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.