Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Sting of Death (1965)

Director: William Grefé
Writer: Al Dempsey
Stars: Joe Morrison, ‘special singing guest star’ Neil Sedaka, Valerie Hawkins, John Vella, Jack Nagle and Doug Hobart

In 2017, if anyone asks me what Facebook is for, I’ll reply that it’s clearly for sharing brief clips of bikini-clad teenagers gyrating to the groovy sounds of Neil Sedaka singing about jellyfish. Thank you, Gary, for letting me know of the existence of Sting of Death, a 1965 movie from filmmaker William Grefé, who went on to such legendary bad films as Death Curse of Tartu, which somehow got a great distribution (I own a VHS copy on PAL) and Mako: The Jaws of Death aka Killer Jaws. This one is so bad that I’d have to go back to my days writing Cinematic Hell reviews for Cinema Head Cheese to find something worse. The battle is now on to determine the worst Florida Everglades monster movie; is Sting of Death worse than Don Barton’s Zaat or is that one shot wonder out there on its own? Right now, six years adrift from my last viewing of the latter, I’d honestly plump for this one because it has the usual bad elements: horrible script, horrible monster and horrible acting, but adds in that ‘special singing guest star’, Neil Sedaka.

There’s another thing that can’t be ignored here either, which is the incredible ineptitude of the manly men protecting a bevy of beauties on Dr. Richardson’s unnamed paradise island in the Everglades. Everything will be fine, say Richardson and his assistant, Dr. John Hoyt, because they have guns. Sure, they have guns, but they also have a habit of protecting these ladies by leaving them alone so the monster can get them. At one point they even go diving with one, who’s promptly snatched away underwater by our monster, and they don’t even notice. They just get back on their airboat and return to base, sans one damsel in distress. It’s pretty bad when our educated scientists can’t even count to one. It’s very possible that the only thing that they notice at any point in the movie is a door that was open but is now mysteriously closed. How they can acknowledge such subtle plot points but not the major ones like missing girls, screams from upstairs or the most obvious villain in movie history, I have no idea.

Monday, 19 December 2016

Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971)

Director: Roy Ward Baker
Writer: Brian Clemens, based on the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson
Stars: Ralph Bates and Martine Beswick

Index: 2016 Centennials.

Watching in 2016, this film seems surprisingly timely. The last decade has seen a strong rise in the number of folk who understand what LGBT means (though it’s far from fully inclusive and I’ve seen many more letters added). However, this film, which came out (pun well and truly intended) in the year I was born, foreshadows that conversation. Yes, it’s the old Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story by Robert Louis Stevenson, but instead of Hyde bringing out Jekyll’s dark side, this time it’s Hyde bringing out Jekyll’s female (but not necessarily feminine) side. To make this work best, Jekyll’s transformation wasn’t achieved through make-up effects being applied to Ralph Bates, it was achieved by casting an actual woman as Hyde, Martine Beswick. The usual battle for control ensues and these two different aspects start to merge into one. There’s a vast potential here to explore the different sexualities of men and women and the film does start to walk down that road, but it’s a long road and we haven’t found the end yet.

What surprised me most about Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde is that it wasn’t what I remembered at all. I saw most of the classic Hammer horrors when I was knee high to a grasshopper, watching late at night on my sister’s television, this one included and I remember their movies of the seventies as being more and more obsessed with sex. Now, that’s hardly a bad thing, says the red-blooded teen that I was when I saw these, but over time they blurred together and I tend to remember the boobs a lot more than the drama. For the iconic stories, I remember their fifties and sixties pictures instead, with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee reinventing all the classics for a Technicolor age. Yet, this has surprisingly little nudity, especially given the sexual subject matter, and it’s far from a cheap excuse to show Beswick’s boobs. There has been talk of a remake and, for once, that’s a good idea as, done right, it could be fascinating. And no, neither Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde (a teen comedy) nor The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckel & Ms. Hyde (a porno) count.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949)

Director: Preston Sturges
Writer: Earl Felton, from his own story
Stars: Betty Grable, Cesar Romero, Rudy Vallee and Olga San Juan

I’ve enjoyed a lot of Preston Sturges comedies, some more than once, but then I’ve only seen the first half of his career. He started off incredibly well with The Great McGinty, Christmas in July and The Lady Eve, then somehow got even better, with Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, movies as universally acclaimed as they are criminally underseen. However, he made thirteen features and I hadn’t got past the middle one, Hail the Conquering Hero, which is just as strong as its predecessors. The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend sits firmly within the second half of his career, an era that critics often pretend doesn’t exist, unless it’s to acknowledge The Sin of Harold Diddlebock, the film that saw Harold Lloyd come out of retirement after nine years away. I hadn’t seen any of these last half dozen until now and this bodes poorly for the rest, even with Betty Grable and what the poster calls ‘the biggest Six-Shooters in the West!!!’ Yes, three exclamation marks for Betty, who would have been a hundred today.

In fact, the poster sums up the picture pretty capably: it over-suggests but under-delivers. The Modernaires sing the theme tune behind the opening credits to set Grable up as a ‘hard tootin’ , freebootin’, high falutin’, rootin tootin’, six-shootin’ beautiful blonde from Bashful Bend’, which is enough to believe that this whole thing started with the song, but it really came from a story by Earl Felton, writer of a whole slew of Richard Fleischer pictures, as varied as Armored Car Robbery, The Narrow Margin and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I wonder what brought him to Fleischer’s attention, as this broad farce wouldn’t seem to be a likely candidate! I see this mostly as a great example of getting what you wish for. Grable’s boss at 20th Century Fox, Darryl F. Zanuck, had tried to push her towards more substantial roles but she successfully fought him on it, continuing on in bright and cheery musicals with paper thin plots summed up by how critic Bosley Crowther described That Lady in Ermine: ‘a bright and beguiling swatch of nonsense’.
And this is as surely bright and beguiling as it is a swatch of utter nonsense at first glance. At a second, it’s not much better, but it’s a little more forward looking than people have generally given it credit for. It has a feminist edge, not only because it has a female lead but because she’s clearly able and willing to take care of herself. The scene that kicks the film off is eye-opening today because it features a six or seven year old girl being taught how to shoot; at the time it was eye-opening because it features a girl not a boy. Little Winifred just wants to play with her dolly, but her grandfather makes her practice with her pistol first. ‘It won’t get you into trouble,’ he suggests, ‘but it may get you out of it.’ Now, that’s irony because it does precisely nothing but get her into trouble and we simply wouldn’t have a film without that, but it does give her a confidence that allows her to survive in a world dominated by men. As uneducated as she may be, she’s fully in charge throughout, whoever she’s facing off against and with what.

It’s also notable today that this white woman who passes for a Swede has a Spanish-speaking boyfriend and a Hispanic companion who passes for Native American. No wonder the Hays Office had problems with this script as, after all, miscegenation was against the Production Code! Certainly Joseph Breen, the head of the Code, had as much trouble with Judge Alfalfa J. O’Toole indulging in an illicit relationship with someone named Conchita as with him having extra-marital relations in a old west saloon’s hotel room. Irony abounds here. While Olga San Juan, who plays Conchita, seemed as Hispanic as her nickname of the Puerto Rican Pepperpot suggests, she was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Puerto Rico, a US territory. However, Cesar Romero, as the Latin lover who so upsets our heroine, had Cuban parents, even if he was born in New York and raised in New Jersey. How Puerto Rican (ie American) blood falls foul of the Production Code’s miscegenation rule but Cuban (ie not American) blood doesn’t, I have no idea.
Then again, Betty Grable, born in St. Louis, Missouri, but with Dutch, Irish, German and English ancestry, spends half of the movie masquerading as a Swede. Her star has faded over the decades, partly because she was insecure enough about her talents to make fluff that hasn’t dated well but also partly because it was a very bright star at the time. If we think of her today, it’s usually because of a cheeky 1943 photo that was the most popular pin-up poster for GIs serving in World War II. Maybe that also sparks a memory that her studio had insured her legendary legs, so prominent on that poster, for a million dollars; she’d even made a movie called Million Dollar Legs in 1939. What we don’t tend to remember is that she was the best paid actor (of either sex) in 1947 (some sources call her the highest salaried woman in America), or that she was a top ten box office draw for ten years running (only Clark Gable and Bob Hope had had longer runs). She even topped that poll in 1943 above Bob Hope, Abbott and Costello and Bing Crosby.

Here, she’s the grown up version of that gunslinging kid, Little Winifred. Now she’s Freddie Jones, a saloon singer who plays cards and drinks as well as any of the guys at work. Presumably she can still shoot too, but her gun has just got her into trouble. You see, her boyfriend, Blackie Jobero, is a wolf who thinks he can bring a fancy girl called Roulette into her bar and waltz on upstairs with her. Freddie sees red and sidles off stage during her number to grab her gun from behind the bar, follow them, singing all the way, and break into their room to shoot the lowlife dead. Surely we should be with her, but there are two reasons why not. One is that this all unfolds during one of those annoying Hollywood musical numbers which defy the laws of physics; there were no wireless microphones in the Old West (or 1949, for that matter)! The other is that she doesn’t shoot Blackie at all; she accidentally hits the Honorable Alfalfa J. O’Toole instead. ‘Right in the caboose,’ as the doctor says. That he’s played by Porter Hall just makes it funnier.
Hall, a regular in Preston Sturges comedies, is only one recognisable face here. His wife, Elvira O’Toole, is an uncredited Margaret Hamilton who plays the shrew to perfection, especially when Conchita flounces in to ask her sweetie, ‘Why is your mother upset?’ Musical number aside, I had a lot of fun with the first half hour of this film and the cast are a lot of the reason behind that. Casting Hugh Herbert as the mostly blind doctor trying to retrieve the bullet is genius! No wonder the judge is boiling, but he calms down when Freddie shows up. She apologises very well and he might even be about ready to forgive her. After all, she was just mad at a man she slaved for ‘playing puss in the corner with some beezle’! Unfortunately, then they bring in Blackie and Roulette and, after saying that she’s the mild type, she promptly grabs a gun and tries to shoot him again. And guess what? Somehow the back end of Alfalfa J. O’Toole manages to get in the way for a second time! So, off go Freddie and Conchita to skip town on the next train.

It’s once they arrive in Snake City that the quality starts to drop. They get there because Conchita steals a couple of travelling bags which drop them into new identities. So Freddie Jones becomes Hilda Swandumper from Wauwatosa, WI, the new schoolteacher in Bashful Bend and Conchita is her ‘little Indian maid’. You can just imagine the political incorrectness that leaps out to play with that situation! Yes, the ticket collector tries it on with her immediately. ‘You leave mama and papa home in tepee?’ he asks. ‘How would you like to go with me and see white man’s choo-choo. Puff puff engine, huh?’ The moment they alight from the train, Mr. Hingleman, the chairman of the school board, pinches her cheek, calls her Little Firewater, and asks, ‘Everything heap good back in wigwam?’ Now, I do get that we’re setting up contrasts in Snake City: half the town are redneck miners and cowboys who howl like wolves at the purty ladies while the other half are respectable citizens, but it’s the latter spouting idiocy like this.
I should add that these lower class citizens are played by some formerly major names in western movies, such as Kermit Maynard, Tom Tyler and Tex Cooper for a start. Richard Hale is also uncredited, oddly given that he gets a decent amount of screen time as Mr. Gus Basserman, an ornery local who proceeds to start a gun battle in town and lynch a couple of people to boot. You’re getting that this is a comedy, right? Well, one of the reasons that it may have failed both critically and commercially at the time (though it did eventually make its money back) is because it’s really not the usual late forties musical. The tone of the piece is inconsistent to crazy degrees. The first third is farce, but written rather cleverly. The middle third, as our fake Swede tries to outwit Basserman’s two idiot kids, is so far into pantomime that I expected someone to shout ‘He’s behind you!’ The final third is a very slow Keystone comedy and slapstick was long dead in 1949. Then again, Chester Conklin and Snub Pollard are here too. This cast has everyone!

And, if you hadn’t guessed, this makes the last two thirds very silly indeed. Naturally, the inept authorities fail to realise that their wanted woman has just hopped down the track a ways and the one man who does is Blackie Jobero. So, her story comes out while those pesky Basserman boys are camped outside the window, dressed as Indians, and she sets them up to knock her boyfriend out. This long scene feels like a stage farce with its long takes in a single location, its lights going on and off (not always in sync) and its wildly overblown ‘death’ scenes. Then it’s Keystone fight time, merely with guns instead of pies. One bad guy gets shot off of the top of an outhouse and gets back up four times to rejoin the battle. Another picks up his hat four times after it’s shot off. A third is stationed in front of a cattle trough; every time he shoots his gun, the water erupts into his face and he starts trying to outwit the water. If anyone expected the clever wit of early Preston Sturges in this picture, they must have been utterly lost.
What’s more, not one person gets hurt. It doesn’t matter how much lead flies and there’s a great deal winging its way down Main Street. It doesn’t matter how close a shooter is to his target. It doesn’t matter even when we know that they got hit, like the judge, whose wounds set the whole story into motion. Nobody gets hurt and not one lick of blood is spilled. It’s like watching an episode of The A-Team, but with musical numbers and Betty Grable periodically stripping down to her abundant underwear to show us her pair of million dollar legs. Even when we want someone to get hurt, like the highly annoying Basserman boys, they don’t, even as Freddie gets serious about disciplining them on her first day in class as Hilda Swandumper. She pulls out her gun to shoot a bottle out of one’s hand, a cigarette out of the other’s mouth and then a couple of ink bottles off the tops of their heads. Now I’m seeing how Donald Trump could get elected President; lily livered liberals would never stand for this sort of discipline!

For all the silliness, Betty Grable is a lot of fun here and she works well with Olga San Juan. I haven’t seen much of either of them before but I left this film confirmed fans of both. To be fair, they’re the only actors who are really given parts to play; the rest of the cast are given routines instead, mostly the ones they were already justly known for, like Herbert, Hamilton and Holloway, to name just three beginning with the letter H. Cesar Romero is holding back, perhaps to leave the girls in charge. Rudy Vallee is so forgettable that I haven’t talked about him once and it doesn’t matter. The Basserman boys are even more overplayed than their screen father and that’s saying something; I felt like Richard Hale was about to turn on me for looking at him cross-eyed and call me out for a good ol’ fashioned gunfight. He was so ornery here that I expected the film to turn into a commercial for something soothing. After all, if can sooth the temper of Gus Basserman, imagine what it can do for you!
Apparently Betty Grable didn’t like this film at all and said so. If that’s true, she kept it from affecting her performance, which is a delight, even when the film gets silly. One reason why she does so well is that she was able to play up her status as a bona fide sex symbol but appear to be just one of the boys. The theme can call her high falutin’ all it likes, but she’s thoroughly down to earth. I could fantasise about meeting a Marilyn Monroe character, but it’s unrealistic in the extreme. Yet, if I found the saloon that Betty Grable sings at in this movie, I could totally believe buying Freddie Jones a drink. Of course, she’d probably fleece me at poker too. Her career would last six more years and eight more movies, including How to Marry a Millionaire, but she was probably very happy to retire. Preston Sturges, on the other hand, probably wanted to keep on going, but he’d never direct another Hollywood feature. His final film was Les Carnets du Major Thompson, shot in France in 1955 and it was ignored even more than this.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Psychout for Murder (1969)

Director: Edward Ross
Writers: Biagio Proietti and Diana Crispo, from a subject by Oscar Brazzi
Stars: Adrienne la Russa, Nino Castelnuovo, Alberto de Mendoza, Idelma Carlo, Renzo Petretto, Nestor Garay, Rossano Brazzi and Paola Pitagora

On 18th September, I reviewed The Bobo at Apocalypse Later to celebrate the centennial of Rosanno Brazzi. It seemed like a decent choice and indeed it was, for Apocalypse Later, just not for Rosanno Brazzi because he was hardly in it. Sure, he appeared third on the bill, right behind the two leads, Peter Sellers and Britt Ekland, but perhaps that was merely an acknowledgement of his stature. After all, he was an important European actor who had starred in one of the biggest hits of the previous decade, South Pacific. Still, he was hardly in it, so I needed to find an alternate. There are plenty to choose from, given that Brazzi made 120 films in all, which doesn’t touch on his television work, though many are difficult to track down today, not least because he spent the first half of his screen career in Italy. I’m not sure what the survival rate of World War II era Italian films is but I hope there was an equivalent to the Phantom of the Cinémathèque, Henri Langlois, who saved so many French films during that same period.

Brazzi’s first English language film was MGM’s Little Women in 1949, by which time he had 36 Italian pictures behind him, including We the Living, a 170 minute adaptation of Ayn Rand’s novel that soon fell foul of Mussolini’s political watchdogs. Other titles of note, based entirely on reading about them, include a 1942 spaghetti western called Girl of the Golden West, a historical romance set in the 11th century called The Gorgon and a Pushkin drama in 1946 called The Black Eagle, which prompted a sequel in 1951. On he went in Italy, turning out drama after drama, many of them historical or romantic in nature and often both at once, such as Milady and the Musketeers, a version of The Three Musketeers told from a female perspective. Inevitably though, Hollywood called loudly enough to summon Brazzi over the ocean, but even with hits in 1954 like Three Coins in the Fountain and The Barefoot Contessa, he continued to make films in Italy with just a few American titles here and there to dot his filmography like confetti.
The easiest place from which I could grab a title is the late fifties, because he shot seven English language films in a row, from Loser Takes All in 1956 to Count Your Blessings in 1959. This is the time of South Pacific and it included titles with John Wayne, Sophia Loren and Joan Crawford. The Crawford picture, The Story of Esther Costello, looks particularly interesting, but I found myself drawn to the late sixties instead, not just western movies I knew like Krakatoa: East of Java or The Italian Job, but Italian genre flicks like Seven Men and One Brain and Psychout for Murder, not only for their subject matter but because Brazzi didn’t merely act in them; he wrote and directed them both too. The former looks like a rather wild Eurocrime thriller but it doesn’t seem to be available in subtitled form, so I chose the latter instead, a psychedelic giallo originally titled Salvare la faccia and also known as Daddy Said the World Was Lovely. Brazzi plays an important on-screen role but I’m even more intrigued by what he did off screen.

He’s not listed in the opening credits as crew. The director is Edward Ross, generally accepted as a pseudonym for Brazzi, but who wrote the film is a little trickier to identify. The opening credits list the screenplay as by Biagio Proietti and Diana Crispo, working from a subject (or story idea) by Oscar Brazzi, who was Rossano’s brother and the film’s producer. Wikipedia only has a page on its Italian site for Salvare la faccia, but that backs up what’s on screen. IMDb omits Proietti entirely, odd given that he wrote a lot more than Crispo, but adds both Renato Polselli and Piero Regnoli as writers, with Rossano Brazzi listed for both screenplay and story. It may be that IMDb is misleading us, which wouldn’t be for the first time, but other sources share its suggestions. However much or however little he contributed to the writing, however, he was clearly interested in directing pictures that were different from the films he’d acted in. In particular, there’s a stylish, experimental edge to this one that helps to flavour it well.
Back on screen, Brazzi plays an industrialist called Marco Brigoli, a very important character, as ably highlighted by the first scene in which his new factory is opened to great fanfare by an aspiring politician whose wife, Laura, Brigoli is doing on the side. He isn’t the lead, however, that role going to Adrienne la Russa as Licia, his youngest daughter. We’ll soon discover that she’s the only key player absent from the ceremony, as her boyfriend Marco has talked her into spending the day in bed with him instead. While it’s not overtly called out, they’re apparently in a brothel, hence why a scandal arises after the police raid the place and a half-naked Licia is photographed trying to escape onto the roof. It’s all a set-up, so Marco can successfully blackmail Brigoli and get out of his cheap apartment. The downside is that, to quieten the scandal, Laura talks Brigoli into announcing that Licia is sick and thus must spend some time in an asylum to recover. Ah yes, the overblown drama of the rich and powerful.

Of course, Licia, who swans around in the wildly colourful mini skirts of the late sixties with her long hair floating in the breeze, as free as a bird, is far from comfortable in austere white gowns and ponytails. We don’t know how long she spends inside, but we do know that she hates every moment of it and she leaves with a serious grudge. If she wasn’t crazy when she went in, she is after she gets out and, in a giallo, that doesn’t bode well in the slightest. One of the successes of Psychout for Murder is its editing. It’s shot well by Luciano Trasatti, but it’s how those shots are cut together by Amedeo Giomini that turns up the style. It’s overt editing, obvious in scenes like the one where Licia is driven to the asylum. We jump around frenetically between three scenes which represent her past, present and future: the factory opening, which she didn’t attend but can imagine if it might undo the past; the car, a notably uncomfortable present; and a small Licia in white against a big wall, hidden away from everything in the asylum.
Another success is the performance of Adrienne la Russa, who dominates this film. She changes wildly, in ways that often torment the people around her. One minute she’s both childlike and childish, floucing around an empty estate destroying flowers in a fit of pique; while the next she’s clearly an adult, teasing her sister’s husband from a distance with sexual allure, only to vanish when he decides he might want to do something about it. There’s a great scene in which she switches from one to the other and back: she’s going into town with daddy and he stops his sports car to open the gate. She suddenly gets acutely serious, takes off the handbrake and lets the vehicle roll towards him, screaming as it goes, then stops it just in time and leaps out for a big hug to give thanks that he’s still alive. Oh yes, she’s dangerous, as she tells Mario. She lies in wait for him at his new place, spins around in a vast chair and points a empty gun at him. ‘I can kill you whenever I want to,’ she says. ‘I’m mad, remember?’ Then she pulls the trigger.

I didn’t recognise Adrienne Larussa, as her surname is usually spelled, but she made three Italian pictures in two years, her two in 1969 being notable; the other was The Conspiracy of Torture, a non-horror from Lucio Fulci that many deem underrated and unfairly obscure. She fits this material wonderfully, epitomising that free European spirit but turning psychotic whenever a scene calls for it. Given that, I was wildly surprised to find out that she didn’t in the slightest. I didn’t expect her to have been born in New York or to have ended up as a real estate agent in Beverly Hills. I hadn’t realised that I’d seen her before (in The Man Who Fell to Earth) or that her best known role was on an American daytime soap, Days of Our Lives, in which she played ‘the scheming Brooke Hamilton’, as IMDb would have it, for three years. I was particularly shocked to discover that she was married to Steven Seagal for four years in the eighties. All these things are true, but none of them seem remotely likely. Well, except for the scheming part.
The scheming part is everywhere here, as is appropriate for a giallo. In Italy, ‘giallo’ is simply the local word for thriller, regardless where such things happen to be made. However, it’s taken on a more specific meaning to film fans, namely a recognisable style of murder mystery with psychological overtones, consistent cinematic elements and touches of horror, violence and eroticism. This is an early giallo but it checks all the boxes, even if it doesn’t contain quite as much death as the seventies would soon condition us to expect and it’s much easier to figure out than many of the more complex movies to come. It also builds relatively slowly, easing us into the world of the Brigolis and gradually isolating us there; that’s helped by a scene in which Licia, freshly released from the asylum, wanders round town and realises that everyone sees her differently now. It’s not important whether that’s real or just in her mind; the effect is the same, which is to bring her, with us in tow, back to the Brigoli estate to fester.

Even when we leave the estate, we’re still firmly stuck in this family’s grip. We wander with Brigoli over to Laura’s house so they can get it on and lay plans that will elevate everyone in prestige and wealth. We leap with Licia into Paterlini’s car, Brigoli’s right-hand man, so she can set him up and derail those plans. We gyrate with the teens during the dedication of a swimming pool which ends with a reputation neatly sabotaged. Gradually, though, we focus in on the estate, watching Licia set her traps and waiting for everyone else to fall into them. What’s surprising is how closely all the traps spring, because they’re mostly left until the final act, which is blistering. I won’t spoil the final scene, but it’s a beautifully shot demonstration, sans dialogue, of both victory and defeat, the inevitable conclusion to one bad decision. Well, there may have been more bad decisions, as there are certainly undercurrents here, but it’s all framed as one quest for revenge spawned from one inappropriate action.
Given where we end up, I wonder why Rosanno Brazzi was drawn to this material, even if he didn’t write it. Perhaps it appealed to him as a combination of old and new. The old is most apparent in the story, the classic European tale of the rich and famous doing what they want but eventually coming a cropper for it. The new comes in the choice of style and genre; this could not be mistaken as a film from any other era, partly because of the costumes and wild score but also because it feels naturally like a giallo without a deliberate effort to adhere to the iconography of the genre. Sure, it’s about madness and murder, violence and voyeurism, but it’s short on gore and nudity and the protagonist is female. It’s more stylised than regular films, with the opening credits unfolding to extreme close-ups of eyes or lips, but it’s not stylised to the degree of having an Argento colour palette. The editing is spot on for giallo but the story is too focused. Italian genre cinema is a fascinating beast and I wonder if Brazzi was caught up in its changes.

Maybe he wanted to comment on such changes by abstracting them onto the screen. There could well be social commentary going on here but, if there is, I can’t speak to it beyond highlighting how the various roles are all archetypes. There’s no depth to any of these characters except for Licia. Her father is Brigoli the industrialist, ever set on improving the family’s lot. Laura his mistress is even worse, orchestrating everyone else, including her husband, the politician who is never given a name. Licia’s sister, Giovanna, is nothing but Licia’s sister, just as her husband, Francesco, is nothing but a man to steal away. Paterlini is just a businessman and the Monsignore is just the Monsignore, put on screen not as a character but as the encapsulation of the Roman Catholic Church. It falls to Licia, the young and vibrant creature who just wants to live and love, to stir everything up because she’s too free to fit into an easily categorised box. Maybe it’s about generational warfare at the time of the counterculture, but maybe I’m stretching.
Oddly, I haven’t called out any of the actors, but that’s because this isn’t an actors’ film. Sure, Paola Pitagora gives great reaction as Giovanna and Alberto de Mendoza looks like an Italian cross between Robert Vaughn and Bruce Campbell, but there’s little to talk about on the acting front. With the notable exception of Lucia, this is all about story, direction and style, which means that Brazzi is all over the film even when he’s not on screen. He cares about this more than he did other wild movies like Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks, in which he plays the lead, and I can only assume it’s because he had a lot more to do with this than simply act. There are better gialli out there and better dramas, but this is fascinating stuff and I’m keen to follow up with the other two films that Brazzi wrote and directed: Seven Men and One Brain, a Eurocrime flick from 1968, and The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t, a 1966 seasonal film with his wife, Lydia Brazzi, playing Mrs. Santa Claus. Never mind South Pacific, Brazzi in the late sixties is where it was at.

Friday, 9 December 2016

The Villain (1979)

Director: Hal Needham
Writer: Robert G. Kane
Stars: Kirk Douglas, Ann-Margret and Arnold Schwarzenegger

It has to be said that The Villain is unique as a live action film. Beyond being a true statement, I keep coming back to that as it may be the greatest success the film can boast. Certainly it’s an interesting movie, but it’s also a trainwreck that unfolds at such a slow pace that we’re effectively watching it crash and burn for ninety minutes. I watched it in befuddlement, with my mouth open as I tried to figure out who thought that this was such a great idea and where it all went horribly wrong. After much thought, where I ended up is that it is a great idea and it’s cast amazingly well for the most part, but it’s directed with such lack of understanding of what it actually is that I have to wonder if the Hal Needham credited as director is really the Hal Needham who brought us Smokey and the Bandit, The Cannonball Run and, the same year as this film but earlier in this project, Death Car on the Freeway. It could always be a outrageous typo for Alan Smithee, the name that takes credit when the people who earned it disown their resulting film.

Given the cartoon logic that’s applied to this live action movie, it’s also within the bounds of possibility that the film was directed by its lead character, Cactus Jack Slade, who is as inept as he is dedicated. He’s Wile E. Coyote brought to life and, in the first great casting choice, he’s played by Kirk Douglas, who is celebrating his one hundredth birthday today and still going strong. That’s not surprising, given that he was an amazingly spry 62 years young when leaping around in this film; perhaps he’s really dyslexic and thought that he was 26. His effortless performance here reminded me of Douglas Fairbanks, Senior rather than Junior, decked out to play Zorro but actually playing a cartoon character instead. It’s not merely that Douglas’s 62 year old body is still in great shape, it’s that it seems to be infused with a boundless energy that mere years can’t diminish and mere flesh shouldn’t be able to contain. I’m assuming that some of his falling off hills and being crushed by giant boulders was done by stuntmen, but still. It’s impressive.
Cactus Jack, and his scene-stealing horse sidekick, Whiskey, are an endearing partnership if not a particularly successful one. The first time we see them work is when the outlaw leaps onto a moving train from a great height in order to rob it. Unfortunately, he misses the train completely and so lands face down in the gravel between the tracks, apparently uninjured through application of the last of nine golden rules that Chuck Jones compiled to govern the Roadrunner cartoons: ‘The coyote is always more humiliated than harmed by his failures’. Writer Robert G. Kane (no, not Bob Kane of Batman fame) followed many of these rules, excepting the ones that apply only to the Roadrunner. We have a live action Wile E. Coyote, but he’s not chasing a live action Roadrunner in this picture. Maybe Arnold Schwarzenegger is playing Sam Sheepdog, the foil of Wile E. Coyote’s clone, Ralph E. Wolf. Maybe he’s just an archetype from old time westerns rather than a cartoon character. Both his name and his role are Handsome Stranger.

Everything else can be extrapolated from those two sources. We’re in the old west for an old western with a simple plot and black and white characters. Nobody has any depth here at all; they’re all playing either archetypes or cartoons. And the unfolding story is governed by cartoon rules. At one point, Cactus Jack resorts to that old Wile E. Coyote faithful: painting a tunnel on a mountain and hiding behind a tree until the roadrunner crashes. Sure enough, Handsome Stranger drives his carriage straight through this imaginary tunnel which promptly ceases to exist when Cactus Jack tries it out himself. At another, he leans off a hillside to better spy on the leading lady, Charming Jones by both name and nature, when the grass or whatever he’s holding rips away. Instead of simply falling, he looks at it first in disbelief before his recognition of his fate kicks the laws of physics back into motion and he plummets into the river. That’s rule eight: ‘Wherever possible, make gravity the coyote’s greatest enemy.’
Initially, things feel really strange, because we’re breaking the sixth rule: ‘All action must be confined to the natural environment of the two characters - the southwest American desert.’ Instead, we follow Cactus Jack into town, which I recognised as Old Tucson from the mountains rather than the buildings, as this predates the fire in 1995 and my time there is all this millennium. It’s called Snakes End in this picture and Cactus Jack is there to rob the bank, of course, because that’s what bad guys do. He’s so dedicated to his archetype that he even reads a chapbook called Badmen of the West to tell him what to do. However, even though it guides him through the steps needed to dynamite the safe, it doesn’t work. The safe remains stubbornly intact, though the entire rest of the building is blown to bits. I looked but didn’t see Kane and Needham following rule seven with their dynamite: ‘All materials, tools, weapons or mechanical conveniences must be obtained from the Acme Corporation.’ Maybe they didn’t own the rights.

Other than moments like that, things don’t feel like a cartoon in town; they feel like a cheap comedy. Handsome Stranger helps an old woman over Snakes End’s main street, which is dangerously packed with horses and carriages; it turns out that she was on the right side to begin with. Mel Brooks could have got away with this but Needham fails dismally with it. Before he was a director, he was a stuntman and one of the best there was, founding Stunts Unlimited, introducing innovative equipment to the business, and even licensing a toy in 1977, the Hal Needham Western Movie Stunt Set, which is scarily rare but looks absolutely awesome. To be a stuntman you have to have impeccable timing, but that’s technical not comedic timing, which is what’s sadly lacking here; Arnie had no idea either, so the whole thing falls flat. The best comedic timing comes from Mel Tillis, as he uses his trademark stutter to tell the heavily accented Handsome Stranger, ‘You talk funny.’ Not politically correct, but hilarious.
Tillis is only one of many recognisable faces who show up briefly in The Villain to get our story in motion. Foster Brooks is the bank clerk who has to deal with Cactus Jack’s villainous robbery attempt. Strother Martin is Parody Jones, a mine owner who’s sending his daughter into town to pick up some money. Jack Elam is the best of them, as the villainous Avery Simpson, who’s lending that cash and wants it back again; if it’s stolen en route, then he’ll get Parody’s mine. He’s much more dapper than I’ve seen him, with an awesome hat and a wonderful demeanour as he frees and hires Cactus Jack all at once. I’ve seen Jack Elam many times, but he’s becoming a firm favourite of mine and I just wish he was given more to do, in many pictures but especially this one. Sadly, we get little of any of these folk, focusing in as we leave town on Cactus Jack, Handsome Stranger and Charming Jones. Of course, I can’t complain too much, because that means lots of Kirk Douglas, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ann-Margret.

If Kirk Douglas was perfectly cast, then Ann-Margret followed suit. She’s a delightful young lady from the first time we see her, as the boys on her train know. And she knows they know it too. At the Snakes End station, she leans over to show dangerous cleavage and ask Handsome Stranger, ‘Would you mind taking hold of these?’ She means the suitcases that aren’t even in shot, but this sets in motion a running gag that, once again, Mel Brooks would have had a field day with but Needham mangles horribly. By escorting his daughter home with the money, Handsome Stranger is repaying Parody Jones for saving his life. That daughter would happily thank him in turn by jumping his bones but he just can’t see her attempted seduction. Sure, he’s a dunce (Mel Tillis steals his steak at the Broken Spoke by telling him that the five mile crossing is only half a mile down the track), but how could anyone not launch into a dozen sexual fantasies while accompanied by the Ann-Margret of 1979, especially when her lines are all come-ons?
Arnie looks the part, as much as anyone can in a cowboy outfit that would have worked for Marty McFly if he was 6’2” tall; it’s pale blue, it magically repels dirt and it’s as dumb as the character that wears it. I can’t even say that he doesn’t play the part the way it was given to him; he’s a good guy but a stupid guy, one who’s utterly oblivious to everything. He plays that well and, had the film been sped up either through direction or through editing, he would have been fine. Still, he’s always the third wheel when scenes feature Douglas and Ann-Margret. They could act around him in their sleep and almost had to, given how slow the whole film got. Arnie plays along with the pace, plodding consistently forward, getting more wood for the fire every time his companion attempts to get him into the sack. There are a number of scenes where I’m sure his co-stars are laughing not at what they were shooting but at how things played out off screen. At least they seem to have enjoyed the shoot!

With a quick shoutout for Gary Combs, who had the unenviable task of being a stunt coordinator in a film directed by a legendary stunt coordinator, and his team of stuntmen who all did great work here, the technical side really isn’t where this film shines; the camerawork is adequate, the music clichéd and the editing ridiculous. At least there was nine-time Emmy-winner Bob Mackie to design costumes for Ann-Margret; I have no idea how she didn’t fall out of that dress but I kept waiting for it to happen. I hated the Indian outfits though and, talking of Indian outfits, the one that Avery Simpson enlists is run by no less than Paul Lynde as a very nervous Nervous Elk. It’s another slice of genius casting but, for some reason, it doesn’t work at all. I often wished that Paul Lynde would have played the part but instead we got Paul Lynde. The problem certainly isn’t lack of talent or an incompatibility with the role, so I’m going to plump for bad direction again. Whatever it was, Lynde just couldn’t make Nervous Elk funny.
That leaves one actor still worthy of mention and his name is Ott. He’s the horse who plays Whiskey, in what IMDb suggests was his final performance. Back in 1971, he’d played Black Beauty in the film of the same name, and the Black Mustang in a couple of episodes of Lassie. Other films and television shows followed until this one, which came after he was the title character in a dozen episodes of his own series, Thunder, on NBC. He won three PATSY awards, the equivalent of the Oscar for animal performers (the acronym originally stood for Picture Animal Top Star of the Year), but I wonder if he ever before had the opportunities he had in this picture, both to shine as a performer and to steal scenes from his co-stars. He saves Cactus Jack’s life at one point, but he also drops him right in it on more than one occasion for no better reason than because he can. The only thing he doesn’t get to do is to ride at speed, which underlines yet again how slow this movie is.

And so everyone moves gradually closer to the ending, which I won’t spoil but is at once inevitable and yet somehow surprising. I can’t say I didn’t like this but I hated it too. It’s too bad to be a guilty pleasure, but the concept is a peach and I’d suggest that it be revisited except that it would be done with CGI and that would be horrible. Perhaps a low budget filmmaker without too much to risk could make this with real stuntmen doing real stunts and create a cult hit. The only reasons that this one would be recalled in the event of a similar movie done right are Kirk Douglas’s energy, Ann-Margret’s cleavage and the way that everything flies over Arnie’s head just like Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s totally within character for Handsome Stranger to suggest, ‘Nothing goes over my head. My reflexes are too fast!’ If only Hal Needham had shot the film like those reflexes. There’s a great twenty minute short film here, maybe half an hour, but it’s stretched far too thin for an hour and a half. Watch it on fast forward!
I research the movies I pick for my centennial reviews ahead of time. I try to find interesting films that well represent the star in question and allow me to talk about a facet of film history, without just lumping for the obvious. Often, these interesting films are also great ones but this is a solid exception to that rule. It’s far from great but it is a great Kirk Douglas movie. Regardless of what he happened to be shooting, he gave it his all and, in doing so, created a character who may well leap to mind for some viewers if the name Kirk Douglas is mentioned in passing. Of course, it’s far from the only one and there are a number of others that I could easily have picked for this project. I could have chosen his debut, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, made as long ago as 1946, or the French TV movie, Empire State Building Murders, a ‘doc-crime-drama’ and tribute to film noir that sits at the other end of his career in 2008. In between, I’m completely spoiled for choice, both for interesting movies and those which generate opportunities.

After such varied classics as Out of the Past, A Letter to Three Wives and The Glass Menagerie, there’s a vastly underrated gem by the name of Ace in the Hole, made by Billy Wilder in 1951, that would have allowed me to talk about newspapers in the movies and how far ahead of its time this one was. After more classics, such as The Bad and the Beautiful, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Lust for Life, there were a string of films produced by Bryna Productions, a production company Douglas established in 1955, including an anti-war movie in 1957 called Paths of Glory, directed by an up-and-coming director named Stanley Kubrick. Three years later, Douglas helped to break the Hollywood blacklist by hiring Dalton Trumbo to write Spartacus, with an overt on-screen credit. On we travel through his filmography to see classic after classic, each movie different from the last and each notable in its own regard, such as Seven Days in May, There Was a Crooked Man... or The Man from Snowy River, the latter of which gave Douglas a double role.
It’s a heck of a career, especially for someone who started out during the studio system era as a Golden Age star because it’s free of the routine stuff that almost every major name at the time got to churn out in between the films for which they’re remembered. It bears deep exploration, whether through binge-watching or a more relaxed examination, unlike almost any of his peers. And that isn’t bad for a man who spent his early life in poverty. He started out as Issur Danielovitch in Amsterdam, New York, the one male child of seven born to a couple of Jewish immigrants from what is now Belarus. He became Izzy Demsky and then Kirk Douglas, the name he joined the US Navy under during World War II. He worked over forty different jobs to raise funds to pay for acting classes but only made it into the American Academy of Dramatic Arts through a special scholarship. One classmate was Betty Joan Perske, who, after changing her own name to Lauren Bacall, enabled his transition from stage to film by recommending him to Hal Wallis.

The rest can mostly be watched on screen. He did turn down two Oscar-winning roles in his time, those which eventually went to Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou and William Holden in Stalag 17, but he was nominated three times, for Champion, The Bad and the Beautiful and Lust for Life, before eventually receiving an honorary award in 1996 ‘for 50 years as a creative and moral force in the motion picture community’. He also received three nominations for Primetime Emmys and even a Razzie nomination for Saturn 3 in 1980, among many other nominations and wins. Yet, even as a Hollywood star, he’s consistently refused to fish in only one pond, which is why he has more books to his name than I do, mostly written during the last couple of decades; his eleven titles include fiction, non fiction and memoirs. What’s more, he hasn’t quit yet and, like Olivia de Havilland in June, is still with us to celebrate his 100th birthday, which is today, 9th December. Happy birthday, Mr. Douglas!

Thursday, 8 December 2016

10 Rillington Place (1971)

Director: Richard Fleischer
Writer: Clive Exton, from the book by Ludovic Kennedy
Stars: Richard Attenborough, Judy Geeson and John Hurt

Somehow I let this feature get past me and I have no idea why. I can safely get a pass from seeing it on initial release because I was too busy being born, but it must have played on British television while I was growing up and, as a boy who had both an interest in true crime and a tendency to read the Radio Times each week to figure out what I wanted to watch (this was in the dark ages before VCRs let alone DVRs), I would surely have noticed it. After all, the address of the title is a standard trivia question in the UK. Where did John Christie commit eight murders between 1943 and 1953? That one’s a gimme. However, I find it more chilling that I’d also let the importance of both the film and the book by journalist Ludovic Kennedy upon which it was based, get by me too. Perhaps like many, I’d associated it with murders rather than hangings and it’s the latter that has more resonance. Put simply, the hanging of Timothy Evans, an innocent man, is a key reason why capital punishment was abolished in the UK.

Contemporary critics didn’t like 10 Rillington Place because it didn’t do what they expected. It’s not a thriller, surviving on its use of tension and suspense; neither is it a traditional serial killer story, in which we delve into the mind of a madman. It’s an exercise in inevitability and that’s entirely the point. It follows the inexorable path towards a miscarriage of justice that cannot be undone or even mitigated and the fact that the guilty man was eventually hanged is only a small saving grace. It’s not an enjoyable picture to watch in many ways, though film fans can’t fail to appreciate the performances, especially those of Richard Attenborough as John Christie and a young John Hurt as the man whom he manipulated so easily. The direction, which is what disappointed those critics in 1971, is impeccable too, courtesy of Richard Fleischer, who would have been a hundred years old today, and I was as stunned by his directorial restraint as I was by Hurt’s bravado portrayal of an illiterate Welshman in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The script, adapted from Kennedy’s book by Clive Exton, who had the benefit of the author’s technical advice during production, is relatively close to the accepted course of real events. It even boldly states as it begins that, ‘This is a true story. Whenever possible the dialogue has been based on official documents.’ That doesn’t mean that it tells the whole story, of course. The murder that we watch as the film begins is Christie’s second murder rather than his first and a great deal is compressed at the end, all for the sake of narrative flow, but it doesn’t depart from the pertinent facts in any dangerous way. Also, like its source book, it makes a number of educated guesses, but none of them ring false. This was a problematic case, in that the innocent man, for reasons that we’ll soon get into, made three official statements to the police, two of which were untrue. While he’s honest on the stand, his credibility has been shot and he’s missing certain key information that would have backed up his case. Are you confused yet? Well, let us begin.

John Christie, in the recognisable form of Richard Attenborough, is at once a creepy and calming fellow, an odd mixture that helps us understand why so many women trusted him. He’s a short man with a severely receding hairline who wears glasses and speaks so softly that his voice could be described as a whisper. It’s a highly unthreatening combination, though one more sinister today as pop culture has associated this look with the Nazi officer next door. It’s simple to suggest that Anthony Hopkins borrowed some of this performance for his famous take on Hannibal Lecter, but it’s misleading too as there’s none of his dominant genius here nor a hint of his devilish good taste. I’ve always pictured Brian Cox rather than Hopkins whenever Lecter (or Lecktor in his instance) is brought into conversation, but I can see myself blurring Attenborough’s Christie and Hopkins’s Lecter together because I’d dearly love to have seen Attenborough portray Hannibal the cannibal as the shabby little man he makes Christie.
We begin in London during the Blitz, but the air raid siren seems to carry an additional warning, pleading with Muriel Eady not to trust John Christie to cure her bronchitis using his ‘special mixture’. It turns out to be Friar’s Balsam to mask the influx of domestic gas, which has a strong carbon monoxide content. ‘You may feel just a bit dizzy,’ he tells her, as he puts a makeshift mask over her face; when she fights, he holds it until she drifts into unconsciousness. After he strangles her, it’s implied that he sexually assaults her, then he buries her in the communal garden behind his terrace. We see that she’s not the first body to go into this ground. We then skip forward five years to meet the other key players in this sordid and sorry saga: Tim and Beryl Evans, who move into a flat upstairs with their baby daughter, Geraldine. The war is over, but Rillington Place still looks shabby, even in the daylight. And it’s worth mentioning that this really is Rillington Place, even if had been renamed to Ruston Close and they shot at number 7 not 10.

The Evanses are recognisable faces too. John Hurt looks scarily young as Tim, even though he was a decade into his film career and I’ve seen him five years earlier in A Man for All Seasons. By comparison, Judy Geeson looks old as Beryl, because I tend to picture her as the schoolgirl she played in To Sir, with Love in 1967; I really should delve more into her work of the seventies. Both are excellent in this picture, matching the quality of what could easily have been a dominant performance from Attenborough. Geeson, the Meg Ryan of her day, is eminently desirable and easily led, attributes which would have been seen as complementary at the time; but it has to be said that she’s rather annoying, the catch in her being a catch, as it were. She sells both aspects of Beryl Evans capably in a way that seems passive but still avoids her being overwhelmed by the more overt performances of her male co-stars. After all, it has to be said that Christie and Tim Evans are gifts of parts to actors who know what to do with them.
Attenborough is the lead, playing a role that he knew he wouldn’t enjoy. ‘I do not like playing the part,’ he explained to The Times, ‘but I accepted it at once without seeing the script,’ adding, ‘I have never felt so totally involved in any part as this.’ He thoroughly inhabits the character, not once letting his creepy calmness lapse. The chilling nature of the man is there in the way he smiles and the way he hovers. It’s in the way he’s constantly helping people in ways that enforce his own importance; he might seem like the landlord but he isn’t. And, more than anything, it’s there in his quiet manipulations, like when he realises that Beryl wants to have an abortion and plants the seed that he used to be a doctor and could take care of it on the cheap. The scene where he’s preparing to conduct that abortion is blistering; he’s killed already but he still shakes, whether from nerves, anticipation or both. There are workmen outside but he just can’t resist the temptation to take one more victim.

And, if Attenborough is chilling as Christie, Hurt is award-worthy as Evans. I’ve seen him in so much over the years that I’m aware just how much of a talent he has, but he plays very believably stupid here and that’s really tough to do, especially for an actor who so believably plays professors and other educated men. Evans wasn’t inept, idiotic or imbecilic; he simply had a below average IQ and little enough education that he was illiterate and even more easily led than his wife. It’s in his eyes and in subtle movements of his head. It’s in his overblown reactions to his wife’s hints and barbs, because he can’t argue his way out of such situations and thus has to scream and shout, even if he wakes up the whole terrace. And, of course, it’s in the moments in which he uses physical strength to reinforce his dominance. He may not be a killer, but he’s a violent man with a violent temper. Hurt plays those scenes as well as the happy or bewildered ones. I can’t remember seeing a more credibly lost man than Hurt late in this film.
Holding these exquisite performances together is Fleischer’s direction, which is utterly controlled and was misunderstood at the time. An anonymous Variety critic praises Hurt and Fleischer, calling 10 Rillington Place ‘an absorbing and disturbing picture’, but fails to acknowledge the point, even expressing surprise that people might find more interest in Evans than Christie. The point is not that Christie killed people but that Christie killed people and persuaded the powers that be into hanging a mental midget for those crimes instead of him, even testifying on the stand in front of the man he was setting up. By comparison, Vincent Canby, a critic for The New York Times, nails the film’s purpose, starting his review with the fact that Evans was executed but posthumously pardoned, an act which prompted the abolition of the death penalty. However, he suggests that the ‘small, unimaginative people’ lessen the film’s entertainment value, whereas I’d counter that the dreary killer in working class grime heightens it.

You see, Fleischer steadfastly refuses to sensationalise any aspect of this case. Christie wasn’t remotely as clever as he thought he was and he made a string of stupid mistakes, but none of them were caught by the police, who were hindered by being brought in through an obviously false confession by Evans. This is another masterpiece scene for Hurt, because it’s a real mess of a confession that, incredibly, aims to protect his wife’s killer, because he believes him to be a friend who merely tried to help them and failed to keep Beryl alive through the abortion procedure. ‘He’s a bit simple,’ one cop tells another. Caught out by inescapable truth, he has to come clean on his second attempt which, of course, isn’t believed in the wake of the first. Even though many of us know what is to come, we still root for the poor simpleton, not because he’s remotely sympathetic but because we know that he’s innocent. The whole point of the film is for the hangman to not listen to us in the cheap seats screaming at him that he’s hanging the wrong man.
The hanging of Timothy Evans is an incredibly brutal scene, not for any of the reasons we might reasonably expect with our 21st century history with brutal film, but because it’s so quick. The camera shifts to handheld as Evans is walked from one room to the next and, before we know it, it’s all over. There’s no procession, no prayer, no last words. There’s no ritual at all and we can fairly believe that, given that Albert Pierrepoint, the man who hanged both Evans and Christie, advised the production to ensure that it would handle the scene accurately. Evans is there to be hanged and that’s what happens, quickly and efficiently, to the degree we can reasonably accept that, even as it’s happening, he still can’t believe that it will. What’s more, as Evans falls to his death, we’re shifted in a truly twisted segue to Christie straightening his bad back two years later. Canby calls that a common cinematic trick, but I thought it epitomised the film because the death of an innocent man had been utterly accepted and forgotten.

Fleischer, an American by birth and residence, must have been interested in the subject because he addressed it in more than one of his films. In 1959, he directed Compulsion, a drama based on the Leopold and Loeb murder case, in which they’re saved from the hangman’s noose by an impassioned speech given by their lawyer, played by Orson Welles, against capital punishment. In 1968, he made The Boston Strangler, with Tony Curtis as Albert DeSalvo, who was convicted not for a string of thirteen murders, to which he had confessed, but for a series of rapes. His lawyer had the death penalty removed as a possibility in exchange for admitting guilt in a plea bargain. DeSalvo later withdrew his confession and nobody has been convicted of any of the murders that he is suspected to have committed. Capital punishment is an odd focus for a man who was born into the film world, the son of Max Fleischer, who is still my favourite American animator; I’ll take his Snow White over Walt Disney’s any day of the week.
Then again, the Oscar he won in 1948 wasn’t for any of the films for which he would later become known. He made films noir like Armored Car Robbery and The Narrow Margin; big budget blockbusters, like Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Tora! Tora! Tora!; action films like Violent Saturday and Mr. Majestyk; sci-fi classics like Fantastic Voyage and Soylent Green; fantasies like Red Sonja and Conan the Destroyer; period pieces like The Vikings and Barabbas; and crime films like The Last Run and The New Centurions. He was a versatile director, who even ventured into odd territories for Che! and Mandingo, but none of those won him an Academy Award. That Oscar came for a documentary feature he produced in 1948, Design for Death, to explain Japanese culture to American soldiers occupying Japan. It was written by Theodore Geisel and his wife; Geisel is, of course, better known to us today as Dr. Seuss, an odd fact that mirrors how odd it was for it to be what the Academy would remember Fleischer for. We remember him for much more.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Dear Dead Delilah (1972)

Director: John Farris
Writer: John Farris
Stars: Agnes Moorehead, Will Geer, Michael Ansara, Dennis Patrick and Patricia Carmichael
It’s well known that Agnes Moorehead preferred to be recognised and remembered for roles other than Endora in Bewitched, a role she took reluctantly, expecting that the show would end after one season. Outside of primetime TV, film fans tend to associate her with the Mercury Players of Orson Welles, for good reason. They met on radio, where she was a notably versatile actress, and they were two founding members of the Mercury Theatre on the Air. After their infamous 1938 interpretation of The War of the Worlds, she and her colleagues moved into film, with a string of movies that still resonate today. Is there really a better place to start a film career than Citizen Kane? She followed it up with The Magnificent Ambersons, which earned her the first of four Oscar nominations, three of them in the forties. Unfortunately, she was so great a character actor that it took her until the other end of her career to be given a top-billed part, that of the title character, Delilah Charles, in Dear Dead Delilah, released in 1972.

It wasn’t quite her final appearance, as she would give voice to the Goose in Charlotte’s Web a year later and appear in a bunch of TV movies: Rolling Man and Night of Terror in 1972, Frankenstein: The True Story in 1973 and, finally, the ridiculously titled proposed pilot, Rex Harrison Presents Stories of Love in 1974, the year she died. However, Delilah was her last on screen feature film performance and she had a blast with it, which would be hardly surprising to anyone who’s followed her career. Delilah, you see, is an old, dotty and irascible matriarch in a wheelchair and a pearl necklace, who likes brandy, talking to her dead father and belittling her relatives. It doesn’t hurt that those relatives, old and dotty themselves, are played by other capable character actors like Michael Ansara, Anne Meacham and Dennis Patrick. Each did their time on soap operas, in Days of Our Lives, Another World and Dallas respectively, which is appropriate background for a Southern gothic like this. Patrick was the most qualified, because of a long run on Dark Shadows.
If you think that something like Dark Shadows, with all its vampires and werewolves, would be too outrageous for a movie starring Agnes Moorehead and Grandpa Walton himself, Will Geer, you’d be mistaken. In fact, it starts bloody and only gets bloodier on out, though this proto-slasher is set firmly in a Southern gothic framework rather than the soon to be traditional cabin in the woods. It can’t lay claim to inventing anything, as Mario Bava’s A Bay of Blood predates it by a full year, but it was certainly ahead of its time; the opening scenes remind very much of Halloween, itself massively influential on the slasher genre but which wouldn’t be filmed for another six years. Those scenes are our prologue, in which a pregnant young lady talks to her dead and partially dismembered mother in her bloodspattered white dress, then, many years later, is released from Tennessee’s Correctional Rehabilitation Center for Women. She’s Luddy Dublin and she’s reminiscent of nobody less than Christopher Lloyd as Uncle Fester.

In the form of Patricia Carmichael, doubling her credits after playing a teenage girl in a single episode of Petticoat Junction in 1964, this clueless character is clearly set up to be our insane killer. That’s aided by a bizarre accident in which she gets knocked silly by American football players whom she’s attempting to sketch; well meaning bystanders can’t take her home because she has none, so two of them drive this grinning lunatic to Aunt Delilah’s mansion instead. The crazy driver is Richard and Delilah’s niece, Ellen, is his girlfriend, while the mansion is South Hall Plantation. How better to stir up an inward looking family than to introduce some crazy murderer into the mix? We’ve seen that movie before many times and can surely write the rest of the script ourselves. Well, not quite, because writer/director John Farris, even though he only had $200,000 to play with, sets a notably mad tone, starting as he introduces his cast of characters; not one of them has a full complement of marbles, whether they think they do or not.
Delilah is merely the most prominent. Richard describes her as ‘wasting away at the top of her voice’, which is a great description for someone with a fantastic line in bitter dialogue. However, while she’s the character most easily defined as nuts, given that she likes chatting with her father, who’s been dead for twenty years and remains only in the form of an oil painting, she’s also clearly the sharpest. Even though the plantation has dwindled in size over the years, from 5,000 acres down to a mere 24, the building is still worth a million bucks (even in 1972 money) and the trust is worth even more, so she brings the family together to announce both her imminent death (‘I have Papa’s word on it that I’ll soon be joining him’) and her new will, which leaves them only $5,000 each. The plantation itself will go to the state, along with a suitable sum to maintain it. This announcement, needless to say, is not well received by the family, and we can’t help but think their outraged reaction was most of Delilah’s point.

However, Delilah has more with which to stir them up; she’s found ‘Papa’s horse money’. Family legend suggests that, during the Depression, he burned his stable for the insurance money, but took care to swap out the valuable thoroughbreds beforehand for run of the mill horses. While worthless animals died, he sold the valuable ones south of the border and hid the proceeds, so there should be $600,000 in cash somewhere on the property. And so off they all wander to figure out where it might be. Had this film not begun in true slasher style, we might read this as an Agatha Christie sort of murder mystery, but the blood and the wildly off kilter tone of the entire picture suggest different. That approach screams slasher flick and we eagerly anticipate each succeeding death scene, while mildly attempting to figure out who’s behind it all. The suspect list includes everyone in the cast, including the black manservant, Marshall, for no better reason than he doesn’t seem crazy but must be for continuing to work at South Hall.
Luddy Dublin is the obvious candidate but she’s too obvious to take entirely seriously. Once in the house, she’s hired on by Ellen to be Delilah’s new maid and companion, even though she’s just owned up to murdering her mother and spending most of her life in an asylum. That should tell you plenty about Ellen’s mindset, but I’ll add her response for context: ‘Most of the people who lived in this house,’ she says, ‘either went to jail or to deserved to go.’ In addition to Ellen, the family is comprised of Delilah’s two brothers and one sister, with their lawyer cousin Ray Jurroe inexplicably representing all the above. There’s Dr. Alonzo Charles, who isn’t allowed to practice medicine any more, presumably because he’s a drug addict. There’s Grace Charles, who’s a horse-riding lush; what else she likes to ride I’ll let you discover. And there’s Morgan, an inconsequential opportunist with a wife he calls ‘baby duck’; her dresses epitomise everything that was wrong with the seventies. I’m cringing once more just remembering them.

It’s quickly obvious that none of these characters either likes or trusts anyone else, all the way to Richard and Ellen, who have the best reason to, given that they’re an item. It’s also quickly obvious that such a lack of trust is well and truly deserved. Dr. Alonzo’s addiction is presumably what leads him to constantly fluster about as if he’s about to transform into a werewolf, but I did wonder for a while if that was really going to happen. By comparison, Grace is an ice queen who looks daggers at everyone and receives them right back. Morgan dominates his wife, who is honestly called Buffy, but she steals most of his scenes because Ruth Baker is more than willing to overact with abandon. I don’t remember her from her previous film, Marat/Sade, but it was set in an asylum, so her casting is perhaps typecasting. Even Robert Gentry, playing Richard, often reminds of the conniving Christopher Reeve in Deathtrap. Not one of them is likeable but that just means we’re happy to see them gradually and bloodily decreased in number.
With the growing death count probably the best reason to watch this film, I won’t talk about the how and why, beyond suggesting that many people of my generation may find a surprising amount of satisfaction in seeing Grandpa Walton stumble out of Delilah’s stable to die, his severed right hand held in his left. It may not be a vision any of us expected to see and this may be the only place to see it (while he was more versatile than many might think, I believe this was his sole horror movie), but that merely adds spice to the vision. The effects are cheap but relatively effective, given that the budget was minuscule, and they’re of the sort that stick in people’s minds. Those who saw this at a young age on television as part of an Avco/Embassy package of Spanish horror movies (this was the only English language inclusion) have probably forgotten the picture and its title, but may get flashes of some of the death scenes every now and again and wish they could remember where they came from.

Beyond that, the two main reasons to watch this feature today are Agnes Moorehead and John Farris. The latter is a well known author today and wasn’t unknown even in 1972. He already had fifteen novels to his name, the first published only a year after he graduated from high school in 1955. Four years later, he had a million seller, Harrison High, which he continued in no less than five sequels. However, he’s known best today as a horror writer, not only for his best-selling 1976 novel, The Fury, which he adapted to film two years later for Brian De Palma, and its own three sequels, but for a whole string of further unrelated books dating from the eighties onward. This feels like an early hint at where he wanted to go with his career, in choice of material at least, if not as a medium of choice. Before this, only When Michael Calls really plays with horror but nowhere near as overtly as Dear Dead Delilah; it was coincidentally filmed in 1972, but Farris wasn’t involved with that one.
According to a fansite, Furies and Fiends, maintained by John David Scoleri and David J. Schow, Farris also spoke to the lack of real budget. ‘The actors mostly worked for nothing,’ he said, ‘including Moorehead, who would have destroyed me if she’d wanted to but instead was extremely supportive and helpful.’ Given how bitter and blistering she made Delilah, it’s easy to see her doing that but the worst anyone seems to have said about her was Bewitched co-star Dick Sargent calling her a ‘tough old bird’. What’s more, it wasn’t public knowledge at the time but she was already terminally ill with cancer, quite possibly from shooting The Conqueror just downwind from a nuclear test zone in Utah, and she probably thanked Farris for puting her in a wheelchair for most of the movie. He remembered that, ‘She gave me everything she had, and a short course in what film acting is all about.’ Going back through her career, she seemed to do that with every film. This is far from her best picture but she did stellar work within it nonetheless.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Curse of the Queerwolf (1988)

Director: Mark Pirro
Writer: Mark Pirro
Stars: Michael Palazzolo, Taylor Whitney and Kent Butler

By the time 2016 ends, I’ll have reviewed 35 pictures to remember important contributors to cinema on what would have been (or, in two instances, were) their centennials. Curse of the Queerwolf, released in 1988, is the most recent of them and by far the cheapest to make. Low budget pioneer Mark Pirro shot it on 8mm film for an estimated $10,000, which was four times what he spent on his debut feature, 1983’s A Polish Vampire in Burbank. That picture grossed over half a million dollars in home video and cable TV sales, allowing him to shoot Deathrow Gameshow on 35mm for $200,000 and see it distributed worldwide by Crown International. I own it on PAL VHS, a tape which contributed just a little to the million and a half dollars that it made. Perhaps because Pirro had to sue Crown for royalties due to him, he leapt back down the budgetary scale to shoot this, his third feature, which grew out of a small character role in A Polish Vampire in Burbank of a queerwolf in a hot tub.

Now, which ‘important contributor to cinema’ could be in a $10,000 feature called Curse of the Queerwolf, you might ask? Well, that would be Forrest J. Ackerman, the original fan, whose importance to fandom cannot be underestimated. He coined the term ‘sci-fi’ and invented cosplay. He wrote for the first fanzines and lent his name to a character in the first Superman story (published before the comic book). He co-founded LASFS, the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society, the oldest continuously operating sci-fi club in the world; in addition to running LosCon, it also owns Westercon, a regional sci-fi convention which my better half is chairing in 2017. He published Famous Monsters of Filmland and represented some 200 authors as a literary agent, from luminaries like Ray Bradbury to outsiders like Ed Wood. He also collected everything he could and, over half a century, exhibited it to over 50,000 fellow fans at his house, known as the Ackermansion. The fact that he appeared in over 210 films is almost a footnote to his incredible career.
One of those is Curse of the Queerwolf, in which he plays an alcoholic named Mr. Richardson. Seeking treatment for his addiction at the Sweet Holy Mama Therapy Clinic, he’s hooked up to a machine that feeds him an ounce of booze every few seconds, while the therapist, Richard Cheese (he goes by Dick), waves his dirty socks under his nose. It’s aversion therapy and, hey, it might work, if only Mr. Cheese didn’t get distracted by his best friend, Larry Smallbut. Poor Mr. Richardson explodes and that’s the end of Uncle Forry’s part. He appeared in bigger films than this one and in more substantial roles too, but this felt right as a choice to celebrate his career because he was such a fan of Z-movies. Sure, he played the US President in Amazon Women on the Moon, Dracula in Attack of the 60 Foot Centerfold (and Dr. Acula in many films) and a club patron in Vampirella, a movie based on a character which he named, but this is the underground cinema that he adored. He returned for Pirro’s later My Mom’s a Werewolf and Nudist Colony of the Dead.

I love Z-movies too, when they’re made with imagination and passion. It’s been so long since I’ve seen Deathrow Gameshow that I’m unable to remember much about it but I do remember that I laughed aloud a lot while watching it and I did the same with Curse of the Queerwolf. The story is the standard werewolf legend we know from The Wolf Man and Curse of the Werewolf, among many others. Pirro even nods overtly to the classics that came before by giving torches to the men who trail the queerwolf (or dickenthrope) at the outset (that’s torches with fire like villagers always carried to Frankenstein’s castle rather than torches like British flashlights). Sure, this is a contemporary story and one of these modern ‘villagers’ is wearing sunglasses, but they still have old school torches which they never extinguish, even while travelling by car. Either Pirro couldn’t afford pitchforks too or they were too dangerous to have sticking out of moving vehicles. It doesn’t matter. The torches rocked.
Their victim is a young lady named Paula McFarland, played in lingerie by a young lady named Cynthia Brownell, but the story has the character be a male transvestite, Paul McFarland by name, who had been bitten by a queerwolf and so turned into one himself. Another nod to The Wolfman is the tagline, repeated a couple of times during the picture: ‘Even a wrist that is strong and firm and holds up straight by day may become limp when the moon is full and the queerwolf comes your way!’ I should mention here, just in case you hadn’t noticed, that this is hardly politically correct. Sure, it’s almost three decades old but it was notably over the top in 1988 and it’s still there today. It isn’t just the fact that gays and transvestites are the same thing in this film, but other running jokes are willing to go to places that most filmmakers wouldn’t dream of visiting. One involves Larry accidentally killing at least three puppies, one by microwave. This isn’t Troma so we don’t see it happen but the sound effects are impressively gruesome.

I should add that Larry is a nice guy, but he’s easily led. He’s managed to land a lovely girlfriend, Lois, and things seem to be going really well for them. He loves her, he cares about her and he wants to settle down with her, but it’s a scary proposition, leaving his bachelor days behind, and his best friend, Richard Cheese, really doesn’t help him to move forward. Dick is a complete lech, who is convinced that he should keep Larry from falling into matrimony. So he takes him to strip clubs (‘We just got here four hours ago’) and bars to pick up girls. Larry does feel guilty doing this but he gets talked into it anyway; it’s how he finds himself necking with a young lady on Dick’s couch who turns out to be Paula McFarland. It’s only after she bites him on the ass that he realises that she’s a man pretending to be a woman. The four ‘villagers’ with their torches promptly invade the house and chase poor Paula out into the night so we can tie into that opening scene and start to move forward with Larry as the new queerwolf.
This is a wild comedy but the actors wisely play their parts completely straight (pun not intended). Pirro is known for re-using the same cast members over and over again, but many of the key ones here are new. Michael Palazzolo, who plays Larry, has no other credits on his filmography at all, but he’s well cast nonetheless. Cynthia Brownell, playing the transvestite dickenthrope who bites him, only has one and that was in a small part in Pirro’s previous feature, Deathrow Gameshow. Taylor Whitney, playing Lois, would go on to work for another director, but only once, acting alongside Erik Estrada and a cast of porn stars in a women in prison flick called Caged Fury. Only Kent Butler, the deliciously dry horndog of a best friend, made more than two movies, but almost all were for Pirro. He was the casting director for Deathrow Gameshow, in which he also played a stage manager; he was a still photographer on Nudist Colony of the Dead; and he appeared in Buford’s Beach Bunnies, which starred Tom Hanks’s younger brother Jim.

Not all the cast were this inexperienced, of course, and I’m not just talking about Forry Ackerman’s 210 bit parts. Another victim of Richard Cheese at the Sweet Holy Mama Therapy Clinic is Conrad Brooks, a legendary Z-movie actor, best known for playing a cop in Plan 9 from Outer Space. He made a bunch of pictures for Ed Wood and also worked for Coleman Francis on The Beast of Yucca Flats in 1961, before calling it quits on his screen career. It was Pirro who talked him back for his debut, A Polish Vampire in Burbank, and he’s appeared in many of Pirro’s films since. He’d also go on to work for other modern day B-movie legends, such as Fred Olen Ray, David DeCoteau and Donald G. Jackson, among many others, in a filmography that is packed full of movies with outrageous names that are either awesome or awful or both. Ackerman may not have seen Dr. Horror’s Erotic House of Idiots, The Saturn Avenger vs. The Terror Robot or Test Tube Teens from the Year 2000, but he would happily have done so and probably enjoyed the heck out of them.
My favourite character in Curse of the Queerwolf is the gypsy woman who Larry accidentally runs over with his car. She’s Madame Muddyooch and she’s played by Sharon Alsina, who went on to be an anime voice actor and appear in a serious film that I would love to see called Mr. P’s Dancing Sushi Bar. She’s far from serious here, of course, and the joke at which I laughed the loudest came after she sees the pansygram in Larry’s hand, marking him as a queerwolf, just as she saw one on Paul McFarland’s hand before him. With her suitably exotic gypsy accent, she tells him, ‘I see all!’ and he replies, utterly deadpan, ‘Did you see the car coming?’ No, this is hardly sophisticated comedy but it made me laugh long and loud and I always appreciate movies that do that. I also enjoy comedies that are able to laugh at themselves, which this does often. ‘Fourth night in a row we’ve had a full moon,’ Dick tells his current squeeze, Holly. ‘Poetic license,’ she replies.

My reviews often act as recommendations, somehow even when I’m writing what I think are negative ones, but this film is going to polarise people without any commentary on quality. Some people are going to read this, be horrified that such a picture exists and make sure never to watch it. Others are going to seek it out just because they now know that it was made; I’m certainly going to lend it to the gay couple in my family who didn’t just enjoy The Gays but laughed uproariously at it. I’m sure that some won’t be able to buy into the fact that a feature shot on 8mm for $10,000 could contain anything of quality, but I’d suggest that there’s quite a lot, even in places you wouldn’t expect. Every werewolf movie has to have a transformation scene, for instance, and this one has the one you might expect, with Larry watching in horror as his wrists go limp, but it also has a very believable shot of fingernails extending, complete with bright red nail polish. It’s not Rick Baker’s An American Werewolf in London but I was still impressed.
I loved this movie, far more than I expected to. Sure, it’s often inconsistent, usually stupid and sometimes not as funny as it wants to be. It also loses its focus, mostly mirroring the classic werewolf story but veering off on occasion just because. I don’t just mean the gloriously named Det. Morose from Homocide (geddit?) with a loose Sean Connery accent that comes out of nowhere, I mean the way that the parody veers off into other movies. There’s a scene that parodies Deliverance, set to the Beverly Hillbillies theme in lyrics reworked to better suit the occasion, but that diversion can be accepted as a nightmare. The eventual shift into The Exorcist isn’t as appropriate because, even though it’s written carefully enough to wrap up the story, it’s not the parody that we followed for most of the picture and diversions only work if we come back from them. However, my takeaway from this film was to watch Deathrow Gameshow again and track down everything else Mark Pirro made. Thank you, Forry, for everything, including this.