling stolen oxygen cylinders, keeping them hidden in a hollow chamber inside the giant furnace which forms the centrepiece of the prison’s factory floor. When the time comes, they’re just gonna slide their way into the water via the machine’s waste pipe and frogman their way to freedom, getting picked up on open water by a fishing boat rented by Crawford’s outside cronies.

Unfortunately, we don’t get to spend half as much time as we might have liked with this esteemed line-up of craggy-faced bruisers (more Bronson in particular would have been welcomed), but they all do fine work in what little screen time they’re allotted, and the sheer sight of them all crammed together in a tiny cell will be worth the entry price alone for some viewers.

Crawford and Talman do great work her as a tag-team of comic book villains, whilst Chaney, looking shockingly haggard here considering he’d been slogging his way through Universal’s dapper ‘Inner Sanctum’ mysteries only a decade beforehand, is his usual doddering, likeable self nonetheless. He is also gifted with what is by far this film’s best line, delivered after Meeker protests that, “I’m no skin diver, I can’t even swim,”. “You’ll make out, just pull the water toward you like it was a big dame” - truly a tough guy swimming lesson for the ages.

I confess, if I were reading this review, I’d be thinking at this point that ‘Big House U.S.A.’ sounds like an absolute riot, but seriously folks - don’t build yr expectations up too high for this one. Writer Higgins and producer Schneck had previously worked together on 1947’s T-Men, and unfortunately the same feeling of a solid, hard-boiled story sabotaged by reams of ass-covering “crime doesn’t pay” procedural bullshit also predominates here.

Unlike that earlier film however, ‘Big House..’ has neither John Alcott’s majestic photography nor Anthony Mann’s brooding, no bullshit direction to fall back on. Instead, Koch’s pacing is stupefying slack, largely compressing the ‘good stuff’ we came to see into a middle half hour sandwiched between the workmanlike, TV drama opening described above and a listless, tension-free trudge toward the story’s dispiriting conclusion, whilst Higgins’ scripting meanwhile is full of needless complexity and annoying incongruities.

Beyond the inevitable, ‘Dragnet’ style voiceover which patronisingly book-ends the movie, we spend what feels like hours hanging around in the Park Rangers’ office in the company of self-satisfied Special Agent Hadley and boring cop Roy Roberts as they trudge through every pain-staking step of building their case against Meeker, then as they proceed to snidely torment him once he’s behind bars - all wasting valuable time we could instead have spent watching Broderick Crawford puffing on a bootleg cigar or Bronson cracking his knuckles (or indeed, checking in with Felicia Farr, who has a great bit-part here as Meeker’s duplicitous female accomplice).

With the unrivalled efficiency and moral superiority of the forces of law and order reinforced at every turn, it’s enough to get the attendees of yr average PTA meeting yelling “fuck you, cop!” back at the screen, but worse than that, this concentration on the unflappable righteousness of the fuzz completely ruins the movie’s final act.

Handled differently, Meeker, Crawford and Talman’s fugitive journey across state lines, frantically trying to get one up on each other as they navigate their way toward the Colorado treasure-trove, could have made for some fantastically gripping, hard-boiled stuff. Here though, this potential is just thrown away - and not only because their journey conveyed via an unconvincing series of time-compressing ellipses, clearly thrown together as time and/or funding was running short.

As eccentric and perversely charismatic as these crooks may be, the film has basically granted them little agency, no intelligence, and no chance to develop anything beyond a one dimensional persona for themselves. As they approach their goal, we know that law enforcement is one step ahead of them, lurking in the bushes with fingers on their triggers, and the hoods’ collective failure is a foregone conclusion.

On paper, the downbeat fate doled out to these admittedly horrible characters should be an explosion of classic noir fatalism, but as executed here by Koch and co, it’s simply banal, with Special Agent Smug Bastard adding insult to injury as he dusts off his hands and warns us all to stay straight and fly right.

Though noteworthy for its stellar cast, unconventional structure and stark moments of callous (albeit off-screen) violence, ‘Big House U.S.A.’ is ultimately a poorly rendered disappointment which does little to capitalise on the talents of those on either side of the camera. A passable mid-week watch, but one best left for completists or the morbidly curious, I suspect. 


(1) After directing this movie back to back with the more highly regarded b-noir ‘Shield for Murder’ (1954), Howard W. Koch’s brief directorial career went on to include the likes of ‘Bop Girl Goes Calypso’, ‘The Girl in Black Stockings’ (both ’57) and the oddball Boris Karloff vehicle ‘Frankenstein 1970’ (1958) before he transitioned into a far more successful career as a producer from dawn of the ’60s onward.

Sunday, 1 November 2020

Horror Express 2020:
End of the Line.

The moon outside my gabled window this All Hallows Eve. “No filters,” as the kids say.

So, that was October folks. I hope you managed to have a good one, and I’m sorry I didn’t quite manage to keep up the marathon posting schedule I’ve established for myself in previous years, or to include any of the more varied content I like to try to throw in to break up the endless movie-talk (you know, stuff about books, documentaries etc).

Nonetheless, I had a pretty great time across the month. In fact, for the first time in my life, I managed to watch more than one movie per day across the month of October (a record-breaking thirty-eight in total, in case you were wondering), which is some weird kind of personal achievement, I suppose. So, thank you for that one, corona-virus pandemic! Now let’s just hope it doesn’t happen again next October.

In case you’re interested, viewing in our household over Halloween weekend comprised ‘Fright Night’ and ‘The Devil Rides Out’ on Friday, followed by ‘Black Sunday’ and ‘The Fog’ on Saturday, and a fine time was had by all (by which I mean ‘both’, if you don’t include cats).

As per tradition, I’ll probably now take a week or two off from posting here whilst I get some new content together, and relish the prospect of watching and reading some things which aren’t horror (Noirvember, anyone?). Meanwhile, I’ll hope to put together a new list of all the October Horrors reviews I’ve done over the past few years on the sidebar, in case anyone wants to keep things going by catching up on some they missed, or somesuch.

All else aside though, thanks so much to anyone who’s still reading this, and to those who have left nice comments - it’s hugely appreciated, as always.

And in closing: citizens of the U.S.A., you know what you must do tomorrow. We in the rest of the world will thank you for it. I’ll leave it at that.

Friday, 30 October 2020

Horror Express 2020:
More Short Takes.

Three more shorter-than-usual takes on recently watched Horror films to glide us into the big day itself tomorrow. Including some actual positive comments this time around.

It Conquered the World 
(Roger Corman, 1956)

When AIP released The She-Creature (reviewed earlier this month) in 1956, it formed one half of a double-bill with this rather more widely remembered little number from Roger Corman. Quite a night out, by my estimation. For the sake of random cyclical completeness therefore, I thought I’d dig out ‘It Conquered The World’ and give it a quick going over, having not seen it for many a long year.

During the first half, I was surprised to note such a high incidence of clunky dialogue, painfully bad line-readings and general meandering tedium, which has no doubt done a lot to aid the film’s retrospective status as a more-or-less definitive cheap n’ cheesy b-movie. In view of the fact that the film's principal creatives were all smart and competent people however, I tend to suspect there was a certain amount of sniggering self-awareness creeping in here, which makes me sad.

As cynical as the production circumstances behind Roger Corman's movies may have been, when it comes to his directorial efforts, I've always appreciated his earnest dedication to making a straight-facedly decent movie out of whatever meagre resources were available to him. So, it’s disappointing to imagine him knowingly signing off on a load of sub-par crap at some points on this one, underestimating the intelligence of his audience in precisely the manner he usually so strenuously avoided. Perhaps Lou Rusoff’s script - just as shamelessly barmy as the one he provided for ‘The She-Creature’ - might to some extent be to blame?

Anyway, regardless, there is nonetheless a lot to enjoy here right from the outset. Surely no genre movie fan can fail to be moved by the sight of a (relatively) young Lee Van Cleef firing up his inter-planetary radio-set (hidden behind a curtain in the corner of the living room) to speak to his friend from Venus? 

Appearing just a few years after he played sneering, homosexual hitman Fante in Joseph H. Lewis’s classic ‘The Big Combo’, Van Cleef’s plummy, pointed-finger-aloft delivery of his dialogue here (“listen Paul - listen to the VOICE!”) must have become an acute embarrassment for him as he began settling into his more familiar taciturn cowboy persona over the next decade or so.

Meanwhile of course, the thunderously obvious nature of the obligatory anti-commie sub-text, expressed through Van Cleef’s interplanetary collaboration with a malign being who promises heaven on earth to mankind in exchange for their emotions and individuality, is so clearly comical that I’d like to believe that Corman - not to my knowledge a rabid McCarthyite - very much did have his tongue in his cheek in this regard.

And, once things get going in the second half, ol’ Jolly Roger really gives us our money’s worth. In fact, as soon as the Best Movie Monster Ever (accept no substitutes) shows up, conquering the fuck out of Bronson Canyon (if not quite the world) with his killer grin and adorable, residual-arm-waggling “just frontin’” moves, it’s all gravy for a surprisingly action-packed final act.

First we get the great Beverly Garland blasting away at the bugger with a shotgun (and, how often do we get see the heroine of a ‘50s sci-fi movie sneaking out from under her husband’s nose to give the monster hell, incidentally?), then the Dick Miller Commandos show up with their bazooka, and finally, an enraged Van Cleef getting up close and delivering the foam-melting coup de grace with an f-ing blowtorch, of all things! His final words: “I bid you welcome to this earth... you made it a CHARNEL HOUSE!”

For all the missteps and faffing about in the first half in fact, this is a thing of beauty and a joy forever - god bless you, Mr. Corman. 

Daughter of Darkness 
(Stuart Gordon, 1990)

Nothing to do with Harry Kumel or Delphine Seyrig, this is a made-for-TV vampire movie shot in Romania, directed by the late Stuart Gordon. In view of the info in the preceding sentence, I'd always assumed it must naturally be a Full Moon/Charles Band joint (some kind of spin off from their Eastern European ‘Sub-Species’ films perhaps?), but when I finally sat down to watch it this week, it immediately became clear that we’re dealing with a different kettle of fish entirely.

None of the usual suspects or company logos turned up on the straight-laced opening credits, and once things get underway, the tone is very different from yr usual Empire/Full Moon house style. It’s slicker for one thing, with somewhat higher production values, but also blander and more conventional, as if attempting to appeal to a mainstream TV audience, rather than rabid horror fans.

The plot sees a young American woman (Mia Sara) arriving in Bucharest in search of her long lost father, who turns out to be none other than Anthony Perkins. Along the way, she collides with variety of sinister and/or seductive characters, gets into a few scrapes involving the sinister dragon pendant she inherited from her Dad, has ominous bad dreams in which she traverses areas of the city she has never previously visited, and so on and so forth.

Thanks to Gordon’s brisk pacing and inventive direction, this is all fairly diverting, but unfortunately, once it gets down to brass tacks, vampire stuff in Andrew Laskos’ script is pretty hackneyed, much of the dialogue is fist-in-mouth terrible (the alleged “flirtatious banter” between Sara and U.S. embassy attaché Jack Coleman is especially painful) and the performances (with the exception of Perkins and a couple of the Romanian actors) are extremely poor. This latter point is especially disappointing, given that Gordon's theatrical background and good eye for casting usually helped his films to punch well above their weight in terms of acting and character stuff.

Meanwhile, the obvious requirement to stick to PG-level content also proves a stone drag. Although there are a few potentially memorable horror scenarios, and vampires’ manner of feeding proves a bit of an eye-opener, you can almost feel the director straining at the leash, wishing he could unleash some of the nastiness of his better-known work, but clearly under orders to keep things as mild as possible.

On the other hand though, the film is, as mentioned, very well directed, and the photography (by Romanian DP Iván Márk) is extremely good, making excellent use of the evocative and unusual urban locations. In fact, whereas many American horror films over the years have tried to hide the fact that they were made in Eastern Europe for budgetary reasons, this one makes a real virtue out of being shot under the nose of the Ceaușescu regime, which by my calculations must have been struggling through its final tempestuous final months at around the time ‘Daughter of Darkness’ was filmed.

As such, the film’s evocative and seemingly authentic Bucharest street footage carries an electric and fearful atmosphere, effectively conveying the idea of a city living under a cloud of intrigue and paranoia, and even incorporating a sub-plot about Sara being pursued by the dictator’s secret police.

With a stuttering electricity supply, gun-toting soldiers on every corner, and brief glimpses of breadlines and dishevelled streetwalkers visible as Sara roars through the streets in a broken down taxi, the film suggests an interesting contrast between these symptoms of late 20th century misery, and the older, more dust-shrouded European world represented by the shabby five star hotels, over-priced restaurants and subterranean craft workshops which both she and the vampires are obliged to frequent.

At times, I was even reminded of Zulawski’s use of East Berlin in ‘Possession’ (a comparison further suggested by the fact that this film’s main bad guy, British actor Robert Reynolds, is a dead ringer for a young Sam Neill), but... there the similarities end, unfortunately.

Overall, I’m not sure I’d recommend going to the trouble to track down ‘Daughter of Darkness’ unless you’re a Stuart Gordon completist (or an Anthony Perkins completist?), or unless you have a special interest in films shot in Romania, possibly. But, it is at least a sufficiently respectable effort for me to continue truthfully claiming that I’ve never seen a Gordon film I didn't enjoy. 

(Shinya Tsukamoto, 1999)

To be honest, I've never been much of a fan of director Shinya Tsukamoto, but I am a fan of films based on the writings of Edogawa Rampo, wild gel lighting and buying stuff from Mondo Macabro, so I thought I'd give this one a go.

Results proved…. mixed, shall we say. The basic Rampo-derived story, about a former battlefield surgeon (Masahiro Motoki) being terrorised by his doppelganger, remains very compelling, using an ostensibly simple horror conceit to explore a wide range of uncomfortable thematic territory, touching on the dehumanising effects of war, the collapse of family hierarchies and, most pointedly, the pernicious violence inflicted upon society by the rigid enforcement of socio-economic inequality.

Rest assured however, this is all treated by Tsukamoto more as a visceral, ero-guro tone poem than some high-minded political allegory, as he adapts his jarring, dissociative audio-visual style (often likened to the cinematic equivalent of a tape cut-up or extreme noise record) to the needs of a slightly more refined period setting, delivering some truly shocking and bizarre moments for us to, uh, ‘enjoy’, in the process.

Former pop idol Motoki does fine work too in what is a challenging pair of roles to put it mildly, with his portrayal of the ‘evil twin’ character in particular standing as easily the most unsettling display of skin-crawling evil I’ve encountered during this October season.

In many other respects though, I’m afraid I just didn’t dig the approach Tsukamoto takes to this material. Although there is some beautiful photography in places, the ‘extreme’ colour schemes used through much of the film are achieved through ugly-looking post-production filtering rather than actual, on-set lighting and production design, with the unfortunate effect of making a lot of the footage feel as if it’s been brutalised by the pre-sets on an arty teenager’s iPhone, whilst the director’s fixation with lo-o-ong sequences of people silently maintaining creepy/natural postures or just generally freaking out in front of the camera for minutes on end likewise got on my nerves.

Ultimately, these questionable aesthetic decisions served to distract me from the central narrative (which I was enjoying) to a sometimes catastrophic degree, ultimately making the whole venture feel a bit pretentious and uninvolving.

I’m also not really sure why the occupants of the film’s early 20th century “slums” all needed to be crazy, Noh-dancing neo-primitive cyberpunks, but hey, you hire the guy who made ‘Tetsuo: The Iron Man’, that's what you get I suppose.

Wednesday, 28 October 2020

Horror Express 2020:
Short Takes.

As regular readers may have noticed, I’ve been having trouble this year keeping up with my self-imposed marathon posting schedule for October, so to plug the gap a bit and make up the numbers, here a few short write-ups, pulled from notes I’ve made after viewings over the past couple of weeks. Spoiler: apparently I didn’t like any of these films very much.

La Bambola di Satana 
(Ferruccio Casapinta, 1969)

There are some surface level pleasures to enjoy in this one: the candy-coloured photography, the idyllic rural locations, the zany music score, haphazardly slapped together feel and general ‘contact high’ Euro-horror vibes. Such ambient appeal can only get you so far however, and once we get beyond that.... boy, what a stinker.

By rights, ‘La Bambola di Satana’ should at least prove interesting in genre history terms, representing a rare transitional entry in the Italian gothic horror cycle, bridging the gap between the more sombre, black & white era (roughly 1960-66) and the erotic / psychedelic wave of the early ‘70s. Unfortunately however, one-shot writer/director Ferruccio Casapinta seems uninterested in engaging with the conventions of either tradition, instead taking the most tedious gaslighting-the-heiress plotline imaginable and doggedly stringing it out for ninety minutes with no particular enthusiasm and few surprises.

I mean, the easily identified two-faced villains in this one don't even want to steal the castle heroine Erna Schurer has recently inherited from her wealthy uncle - they just want her to sell it to them. So, surely there are easier ways to go about this? Even if they can’t persuade Erna to sell, given that they're clearly rich enough to buy a castle, couldn't they just go and look at a different one? And, given that she seems perfectly happy for them to hang around the place indefinitely, what do they even stand to gain from owning the joint in the first place? Such are the thrilling, property market-based questions that ‘La Bambola di Satana’ forces us to contemplate. (1)

Also - NO SATAN. Schurer’s character is in no way a “doll of Satan”, and neither, except perhaps in the most nebulous sense of the term, is deceased-uncle’s-secretary / chief schemer Aurora Bautista. (2) There are no Satanists, no Satanism, no mention of Satan. I want my money back!

If you’re as obsessive a chronicler of early’70s Erotic Castle Movies as I am, ‘La Bambola di Satana’ might be worth seeing for the five-minute sequence in the middle in which it suddenly turns into a crazy / sexy horror movie, with Shurer writhing on her bed in a translucent nightie, dreaming that she’s being brutalised in the castle’s subterranean torture chamber by hooded inquisitors, complete with flashing disco lights. But, after that, it’s content to just go back to being the most boring giallo ever for another 40 minutes or so. Ho hum.


Invisible Ghost 
(Joseph H. Lewis, 1941)

Bela Lugosi’s first film for Monogram I believe, this one delivers... very little of anything, to be perfectly honest. Frankly, the script is so rambling, poorly constructed and lacking in interest that I’m amazed it got the go-ahead to enter production. I mean, I know that poverty row studios were cheap, but surely they also had a vested interest in actually putting things people wanted to see on the screen? Such as “invisible ghosts”, for instance.

Well, no dice here on that score, needless to say. Where the title came from is anyone’s guess. I kept waiting for the big reveal of whatever the story’s horror twist was going to be - is Lugosi secretly a mad scientist? Is he being telepathically controlled by his wife for some malign purpose? Is he being possessed by the spirit of a dead ancestor or something? - but it never came.

So, basically, it seems Bela is just an affable chap whose wife has left him to run off with another man. Unbeknownst to him however, the eloping lovers suffered a car crash whilst making their getaway, which, somehow, leaves the wife wandering around the grounds of Lugosi’s house in a kind of mindless / brain-damaged stupor. Whenever Bela sees her through the windows, he snaps into a hypnotic fugue state and heads off, zombie-like, to strangle the nearest servant. No attempt is ever made to explain why this happens. That's yr lot, plot-wise.

The cigar-chewing detective who turns up each morning to investigate this ongoing series of strangulation murders repeatedly fails to link the crimes to Lugosi, despite the fact that all of the killings take place in his house, and that he has no alibi and precisely the right shaped hands. Meanwhile, the heroine (Lugosi's daughter, played by Polly Ann Young) responds to such events as her fiancée being executed for a crime he didn't commit by putting a spirited “oh!” in front of her lines, but otherwise expresses no emotion on the matter.

The film's music score consists of a load of random needle-drops which run incessantly from beginning to end, with no attempt made whatsoever to match them to the on-screen events, giving the impression that someone just left a radio on in the background whilst the movie was shooting. (This causes confusion during a scene in which a murder victim actually DOES leave the radio on.)

Sadly, there’s not even much fun here for Lugosi completists, given that he flatly intones his lines when in “normal” mode, then just waggles his fingers around as someone shines a torch under his chin when in “mad strangler” mode. Not exactly one of the great man’s towering screen roles.

The only thing I’ve got in the ‘plus’ column in fact is that director Joseph H. Lewis pulls off some bold and unconventional shots here and there, anticipating the style he’d go on to develop in his later, better-known (and frankly just plain better) films.

That aside though, I declare ‘Invisible Ghost’ a total waste of everyone's time; a gift for trash-talking critics such as myself, the only thing I can imagine the inexplicable title actually referring to is the ghost of the reason this damn thing exists in the first place. Ah well - you live and learn, and at 63 minutes it didn't kill me.

Edge of the Axe 
(José Ramón Larraz, 1988)

If you're coming to this film as a fan of director José Ramón Larraz, well, the good news is that the car wash murder sequence which opens the film is quite sombre and stylishly done. After that however, you might be best advised to turn the damned thing off and fill the next 85 minutes of your life with something more rewarding, because the rest of the movie could basically have been directed by any old bozo with a basic understanding of how to keep things in focus.

If on the other hand though you’re approaching it as a fan of late-to-the-party, independently financed oddball slasher flicks, well.... more good news! It’s fairly watchable, which spells success in this benighted corner of cinema.

In fact, although this film is objectively bad in just about every respect, it has a certain misfit charm that made me quite like it. Mainly I think, this was due to English-as-a-second-language scripting which, though it never scales ‘Troll 2’-esque heights of surrealism, frequently has the poor cast members (primarily hired in Texas, where the film was shot) enunciating mouthfuls of garbled blather which no human being would ever actually say.

Meanwhile, there’s some retrospectively rather charming stuff about the film’s central teen couple plugging their delightfully bulky home computers into “the central terminal” so that they can talk to each other chatroom-style - an innovation that the film’s other characters treat as if it were akin to some form of Satanic brain-washing.

Elsewhere, some of the violence is reassuringly violent, momentarily reminding us that the guy who made ‘Vampyres’ is at the wheel, and it’s really nice to see iconic Spanish horror stars Jack Taylor and Patty Shepard popping up briefly in minor roles.

That aside though, about the only thing I could find to connect ‘Edge of the Axe’ to Larraz’s earlier work is an unusual subplot involving the young protagonist’s best friend, who has ill-advisedly married a woman many years his senior. Although the film is generally pretty sexless (unfortunately), this seems to speak perhaps to the director’s career-spanning interest in the sexuality of older women (albeit entirely off screen in this case).


(1) Born in Naples in 1942, Erna Schurer’s other credits include the similarly under-powered Erotic Castle Movie ‘Blood Castle’ (1970) and Andrea Bianchi’s ‘Strip Nude for your Killer’ (1975), as well as such choice titles as ‘Deported Women of the SS Special Section’ (1977), ‘Sex Life in a Women’s Prison’ (1974), ‘Carnal Revenge’ (’74), ‘Les Lesbiennes’ (’75), and - I kid you not - ‘Erotic Exploits of a Sexy Seducer’ (1978).

(2) A prolific Spanish-born actress, Aurora Bautista went on to appear in both Eugenio Martin’s ‘A Candle for the Devil’ (1973) and Larraz’s ‘El Mirón (1977).