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Monday, 29 February 2016

Death Car on the Freeway (1979)

Director: Hal Needham
Stars: Shelley Hack, Frank Gorshin, Peter Graves, Harriet Nelson, Barbara Rush, Dinah Shore, Abe Vigoda, Alfie Wise and George Hamilton
The fourth centennial for me to celebrate in 2016 is that of Dinah Shore, who was a leap year baby, born in Tennessee on 29th February, 1916. She died at 77 in 1994, but technically she only saw 19 birthdays, so she was forever young. Like Jackie Gleason, her name was a major one across multiple media and it’s arguable whether she was better known for music, radio or television. As a vocalist, she was the highest charting female in the 1940s; one of her songs, Buttons and Bows, sat at number one for ten weeks; and Blues in the Night was only her first of nine million sellers. On radio, she starred in seven different series of her own and guested on many others. She had appeared on television as far back as 1937 but gained her own show in 1951 and racked up a string of successes that led to eight Emmies and a Golden Globe. Her film career never took off, ending with Aaron Slick from Punkin Crick in 1952, but she did make more for television, including this odd melding of genres from CBS in 1979.

Its reputation, surely emphasised by its title, is as a thriller, a late TV movie rip-off of Steven Spielberg’s masterful Duel, which was almost eight years old when this was first broadcast. While there are certainly moments of tension on the California freeways, the most suspenseful scene takes place off the road and the film plays out more as a journalist drama than a thriller, albeit one set in television news rather than newspapers. There are points where the picture seems to be attempting serious dramatic points, a long way beyond what might be expected for a TV movie, but none of them are really explored, so it ends up far less substantial than it clearly thinks it is. Shelley Hack’s performance doesn’t help, as this was early in her career and, while she looks cute and lights up well when she smiles, she’s understated and rather careful with her dialogue. She does have her moments, but the new Charlie’s Angel was unable to give Janette Claussen the gravitas she needed to really make the difference that she so aches to make.
When the story begins, she’s an up and coming news anchor at KXLA, but she’s still new to the business and very green. In fact, she seems a little too green for someone hired out of college by an experienced newsman, Ray Jeffries, who mentored her and married her. They’ve been divorced for a few months, but he’s still after her, both romantically and professionally. She’s polite and plays along, but she needed out from under his reputation, wanting to establish herself on air rather than just as his writer. She manages it too, discovering a possible link between two separate cases of apparent road rage, investigating them and building the story as it grows. Jeffries brings her flowers on the night that her ratings exceed his for the first time, but he’s too much of a male chauvinist pig to mean it. While Hack isn’t emotional enough, her character does get plenty of emotion out of her ex, played unsympathetically by a suitably smarmy George Hamilton. I may not have been entirely on her side, but I certainly wasn’t on his!

The news story is the thriller angle and we’re thrown into it immediately after the opening credits. Becky Lyons is driving to Van Nuys to be the first victim on an episode of Barnaby Jones. Instead she becomes the second victim of a driver with apparent anger issues. After cutting in front of a blue van to make her exit, its driver wipes down his steering wheel, pulls on gloves and puts on a bluegrass eight track tape to accompany his quest to run her off the road. He blocks her exit, attempts to bounce her into a collision and, eventually, shoves her little yellow Honda hard enough to leave it hanging over the guard rail of a bridge. Jan’s co-workers are cynical, one highlighting that the girl was in showbiz and probably wouldn’t ever get a better chance at fame than her on air interview at the scene, but Jan connects the incident to an earlier news report her ex had covered of a tennis pro, Dinah Shore’s character, who had experienced almost exactly the same thing. The cops don’t buy it yet but we’re now chasing the Freeway Fiddler.
If this was trying to be Duel, it fails pretty miserably. Spielberg had Dennis Weaver terrorised for over an hour, unable to get away from a mysterious truck that’s set on killing him, but Death Car on the Freeway replaces this tight approach with a set of much looser ones. That grimy and characterful Peterbilt 281, a model chosen by Spielberg because its needlenose front resembled a face, was replaced by an everyday Dodge van. The hellish suggestion that perhaps it was the truck rather than its driver that wanted to kill is ignored entirely here. The suspense of one driver being pursued along an increasingly claustrophobic freeway is defused here by having the killer rack up a collection of victims in separate vignettes. Shelley Hack isn’t even one of them, not getting to duel with the Dodge until the finalé. And, of course, we keep on cutting away from the freeway action to watch her cover the case, which is more important to the film because of what it means to her than for what it actually is.

It’s surprising to discover that Death Car on the Freeway hasn’t been released on DVD yet, given that its impressive cast list alone would endear it to many fans. For now, we have to settle for VHS rips or a YouTube upload. I had to try a few copies, the best of which was still far from pristine, the blue van being more like black and the ‘one car on green’ light being more blue. The opening credits list a set of ‘cameo stars’, some of whom get a lot more screen time than a cameo would ever provide. George Hamilton is the ‘and’ at the end of that list, suggesting that he’s really playing support for Hack, whose show this clearly is, but there are seven others in the list and only two really count as cameo appearances. Those are Abe Vigoda, who gets one ephemeral scene in a hospital bed to establish his cute nurse before she becomes a victim, and Harriet Hilliard, the Harriet of The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, who plays a blind landlady in a late but important scene as Jan closes in on the Freeway Fiddler. Those are cameos.
Jan’s co-workers at KXLA are all parts. She anchors with Alfie Wise, a regular in Hal Needham movies who bolsters her capably as Ace Durham, a name which sounds a lot more dynamic than he is; the older and more established female anchor is Rosemary, played with knowing cynicism by the underrated Barbara Rush; and her boss is Ralph Chandler, in the form of Frank Gorshin, who gets a little more to do here as a supportive authority figure than he did in my last centennial review, Skidoo. Peter Graves, right before he would return to fame in Airplane!, plays the only cop we really see in what could easily be described as a serial killer story, Lt Haller. Sure, there are a couple of cars giving chase with sirens blaring late in the film but he’s the only cop who has a face and the chance to speak. It’s hardly a challenging role and he could do this in his sleep but he does his job and doesn’t phone it in. That leaves Dinah Shore, who was clearly enjoying her time actually acting again outside the variety format she was known for.

Before the victims start to become mere statistics, we get to know three of them just a little. As tennis pro Lynn Bernheimer, Shore was the first victim of the Freeway Fiddler, back when he hadn’t quite mastered a suitable killing technique, so she’s also the first survivor. Jan interviews her, of course, but she gets other scenes later when the reporter has further questions or, in one instance, quite possibly because she was still on set looking chipper and Needham just shot some more footage. The other two early victims were up and comers, but they became names later. Becky Lyons, whose near death experience opens the film, is Morgan Brittany, a Hollywood moniker so glitzy that it’s hardly surprising that she ended up on Dallas. Jane Guston, the nurse whose cuteness pleasantly tormented Abe Vigoda, is Tara Buckman, who got her most memorable role in another Hal Needham film, as Adrienne Barbeau’s navigator in The Cannonball Run. Well, either that or for her murder at the hands of Santa Claus in Silent Night, Deadly Night.
As much fun as it is to watch all these famous names and faces, the story can’t get by on star power but it tried and failed to do that throughout. Part of it is the fact that nobody except Hack and Hamilton get a real chance to endow their characters with depth. Part of it is the unimaginative cinematography which is restricted to in car, next to car and helicopter. Outside terror on the freeway scenes, it’s simple back and forth stuff that hardly inspires. Much of it is the fact that it keeps setting up more powerful directions, but refuses to commit to them: the angle where Jan’s take on macho car advertising prompts pressure on her network from Detroit, the feminist angle that sees her phrase these crimes as being anti-women and the angle that plays up the psychological profile of the killer as being dominated by his mother and having a strong need to be hurt or killed for being a bad boy. Instead we get seventies clichés like freeway ramps under construction and cars that explode at the slightest touch.

The best scenes to my mind come late in the film, when Jan finally discovers the confidence that her ex-husband is set on chipping away from her and decides to follow up on what might be the most ill-advised lead that I’ve seen in a thriller. Sure, the Freeway Fiddler is targetting attractive women and she’s set him up to hate her with a passion, but when she receives an evasive phone call from a car club on the wrong side of the sticks, why wouldn’t she just head on down to see the Street Phantoms without taking anyone along or even letting anyone know that she’s going? What, as they say, could possibly go wrong? Well, it turns out that the folk at the car club and the collection of bikers next door are very good at making her uncomfortable while still helping her out in a neatly abstract way. Both Robert F Lyons and Sid Haig shine here, in small parts dwarfed by those star cameos. Roger Aaron Brown is decent too, even hindered by a very poor make-up job, his horrific scar looking like someone just threw a ball of plasticine at him.
The worst are more uninspired than they are actually bad. For a film that advertises in its title a death car on the freeway, the scenes which place the death van into action could have been improved in a hundred ways. The stunts are well handled, but I’ve seen California drivers and don’t remotely buy their utter lack of response to attempted vehicular homicide here. It would also have been good to not recognise certain cars across multiple scenes. I liked the idea of Jan taking a defensive driving class, from former stuntman and director of this film, Hal Needham himself, but it makes no sense. Cars weren’t that cheap in 1979! I don’t buy that a little money down will cover the damage they cause and I doubt that dangerous driving can extend past the school to involve an 80mph chase down rural roads with Needham’s hot pursuit in a suspiciously recognisable Dodge van. There’s no way any insurance company would cover this school! But hey, this was the seventies. A better script and a better villain and this could have been something.

Friday, 26 February 2016

Skidoo (1968)

Director: Otto Preminger
Stars: Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing, Frankie Avalon, Fred Clark, Michael Constantine, Frank Gorshin, John Phillip Law, Peter Lawford, Burgess Meredith, George Raft, Cesar Romero, Mickey Rooney and Groucho Marx
When I started my centennial project, half of the point was to celebrate the contributions to film of people who were born a hundred years ago; the other was to be able to watch and review interesting films. They don’t get much more interesting than this one, a 1968 feature from Paramount Pictures and director Otto Preminger, a massively important director in the fifties for taboo-busting films like The Moon is Blue, The Man with the Golden Arm and Anatomy of a Murder; he also made earlier classics, like Laura. Skidoo can be interpreted as a late entry in that taboo-busting output, but I don’t buy it. It’s just a chaotic LSD movie that might well have been written on the drug it uses as a plot device. The scriptwriter was Doran William Cannon, who also wrote another odd feature, Robert Altman’s Brewster McCloud; he had assistance here from Rob Reiner, at this point just a bit part actor and writer for the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, who claims that Preminger fired and rehired him every day. I wish I knew what they thought they were doing.

To me, it works best as a trainwreck, a movie that we just can’t look away from, even as we wonder what could possibly have happened to create such a mess. Groucho Marx, appearing in his last film as a crime lord called God, described both his performance and the film as ‘God-awful!’ I wouldn’t go quite that far, but he has a point. The film has certainly become a guilty pleasure for some fans of offbeat cinema, but mostly it’s regarded poorly by fans and critics alike. Those who choose to watch the film are less likely to be doing so for the picture itself and more for its incredible cast of stars who, like Preminger, were most prominent a decade earlier. Jonathan Rosenbaum describes them as ‘a legion of Fifties TV corpses’, with the film itself an ‘endlessly fascinating aberration’. I share that opinion because I found that I was unable to look away from the screen, even though I was clearly watching a disaster unfold and I had no stake in the cast of legends because I didn’t grow up knowing who most of them were.
The first one we meet is Jackie Gleason, the star of the film, who would have been one hundred years old on 26th February. He’s one of the few actors here that I did grow up watching, albeit for Smokey and the Bandit movies rather than for The Jackie Gleason Show or The Honeymooners. I knew him as a film actor rather than a television actor, let alone a recording artist. Let’s not forget that each of his first ten albums sold a million copies and his first, Music for Lovers Only, still holds the record for the most weeks spent in the Billboard top ten with an amazing 153. He began the sixties on a high note, deservedly nominated for an Academy Award for playing Minnesota Fats in The Hustler; he lost out to George Chakiris in West Side Story. Sadly, ended it on a lesser note, returning to the big screen after five years away for three poorly received comedies: Skidoo, How to Commit Marriage and Don’t Drink the Water. This is clearly the worst of them and, frankly, the idea of watching Minnesota Fats go on an acid trip is still freaking me out, man.

He’s ‘Tough’ Tony Banks. No, not the keyboardist from Genesis, this Banks is a renowned hitman who had enough clout to successfully retire and remain so for seventeen years but not quite enough to avoid God pulling him right back in the moment he thinks Tough Tony is the right man for a particular job. We can’t quite buy him as a tough guy here, because he spends an apparently endless opening scene struggling with his wife, Flo, played by Carol Channing, over which TV channel they should watch. I enjoyed the odd set of clips and commercials far more than the so-called comedy, which is how I caught that one channel is broadcasting a bunch of gangsters appearing before a senate committee. ‘Eggs’ Benedict appears in a swathe of bandages that hide 23 bullet holes; he explains that, ‘I was cleaning my gun and it went off.’ It would seem that Tony can’t get away from the life he’s left behind. Hechy and Angie show up out of the past and surely the ’37 Rolls outside can only be the Puerto Rican mob.
Well, it isn’t, but it begins the onslaught of famous faces. The Rolls contains a hippie called Stash, played by a very different John Phillip Law to the one I know from Barbarella and Danger: Diabolik, both released the same year as Skidoo; he’s here to bring Tony’s daughter Darlene home because she’s defected to the counterculture. He can’t grasp the world of her parents: ‘Violence is the sign language of the inarticulate’, he says. Hechy and Angie are a father and son pair of gangsters in the wild combination of Cesar Romero and Frankie Avalon. Romero was an established and versatile actor, but at this point easily best known as the Joker on Batman; we’ll meet two of his fellow villains here too and should note that a third, Mr Freeze, was played by this fim’s director, Otto Preminger. Avalon was coming to the end of his run of Frankie and Annette beach movies. They’re here on a mission from God: to summon him to take care of a job, surely tied to the news on the TV, that George ‘Blue Chips’ Packard, Tough Tony’s best friend, is missing.

So far, the film has been interesting. Gleason seems eager to be flustered as Tough Tony, Channing has a wide collection of the worst outfits I’ve ever seen and we’re starting to see a flood of recognisable names and faces. Yet the film was supposed to have been sparked by Preminger’s fascination with his son Erik’s life as a hippie dropout in Greenwich Village; when a sample of writing by Doran William Cannon showed up on his desk, featuring hippies tripping out on LSD, he leapt at the chance to film just that sample. This film never really focuses on that and, when the trips begin, they’re not being taken by the counterculture characters who steal all the early scenes. I needed to avert my eyes from Flo’s wardrobe choices and the topless chicks getting bodypainted were easy targets. Law is consistently entertaining and there’s a cool, if overdone, section in wild split screen that recounts a flashback in the style of an old silent movie, right down to the outrageous facial hair. But the film’s about to lose focus.
I was never quite sure if it was supposed to satirise the old guard playing old guard characters or the new folk playing new characters. Maybe it was supposed to do both, exploring the obsolescence of gangsters (a year before Mario Puzo published The Godfather and four before Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation did insane box office) and highlighting how ridiculous modern life had become, whether through the hippies or a reliance on the ‘Age of Electronics’ that Avalon demonstrates through his remote controlled bachelor pad that would make Quagmire jealous. The problem is that none of this fits at all well together, with the eventual collision of subplots feeling like precisely that: a collision caused by nobody having the faintest clue where they’re going. Late in the film, Harry Nilsson and Fred Clark play a pair of tower guards, laced with LSD, who look out over their domain and disbelieve everything they see. I felt like that just watching the movie and wonder how many actors shared that feeling while making it.

And there are plenty of them. The one who gets away with his reputation most intact is probably Mickey Rooney, playing Packard, whose nickname of ‘Blue Chips’ is explained by the ticker tape machine to help him manage his stock portfolio from his private prison cell in Alcatraz. He’s turning states evidence in an attempt to take down God, who believes that Tough Tony is the only man who can get to him, given that Packard is his best friend and his daughter’s godfather, with those seventeen years of retirement as icing on the cake. So into Alcatraz goes Banks. He’s bunked with an old con, soon to be Emmy-winning Michael Constantine as Leech, and new guy Austin Pendleton as a draught dodger called Fred the Professor, who turns out to be the spark behind the only thing that this film really achieves. It was never really going to be about Packard challenging God or Tony taking down Packard or Flo taking in a hippie collective. It was always going to come down to the LSD the Professor smuggled into Alcatraz as envelope glue.
We find this out when Tony finds it out, namely right after he’s licked one of those envelopes to contain a letter to Flo. ‘I’m on a trip!’ he mutters and the Professor guides him through it. If there’s any structure to this film at all, I think that it’s here that we find it and I can see three directions. The first has Tony strung out on acid, which is an excuse for Preminger to call in his 1968 effects team to conjure up a wild journey. Tony’s cellmates shrink and talk to him from purple pyramids; numbers proliferate, punctuated in dots; a screw flies around the room with God’s head on it, cigar and all; and Rooney does a musical number in a striped convict suit. Does it mean anything? No, but it looks suitably out there for mainstream Hollywood in 1968. The second was hinted at by the earlier flashback scene crafted as a silent movie reel. This is a stereotypical Keystone farce comedy, with a bunch of gags that sound funny in isolation thrown together and mixed with improvisation until everything turns into a chase. It’s just feature length and in colour.

The last is the one that might resonate as the point of the picture. While Tony initially resisted the call of God, capitulating only when his friend, Harry, played by Arnold Stang, is murdered as a warning, he goes on to do everything that God asks up to this point. After he comes down from the acid trip, though, that’s all over. He’s not going to ‘kiss’ (ie kill) Packard any more and he’s not going to rot in Alcatraz either. He’s going to put a plan together to get out of there and take care of God. This is Otto Preminger, through his scriptwriters, telling us that acid is better than therapy and it’ll help us focus our lives to discover what’s really happening, man. Does he need half a movie to build up to that? Not in the slightest. Does he need the other half to bring it all home? He can’t be bothered. All I believe he had in mind for this picture was an effects-ridden acid trip, a subsequent reinvention and a madcap rush to the end credits. We lost the opening ones when Tony changed the channel, but the end ones are sung, in entirety, by Harry Nilsson.
And so we focus on the stars, most of whom are dosed with LSD when Tony’s escape plan gets going. I’d argue that Burgess Meredith, the Penguin in the Batman TV show, was born to play someone unwittingly dosed with acid. He’s the Warden of Alcatraz, showing up with Senator Peter Lawford, formerly of the Rat Pack, who probably owned a bachelor pad in real life like the one Frankie Avalon has here. LSD finds his ambition. ‘There are only three great Americans,' he memorably orates, ‘Washington. Lincoln. And me!’ Frank Gorshin, the Riddler in Batman, is the Man here, God’s right hand inside Alcatraz. Richard Kiel, just as easy to recognise as ever, is a dim-witted prisoner called Beany who gets a memorable scene on acid where he grabs every prisoner in turn to see which is Loretta. Slim Pickens sings Home on the Range as a switchboard operator so high that he puts God through to Packard to explain the hit on him. None have a lot of screen time, but they’re more entertaining than the odd scenes back at Tony’s with Flo and Darlene and the hippie contingent. Only Geronimo’s wild translation of a cryptic message is worthwhile there.

Meanwhile, on God’s yacht, which had been loaned to Preminger for the shoot by John Wayne, the faces keep on coming. Groucho Marx, wrapping up a legendary career at 77 years of age, is so awful here that we feel that he’s unable to play himself. Preminger wanted him to be his old self but he just isn’t up to it. He’s more like a caricature played by another comedian, but not so well that I could figure out which. He isn’t as fast and he isn’t as funny as we remember. Madcap comedians shouldn’t age. The only part that he really nails from God’s character is his confusion, as he’s firmly at the top of the Tree, the hierarchy of the protection racket, but is so wanted that he can’t even leave his boat. He’s stuck playing bumper pool with a giraffe of a supermodel and hurling orders at his captain. The former is Luna, the first black model to appear on the cover of Vogue and the latter is George Raft, almost unrecognisable from his heyday as a real mob-connected actor playing believable gangsters in thirties Warner Brothers pictures.
The underlying impression of the film is that everything’s wrong. What are all these fifties legends doing in a 1968 movie about acid? Why is Jackie Gleason tripping? Was Carol Channing high as a kite when she shot her scenes and was her character likewise when she bought her wardrobe? How come Groucho Marx can’t even play himself? What are the villains from Adam West’s Batman all doing inside Alcatraz? Who in the film hasn’t slept with Flo? Who’s Darlene’s father, really? And did the scriptwriter really lose track of writing that subplot? Where did Stash land himself a ’37 Rolls and if possessions are like, yesterday, man, can he sign the title over to me? Why does the most striking female presence in the film have less boobs than I do? Why do the Green Bay Packers play naked? And who thought it would be a great idea for Harry Nilsson to sing the end credits, right down to such unmelodic sections as ‘Copyright MCMLXVII by Sigma Productions, Incorporated’? Well, the answer to all these has to be LSD. It’s the only answer, it seems.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Gymkata (1985)

Director: Robert Clouse
Stars: Kurt Thomas, Tetchie Agbayani, Richard Norton and Edward Bell
Ah yes, gymnastics action! We start with a very ominous score, string heavy and reminiscent at points of the Jaws theme, but once we get more than just names, we get Kurt Thomas doing a routine on the high bar intercut with shots of horses running. There are nine of the latter, carrying Richard Norton and a cool bunch of ninjas in pursuit of one man on foot. We’ll find out later that this is Col Cabot, who is taking part in the Game, a cross between an endurance test, an obstacle course and a hunt. Any outsider who enters the imaginary country of Parmistan must attempt the Game. If they fail, they die. If they prove successful (and nobody has in 900 years), they get not only to live but for the Khan of Parmistan to grant them one wish. That ought to mean that Parmistan is closed down tighter than North Korea, but somehow we’re to believe that the Khan’s right hand man, the warrior who shoots Col Cabot, is Australian. Oh, and he’s in league with the Russians. Consistency really isn’t this film’s strong suit.

Neither is establishing itself with credibility. Kurt Thomas, the man we saw on the high bar and are about to see on the parallel bars, was a real gymnast and a notably successful one: a Nissen Award winner, the first gymnast to win the James E Sullivan Award for the best amateur athlete in the US and a gold medal winner at two different World Championships who is very likely to have won Olympic gold too had the US not boycotted the Moscow Olympics in 1980. In other words, he’s really good at what he does. However, what he does is gymnastics and that doesn’t help his credibility in this action film. Now, my grandfather was a gymnast who specialised in the rings, a discipline which requires massive strength and agility; he also served as a major in the Raiding Support Regiment, a special forces precursor to the SAS. So I know how tough gymnastics can be, but popular culture doesn’t. Popular culture says that male gymnasts are wimpy gay wusses. It doesn’t help that Thomas, who was 29 at the time, looked like he was half that.
So when Jonathan Cabot, the gymnast that this gymnast plays, is recruited into the Special Intelligence Agency to enter Parmistan, play the Game, win it and then, for his wish, ask for the country to install an early warning satellite monitoring station just in case the Commies let their nuclear birds loose, we’re a little confused. This kid doesn’t look old enough to drink, he has precisely zero training as an agent and the US wants him to travel to the Hindu Kush to do something that nobody’s managed to do for twice as long as his country has even existed. Yeah, we can buy into that, right? Well, no, even when he finds out that his father was an SIA agent who tried the exact same thing but failed. Yes, Col Cabot was Jonathan Cabot’s dad, so the magical power of movie revenge will apparently ensure his son’s success. I haven’t read Dan Tyler Moore’s 1957 novel, The Terrible Game, on which Charles Robert Carner based his script, but it surely can’t be as ridiculous as this. And we’re only ten minutes in.

Now, to be fair, the SIA are willing to let him train for two months to prepare with Tadashi Yamashita and Sonny Barnes, but the point is for him to invent an entirely new martial art, an odd mixture of karate and gymnastics, which I’m not sure anyone actually gets round to naming ‘gymkata’ but clearly provides the film’s title. From the inevitable training montages, it apparently involves running, punching and walking up a spiral staircase on your hands. Oh, and producing both back and forward standing somersaults with a half twist. Suddenly, merely knowing the difference between a punch and a kick isn’t enough for us to commentate on martial arts fights! I’m trying to figure out what a Thomas salto is and whether I just saw one. Oh, and the other character we meet at this point is the SIA’s own expert on the Game: Rubali, the stereotypically beautiful and deadly princess of Parmistan. Who’s mother was Indonesian. I guess insiders get out of the country a lot, even though the journey can only be taken by pack mule and kayak.
Anyway, training is completed and off go Cabot and Princess Rubali to Parmistan, via a salt mine on the Caspian Sea to be supplied with cool gadgets because firearms aren’t allowed within Parmistan. If you’re to cheat, you might as well obey the rules while you do so, right? And these guys hunt human beings for sport but they don’t like guns? Weird. Fortunately, there’s a great deal to keep us occupied in the town of Karabal. There’s Col John Mackle, a sort of low budget M, who dishes out low budget gadgets. There are a host of traitors in their midst who promptly kill off all the good guys and kidnap Princess Rubali. There’s a terrorist training centre, led by a man with the worst movie accent I’ve ever heard; he looks like a midget Christopher Lee but he sounds like Tommy Wiseau. There’s a big dude with a big scar across his face and a bigger axe in his hands, who thinks chopping a fire extinguisher is a bright idea. There’s even a chase through the streets of whatever Yugoslavian city is substituting for Karabal, with only one car.

And, setting the scene for the rest of the film, wherever Cabot goes, his path is packed full of gymnastics equipment to leap onto so he can demonstrate his brand new martial art in a live environment. If you’re being chased round a alley corner, just leap into the air and there will be a high bar stretching across the way for you to use in a gymnastics routine that involves kicking people very hard indeed. I don’t believe we’re supposed to notice that it’s ready chalked for maximum grip. I can forgive this sort of thing a little, because Jackie Chan made a career out of it, but it shouldn’t be this blatant and it shouldn’t be prepared for the opportunity. Just wait for the Village of the Damned, whose town square contains a pommel horse ready for kick-ass gymnastics action! To be fair, I’m exaggerating a little here, as Cabot gets to do a lot of action scenes in places that don’t have gymnastics equipment, but I’d love to know how the filmmakers ever thought they’d get by with that pommel horse of death!
Thus far, this has been relentlessly generic stuff, the only original element being the gymnastics, which is the most ridiculous of all. There’s generic martial arts training, generic gunplay and generic cold war spy twists perpetrated by generic cold war spies in raincoats, but there’s nothing that really rips off anything in particular. That’s about to change. Now, I’ve seen worse than this, but it’s threadbare, strung together and rendered laughable by the dynamic score, which would be great if everything else could live up to it. Once we get to Parmistan, we start in on the overt ripping off of films that we know. It’s about to turn into Enter the Dragon, a rather more successful feature directed by Robert Clouse. Then it’ll turn back to The Most Dangerous Game, which it hinted at early on. Finally it’ll turn into something rather akin to Bedlam crossed with Westworld, where everyone in an entire town is trying to kill Cabot but they all happen to be completely insane. How did this get pitched to MGM and why did they greenlight it?

We also get the truly bizarre experience that is the Khan of Parmistan, who surely realised how ridiculous his role was and so played it up for laughs. He’s Buck Kartalian from Detroit, MI, the star of films like Cool Hand Luke, Planet of the Apes and Myra Breckenridge. Well, the star of Please Don’t Eat My Mother! aka Sexpot Swingers, but he did play lesser roles in those bigger pictures, often memorably, as Julius was in Planet of the Apes. Here, he comes across like Mel Brooks with his vast moustache and deadpan lines like ‘Anyone trying to avoid an obstacle will be instantly killed!’ He’s just outlining the Game here to a set of competitors: a three mile run to a swamp, a two hundred foot rope climb, half a mile more to the gorge, then into the river, on to the high forest, then the Village of the Damned and a five mile run through the swamp to get back to the city. ‘It’s not all at great risk,’ he suggests with bright eyes before donning his Russian fur hat and wandering off with a grin to play king for his people.
Contrary to popular opinion, there are positive aspects to this film. I liked the Yugoslavian locations, even if I didn’t like the constant depiction of the locals as inbred halfwits without teeth. Some of what we see in the Village of the Damned is neatly freaky, including a madman who has a face built onto the back of his head so that he can masquerade as a statue and attack when you turn your back. There’s a brief glimpse of a local sport in which ninjas on horseback try to enclose each other in nets. The fights aren’t bad at all and this is an action movie with plenty of action. But the martial arts side is clearly set up to be Enter the Dragon, with Kurt Thomas as Bruce Lee and Richard Norton as Bolo Yeung. Neither has a chance. Norton was responsible for the fight choreography, which is better than his acting, but this was early on for him; he’d fought Chuck Norris in The Octagon and played one of the title characters in Force: Five, but Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Cynthia Rothrock were all firmly in his future.

Of course, there’s plenty that’s completely awful, starting with the whole idea behind the film. Parmistan is a joke and its Khan is beyond a joke. The Princess could have been used substantially but she’s wasted in a routine romantic subplot. The rest of the plot is idiotic and overblown, apparently trying to outdo its early inanities with worse ones later on. If the Game wasn’t ridiculous enough to begin with, it’s rendered worse by the constant cheating and rulebreaking. Thorg is a ridiculous villain shoehorned into the second half of the film, Bob Schott looking like a drunk Matt Hardy. The wedding angle is stupid, as is the ending and the grand reveal that comes soon before it. The locations are good but the camerawork isn’t and the acting is a disgrace. Perhaps I can forgive Kurt Thomas, as he wasn’t an actor, but nobody else. And why does he stop and turn around every two steps when being chased, even halfway up a rope that’s on fire? That got old quicker than Norton’s embarrassing ponytail. So yeah, it’s almost as awful as you’ve read.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

House of Horrors (1946)

Director: Jean Yarbrough
Stars: Robert Lowery, Virginia Grey, Bill Goodwin and Rondo Hatton
Last night, I reviewed The Brute Man to remember Jan Wiley on what would have been her one hundredth birthday. Given that it was also Rondo Hatton’s third film as the Creeper, I watched the other two first and felt that I should follow up with the one I haven’t already reviewed. This is House of Horrors, the first in a projected series of films clearly inspired by Hatton’s character in the Sherlock Holmes movie, The Pearl of Death. While The Brute Man is a highly interesting picture for a lot of reasons, I’d still argue that House of Horrors is just a little bit better. It’s still a flawed film in a number of ways, but it tries a bit harder than its prequel. The cops in this film actually attempt to catch the mass murderer terrorising the streets of New York rather than trying to ignore it’s even happening and pass the buck as far and as quickly as possible. Hatton gets lots of screen time and there are also a couple of very interesting performances from Martin Kosleck and Virginia Grey, even if they feel like they shouldn’t be in this particular picture.

It’s Hatton front and centre from the outset, though. In The Pearl of Death, he was firmly in support, doing what the villainous Giles Conover wanted but mostly in the shadows. He gets a great old school Universal reveal towards the end, when he turns and moves into the light, and another as he stalks towards Holmes with an apparent immunity to bullets. Here, he gets an ‘Introducing Rondo Hatton as the Creeper’ credit and stalks around behind the rest. His first appearance in the film proper is also a good one, as he slowly struggles out of the river that Marcel DeLange is thinking of throwing himself into. It’s odd to see Robert Lowery given top billing, given that the film only exists to showcase Rondo Hatton and Martin Kosleck is really the protagonist of the piece, a sculptor hated by the critics who uses the Creeper to visit revenge on them by snapping their spines. Incidentally, this is how the Hoxton Creeper murdered people in The Pearl of Death, so why we’re supposed to assume he’s a different character here, I have no idea.
These movies weren’t A list stuff, firmly intended to support bigger pictures and, as such, they ran short. House of Horrors runs only 65 minutes and The Brute Man is even shorter still, clocking in at less than an hour. Yet George Bricker, adapting an original story by pulp author, Dwight V Babcock, chose to begin as an old school character piece with a long sob story scene that feels like it should begin a fairy tale rather than a horror thriller. Kosleck, born in a part of Germany that is Poland today, still had a European accent, though he was fluent in English, but he downplays that by being as careful with his diction as possible. It almost feels like he’s attempting to play a simple peasant who can’t understand why life has to have it in for him. Perhaps he was just trying to do something different from all the Nazi roles he had been typecast into during the Second World War. He saw it as his mission to expose the Nazis as evil by playing as many of them as he could and he did, becoming described as ‘the definitive Nazi swine’.

Here, he’s just a struggling artist who cares for his cat, Pietro. And when I say struggling, I mean that he has to sculpt his primitive naked women by candlelight because he can’t pay to keep the power on. He borrowed the bread and cheese he’s eating for dinner and he has no milk for Pietro, but it’s all going to be OK again because Mr Samuels will be paying him $1,000 for a statue tonight. Yeah, right. Not if have an idea of where this story’s going! Sure enough, Samuels arrives with Holmes Harmon, a hatchet-man critic who can’t stand DeLange or his work. After he decries Surcease from Toil as ‘unadulterated tripe’, suddenly Samuels isn’t quite so interested in coughing up that much-needed cash. DeLange chases the pair of them out of his studio with a knife, smashes his creation to pieces with a sculptor’s hammer and wanders off to the river to throw himself in and end it all. Instead, he finds the Creeper. ‘Magnifique!’ he pronounces. ‘The perfect Neanderthal man!’
And so we’re off and running. DeLange has a new lease on life, aching to create ‘a masterpiece that will live forever’ by having the Creeper pose for a statue. And the Creeper gets to live, have a place to do so and with the opportunity to do what he does best: break backs. The first is a streetwalker he spies out of his window, suckering him into an alley. When the headlines of the morning papers hawk the crime and the sculptor asks rhetorically why anyone would snap a woman’s spine, Hatton gives what might be the best line of his entire career. ‘She screamed,’ he responds in that cracked and deadpan voice. And then, because DeLange is no fool, even if he sounds like one, he idly wonders about what he’d do to F Holmes Harmon if he only could. Off wanders the Creeper and the story is well and truly in motion. This is where we start to wonder about Hatton’s character. Sure, the opening credits tell us that he’s the Creeper, while the papers stir up his past murders and wonder if this madman could be alive and killing again.

But we don’t see that. We see a quiet creature who does what he does to help his only friend. He doesn’t seem to be all there, as if he’s suffering not from the acromegaly that afflicted Hatton but a kind of brain retardation that leaves him naive and childlike. He’s a big guy and all the more sinister for how he’s big: he’s a slim man who we might describe as being in great shape, if only the acromegaly hadn’t elongated his face and hulked out his shoulders. It’s easy to see why Universal wanted him because he could have played Frankenstein’s monster without any make-up. Jack Pierce, who sculpted such memorable features onto Boris Karloff back in 1931, did the make-up for this film but had little to do for Hatton, who was just right as he was. So he’s sinister and his shadow would definitely shock, but he doesn’t appear to be mad in the slightest. I had a lot more sympathy for the Creeper in this film than I did in his origin story in The Brute Man. There, he knowingly sought revenge for his disfigurement. Here, he just tries to help a friend.
I’d say that, of course, the cops are all over the new Creeper murders, but then they soon wouldn’t be in the prequel; they are at least on the case here. Bill Goodwin isn’t too bad as Lt Larry Brooks, but he’s so loose that we wonder if he thinks that he’s in a comedy rather than a Universal monster movie. He has a grin on his face throughout the movie, even while discovering corpses, and he’s quick on the pull too. As he interrogates an artist named Steven Morrow, who circumstantial evidence suggests could well be the Creeper, his eyes are diverted to the artist’s model, Stella McNally, and he promptly distracts himself to flirt up a storm with her and set up a date. Inappropriate much? Morrow is played by Robert Lowery, who inexplicably gets top billing in House of Horrors. Why, I have no idea at all, because I recognised most of the rest of the cast but not him and because he doesn’t even attempt to build any character into Morrow, content to float through the film falling into every plot convenience trap he can find.

What Joan Medford, hot shot reporter, sees in him, I have even less idea. Virginia Grey plays her with all the sass and vinegar that Lowery has forgotten even exists. I adored her performance, even if it seemed to exist in the wrong movie too. Just like Martin Kosleck believes that he’s in a fairy tale and Bill Goodwin believes that he’s in a comedy, Grey apparently believes that she’s in the sort of fast talking newspaper drama Warner Brothers churned out in the thirties rather than the sort of creature feature that Universal specialised in during the forties. Jean Yarbrough directed with film noir style but Babcock and Bricker are a handicap to him every way. It’s as if they tried to throw every genre they could into one film. I was half expecting Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to waltz through a shadowy doorway for a musical number! In her way, though, Grey is the best thing about the picture because she’s thoroughly alive and that’s what we needed in a story about a lot of people getting dead.
So there’s a lot to like in House of Horrors, even if it has a notable identity crisis. It looks wonderful, with shadows everywhere and a camera that knows exactly how to move within them. The cinematographer was Maury Gertsman, who had shot a number of films for Universal, including jungle pictures, Sherlock Holmes yarns and monster movies. Mostly, though, he specialised in westerns. The sets, costumes and score all feel right too, but then this was Universal; they owned this genre! Sadly, they felt that it was a safe bet to just have Rondo Hatton creeping around breaking backs and a solid story wasn’t required. It leads to an unwieldy amount of plot convenience to shuffle the cast members around to be right where they need to be. Everyone knows where everyone else lives in New York! Models fall for cops! Art critics fall for commercial artists! Cops are unceasingly cheerful! The further the film goes, the further off track the film goes and the ending is worst of all. The Creeper was a promising series, but it underdelivered.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

The Brute Man (1946)

Director: Jean Yarbrough
Stars: Tom Neal, Jan Wiley, Jane Adams, Donald MacBride, Peter Whitney, Fred Coby, Janelle Johnson and Rondo Hatton
Remembering noted filmmakers on what would be their 100th birthdays by reviewing one title from their respective careers gives me a great opportunity to select interesting movies. This one, to remember a B-movie actress named Jan Wiley, is about as interesting as they come for a whole slew of reasons. For a start, it’s a Universal horror movie that they never released. They shot it in November 1945, taking under two weeks to do so, but its lead actor, Rondo Hatton, died only two months later before the finish of post-production. Given that Universal were exploiting rather brutally the unique looks of Hatton, who suffered from the disease of acromegaly, it’s very possible that they chose to sell the movie to PRC, a poverty row distributor, rather than just chalk it up as a loss. PRC distributed it in 1946, but it then seemed to become lost, only being rediscovered in 1982, when it was shown on TV and released to home video. Officially, it was just poor timing, as Universal backed out of B movies after their merger with International in 1945.

Hatton plays the Creeper, a character with an interesting history, for the third time. His first appearance was in a Sherlock Holmes movie, The Pearl of Death, in 1944, the ninth in the series with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. There, he’s the Hoxton Creeper, a dangerous tool used by the villain of the piece, Giles Conover, to destroy his enemies, always by breaking the third lumbar vertebra of their spines. Hatton is hardly in the film but he’s memorable whenever he is, shot in looming shadows and only being revealed at the very end of the film, when Holmes cleverly turns him on his master. Two years later, Hatton made what was intended to be the first in a series of movies featuring the Creeper. This was House of Horrors where the character stalks behind the opening credits. He’s rescued from a river by a sculptor about to commit suicide, who then uses his new friend to murder art critics who have savaged his work, all while sculpting a bust of the killer, which he believes will become his masterpiece.
It’s generally believed that these two Creepers are different characters, because The Pearl of Death is a film set in London while House of Horrors unfolds in New York and because the character dies in both of the films. However, there are strong connections between them. Both are played by Rondo Hatton, who didn’t need make-up because of the disease that had disfigured him; Jack Pierce, who had created such memorable make-up for Karloff the Uncanny in Frankenstein had very little to do in House of Horrors as Nature had done the job for him. Both are murderers who kill with such strength that they can snap the spines of their victims. In The Pearl of Death, Holmes picks up on that technique immediately; why must we ignore it? And, of course, they’re both called variations of the Creeper. How many such Creepers were there wandering around American cinema in the forties? It could easily be that the Creeper of House of Horrors doesn’t die after all and finds his way to London to become the Creeper of The Pearl of Death.

Certainly, the Creeper in The Brute Man is the same Creeper as in House of Horrors, but while this is the second in that projected Universal series, this is a prequel rather than a sequel. It gives us some insight into who this murderer was before he started killing and why he started doing so, what we would today call an origin story. It turns out that he was a college student called Hal Moffat, the successful captain of Hampton University’s football team and a young man in love. He had a rival for the affections of Virginia Rogers, namely his best friend, the more scholarly Clifford Scott, who sets him up with apparent glee. He gave him a set of incorrect answers for a chemistry test to ensure that Moffat is kept behind after class, making him unable to take Virginia out on a date. Then he walks the young lady past the window of the chemistry classroom to gloat. Moffat was known for his temper and seeing the two and realising how he was set up makes him throw what he’s holding at the ground. The chemical release disfigures him.
And so, after his release from hospital and years that aren’t explained, he becomes the Creeper, killing for revenge by snapping the spines of those he feels had wronged him. Of course, this is hardly a new idea. It’s a time honoured theme of the horror genre that Universal had explored as far back as 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera with Lon Chaney. Another time honoured theme has a disfigured man horrify all who set eyes on him, such as when the Creeper looks through the window of the Collegiate Café at Hampton, a place which once celebrated his achievements, only for everyone to go quiet and stare at him. After one murder, he escapes the police by climbing a fire escape into the apartment of a young pianist, Helen Paige, who becomes the first person to engage with him because she’s blind. Of course, this echoes what Universal did in 1935 in Bride of Frankenstein, with the Monster and the blind hermit. And so this film feels older than it should be. Ditch Hampton U and this could be 18th century Europe.

Interestingly, Jan Wiley doesn’t play the blind girl, even though that’s by far the more prominent female role, but she’s still credited above Jane Adams, who does. Clearly Wiley was the bigger star at the time, even though she was about to retire at thirty; the only part she played after this film was an uncredited one as a perfume saleswoman in The Best Years of Our Lives. Before it, she’d built something of a name for herself in ‘B’ movies. She was a versatile talent, appearing in Range Busters westerns such as Tonto Basin Outlaws and Thunder River Feud, Universal horror pictures like She-Wolf of London and The Brute Man, pulp adventures like Dick Tracy vs Crime Inc and Secret Agent X-9, and other dynamic movies with dynamic titles that rarely lived up to them, such as A Fig Leaf for Eve and The Living Ghost. Most of her films were made during her decade-long first marriage, which ended in 1945, the year her last pictures were shot. She married again in 1947 and settled in to being a wife and mother, never acting again.
In The Brute Man, she’s Virginia Rogers during the flashback scenes but Virginia Scott in contemporary ones, having married Clifford Scott and doing very well in the process as the Scotts are well to do when we meet them. While we fully expect the Creeper to wrap up his murder spree with the pair of them, he actually comes to them for money first, to pay for an operation on Helen’s eyes that might allow her to see again. Wiley gets surprisingly little screen time and spends most of it in a strange sort of style that shouldn’t work but somehow does. Oddly, she reminded me of a female Robert Mitchum, with similarly lazy eyelids and an expression that looks like she doesn’t care even when we know that she does. That isn’t to say she isn’t feminine, because she looks good in her make-up and expensive hairdo, but she’s tougher inside than out. The position her character finds herself in proved to end up rather ironic, given how the film is structured and how real life panned out afterwards.

You see, the Creeper is set up to be a sympathetic killer. For all that characters in House of Horrors kept billing him as a madman, he appears to be more like a damaged soul, both inside and out, who wasn’t functioning on all cylinders. All his lines are simple ones, as if he’s unable to string concepts together in layers. He isn’t killing people for the sake of it, he’s just doing what seems to be right. He’s finally found his first friend and he does what he can to make him happy. He’s less sympathetic here, but he’s a more sympathetic character than his so-called college buddies, who set him up with a trick that leaves him a disfigured man and promptly forget about him until he comes knocking on their doors to seek revenge. He knows what he’s doing here, though, intelligence shining out of Hatton’s eyes even if it isn’t echoed by his words and actions. The whole subplot with Helen the blind girl sets him up as the misunderstood monster, a beast on the outside but a beauty on the inside. That’s what Helen sees with her mind.
But Virginia doesn’t end up with Hal Moffat; she marries Clifford Scott, who’s played by Tom Neal. Surely cast because he was riding high with Detour, the classic no budget film noir from 1945, he was a former boxer and a successful one too with a strong record that ran 31 wins and only one loss until his last two fights spoiled that somewhat. He looks dashing in The Brute Man, though he’s surely too young to carry that moustache, which would look much better on a Ronald Colman or a David Niven. Yet, while Hatton was playing the title character, it was Neal who was the real brute man. When he shot this film, he was married to actress Vicky Lane, who divorced him in 1949 citing ‘mental and physical cruelty’. After that, he met another actress, Barbara Payton, who continued to date him even after she became engaged to Franchot Tone. The physical fight between the two men in her front yard made front page news, as Neal beat Tone to a pulp, leaving him hospitalised with broken bones and a brain concussion.

It didn’t end there either. Neal and Payton were blacklisted by the major Hollywood studios and became better known for their violent relationship than their acting. Payton had married Tone after his recovery, but left him after less than two months to return to Neal; Tone filed for divorce on grounds of adultery. It didn’t last for Payton and Neal either, but at least she got out alive. Neal married a third wife in 1961, a receptionist called Gale Bennett, who was found dead only four years later with a gunshot wound to the back of her head. Neal was arrested, convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to between one and fifteen years in prison. He served six. It’s a rather bitter irony that has a man like Rondo Hatton, a journalist and army veteran struck down in his prime by a disfiguring disease, remembered today for performances that exploited his crumbling visage and crumbling voice by casting him as madmen and monsters, while a man like Tom Neal, who really was a monster, was able to play dashing heroes.
At least Hatton has been honoured, not only by homages in books, comics and films but by the creation of an award in his name, the Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Award, which honours work in the horror genre across different media. The award itself was sculpted in the likeness of Hatton as the Creeper in the two 1946 Universal movies. Neither are particularly good, especially when compared to earlier horror films that the studio had made over a couple of decades, but they’re interesting and enjoyable today. Hatton was clearly cast for his looks rather than any acting ability he might have had, not just his face but the ominous shadow he cast with his thin waist but hulking shoulders and neck. He wasn’t a great actor but he cast a presence and he got a lot more opportunity in these two films than anything else in his earlier career. He even smiles here, when giving a present to Helen, a good smile that we wish we could have seen more of in a better and less neglected story. At least we got to see it here.

Monday, 22 February 2016

Altered States (1980)

Director: Ken Russell
Stars: William Hurt, Blair Brown, Bob Balaban and Charles Haid
And Death continues to swing his scythe at the film industry. I’ve just read about Andrzej Żuławski, who left us two days after George Gaynes, who I’m remembering here. Gaynes will be best known to most as Commandant Eric Lassard of the Police Academy films and he channelled a similar ineptness as the soap opera star who tried to woo Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie. In real life, he wasn’t inept, being fluent in no less than seven languages, perhaps partly due to being born in Helsinki, back when it was part of the Russian Empire. He and his wife founded the State Street Ballet Company in Santa Barbara, reflecting higher art than Police Academy. He was a prolific TV actor and his films are surprisingly varied, including Marooned, Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off, Nickelodeon, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, To Be or Not to Be, The Fantastic Four and Vanya on 42nd Street, along with this underrated gem from novelist Paddy Chayefsky and director Ken Russell. Hey, I reviewed the first couple of Police Academy movies recently; let’s go more obscure.

To be honest, it’s been so long since I last saw Altered States that I’d forgotten that George Gaynes was in it and, as it turned out, he’s only just in it, with one scene late in the film with a few memorable lines. The same scenario applies to some of the other famous names that I’d forgotten about, like John Larroquette and Drew Barrymore, who debuted here at the age of five as the daughter of the leads, a couple of years before ET: The Extra-Terrestrial. She steals at least one scene here, simply by opening her mouth, unless that’s her screen sister, Megan Jeffers. Larroquette portrays an unnamed X-ray technician, who ironically enough, literally leads us to George Gaynes, playing the awkwardly named Dr Wissenschaft. Oddly, as a number of the future names, like Larroquette and Barrymore, have small roles, the other debuting actor isn’t so hamstrung. He’s William Hurt, who would win an Oscar on his first of four nominations, for Kiss of the Spider Woman, but here was just a brand new actor playing a peach of a leading role.
We begin in April 1967, with Dr Eddie Jessup inside an odd flotation tank that rather looks like a boiler for steampunks. He’s a university professor, working as part of a team to investigate schizophrenia, which he isn’t even sure is a disease; perhaps it’s just a different state of consciousness. He’s interested in it from the perspective of religious experiences, as he saw visions of the saints as a child, visions which stopped after his father’s death at sixteen. He’s so drawn to the concept that he doesn’t want to restrict himself to examining the EEGs of student volunteers, he wants to try it out for himself. He sees the isolation tank as a good means to induce a trancelike state, though at this point he doesn’t want his serious science to be tainted by the psychedelic drug culture that was creeping into the field at the time. It certainly seems to have an impressive effect from this initial scene, or at least his control, Arthur Rosenberg, seems to think so. That’s Bob Balaban from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

It’s at one of Arthur’s parties that Jessup meets Emily, another prodigy of a young scientist, but a physical anthropologist about to start teaching at Harvard. Before that happens, she becomes his wife. Suddenly, we’ve lost two months, as if we’ve been stretching out in Eddie’s flotation tank too and time has ceased to have quite the same meaning. If he had notable experiences in the tank, he continues to have them in the sack with Emily. ‘What are you thinking about?’ she asks him during sex. ‘God,’ is his thoughtful reply. ‘Jesus. Crucifixions.’ This eventually leads to one of the most memorable lines in the film, which bizarrely comes as part of her proposal of marriage, which is as unromantic as they come, given that she tells him that, ‘I feel like I’m being harpooned by some raging monk in the act of receiving God.’ We start to share some of this during his second session: blasphemous mixtures of sex, death and the Christ, which would be utterly amazing in anyone’s work but Ken Russell’s, in which they’re entirely expected.
And so we move on. Quickly. Next thing we know, years have passed and they have kids but they are to divorce, even though she doesn’t want to. He’s just ridding himself of ‘clatter and clutter and ridiculous ritual.’ I told you about the romance, right? And finally, here we start to get to the point of the picture. It revolves around race memory, which Jessup is convinced can be tapped into. He believes that we have six million years of memories stuck in our limbic systems and he wants to experience them. Gone is his reluctance to use pharmaceutical assistance, because he promptly finds his way to Mexico to be part of what must be very similar to an ayahuasca ceremony. ‘Your soul will return to the first soul,’ explains the brujo who leads the way and, to highlight that this is a particularly important journey, their entrance into a cave is reminiscent of science fiction, as if they’re all astronauts discovering a lost civilisation on Mars. The trip is wild, of course, mixing the primal with the civilised. Next up is the hellish vista of a Bosch.

Part of the reason that this film works is the introduction of Charles Haid as Mason Parrish, who works at the same university as Eddie and Arthur. He thinks that the other two are being utterly irresponsible, but he ends up involved anyway, mostly because the three work very well together from our perspective. If Hurt, as Eddie Jessup, is the visionary, the mad scientist, the focal point of everything we experience, the others are the response to what he does. Balaban as Arthur is the calm, studious believer, ready to allow Jessup’s next officially unsanctioned experiment to see where it goes and to monitor it to see what might happen. Haid as Mason is the far from calm disbeliever and his actions are almost violent to pretty much anything that happens, down to simple questions. ‘Do you believe in supernatural phenomena, Mason?’ he’s asked and his reply is a defiant, ‘No, sir, I do not!’ It’s a classic approach to something controversial: throw in someone who believes in it and someone who doesn’t and let battle commence.
I appreciated how Ken Russell focuses on the emotion here. There’s science all over the script, most of it adapted by Paddy Chayefsky from his own source novel, but most of it is buried in frantic dialogue as the passion is more important than the detail. A good part of it is hurled with vitriol during arguments, which means that we can’t really understand half of it but we don’t care. It’s not important to us, even if it is to the characters who are speaking. What matters to us is the passion that they’re resonating because they care. Oddly, Chayefsky had a lot of concerns with Russell’s approach and so had his credit as scriptwriter changed to Sidney Aaron, his real first two names, even though he’d earned a cool million for his efforts. Critic Richard Corliss suggested that his problems with what we see on screen are what I liked the most: ‘the intensity of the performances and the headlong pace at which the actors read his dialogue.’ I have read the book and enjoyed the science there, but on screen I enjoyed the passion.

To be fair, this is only half a science fiction movie anyway. The other half is firmly horror and it moves at steady pace from one to the other as Dr Jessup starts not only to experience primitive states but actually starts to regress physically to them. One of the longest sequences in the movie is the one where Jessup isn’t actually played by William Hurt but by Miguel Godreau, the former lead dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. In some ways it’s rather bizarre to see a primitive apelike creature played by a classically trained ballet dancer, but the approach works really well. He lopes and leaps and climbs, all in the very hairy nude. This sequence is almost entirely devoid of dialogue, just grunting as this regressed Jessup does what primitive apelike creatures would probably do if suddenly confronted with a landscape as alien to them as the America of the 1970s. Godreau does wonderful work, but the piece de resistance comes from Hurt, who smiles knowingly when released from jail. It’s a smile of vindication.
While the story is Chayefsky’s, adapted by him from his novel, that novel was based on real research into sensory deprivation done by neuroscientist and psychonaut, John C Lilly, well known for experimenting on his own body and so endangering his health and his life. His research in the early 1960s involved the consumption of psychedelic drugs like LSD before entering an isolation tank or attempting to commune with dolphins. The film, however, belongs to Ken Russell, because it’s a product of wild science, classical music and psychedelic and often blasphemous visuals. Lilly liked it, even if Chayefsky didn’t, particularly appreciating some scenes that resonated from his experiences. The ending is a real trip, reminding once again of 2001: A Space Odyssey, as some of the scenes with Godreau did. Magnificent editing from Eric Jenkins makes these scenes burst; sometimes it’s rapid fire, pulsing, staccato stuff, while other times it’s slow, letting scenes unfold to tell their own story.

Today, it fits well with Russell’s other work, which always stands out even if it’s flawed. It sounds an odd and redundant thing to say but he was a very cinematic filmmaker, using visuals to tell stories as well as add to the ones already being told. He inherited the cast when he took over from Arthur Penn, but could have done a lot worse. William Hurt shows the promise that he soon lived up to, playing his challenging part with aplomb. Blair Brown is firmly in support as Emily, but she manages to steal some scenes from him. Bob Balaban and Charles Haid are exactly what they need to be to support the scientific side of the script, just as Charles White-Eagle carries the philosophical ones as the Mexican brujo. Down the credits, behind Barrymore and Larroquette and others is George Gaynes, who gets little to do with his one scene, but has a memorable line to deliver which he does with style. Parrish suggests that Jessup’s X-rays are ‘slightly abnormal,’ Gaynes looks at him askance and says, ‘Somewhat? The guy’s a fucking gorilla!’

RIP George Gaynes.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

The Inheritance (1962)

Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Stars: Keiko Kishi, Tatsuya Nakadai, So Yamamura, Seiji Miyaguchi, Yusuke Kawazu, Mari Yoshimura, Minoru Chiaki, Misako Watanabe and Osamu Takizawa
The great Japanese director, Masaki Kobayashi, who would have been a hundred years old today, directed 22 films, from 1952’s My Son’s Youth to The Empty Table in 1985. The latter starred Tatsuya Nakadai, who appeared or starred in fully half of Kobayashi’s output. Their working relationship began in 1956 with The Thick-Walled Room, one of the first Japanese films to look at what the country had done in World War II, a drama adapted from the diaries of real Japanese soldiers jailed for crimes against humanity. It proceeded through all of Kobayashi’s most famous films, including the ten hour trilogy of The Human Condition; the samurai drama, Seppuku; and Kwaidan, his collection of four ghost stories that is one of the two staples of classic Japanese horror. The latter pair won jury prizes at Cannes and Kwaidan was also nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Nakadai also appeared in 1967’s magnificent Samurai Rebellion, duelling Toshiro Mifune. The Inheritance comes in between these, emphasising a superb decade for Kobayashi.

It’s neither a war film nor a samurai flick, but it takes a similarly dark look at humanity, an approach for which Kobayashi is justifiably known. Senzo Kawahara is a rich businessman who lives only for his work, running a company called Toto Precise Tech. Soon into the picture, he discovers that he’s dying of cancer and has perhaps six months to live. He has a trophy wife, Satoe, his former secretary who’s two decades younger than him, but no heirs. Well, not legal ones, anyway. He tells some of his closest associates that he has three illegitimate children, with whom he’s had no contact since conception, and tasks them with finding these kids, so that he can judge whether they’re worthy of receiving a share of his three hundred million yen fortune. His wife will receive the ‘legal guaranteed portion’ of a third of it, but the rest, which is a considerable sum even in yen, is up for grabs. And that’s how these associates take it, immediately scheming as to how they can screw each other over and land the money for themselves.
If it sounds like there are no sympathetic characters to be found in this film, you’d be close to the truth. I usually have trouble with such movies, Gone with the Wind being the obvious example, because there’s nobody for me to root for. Yet here, we’re drawn in through Kawahara’s secretary, the first person we see on screen, and she’s sympathetic for a quite a while before being corrupted by the environment she’s in. She’s Yasuko Miyagawa and she’s a vision from the get go. The film begins like it’s French new wave, the camera a loose companion, floating alongside this stylish young lady in a black and white street. A jazz score kicks in and she glances through her cool sunglasses at shoes and jewellery and coats in storefront windows. This could be a Godard or Truffaut movie, or even a Eurospy flick, if the girl and everyone else around her wasn’t Japanese. It’s a light and fluffy way to begin something that’s not light or fluffy in the slightest, soon becoming dark and traditional, but it’s appropriate as it’s the only light scene.

The camera stops moving, for a start, at least for the most part. Most of the film is shot with the camera static, movement happening within the frame. Occasionally it deigns to aid the actors as they move, but rarely, concentrating instead on imparting something through composition of frame and choice of angle. This quintessentially Japanese approach isn’t surprising, as the cinematographer was Takashi Kawamata, who had shot many films for Yasujiro Ozu, often regarded as the most Japanese of the Japanese directors. It’s hard to imagine anything more Japanese than Tokyo Story, for instance, an appropriately archetypal title for such an archetypal picture, directed by Ozu and shot by Yuharu Atsuta, with Kawamata assisting. Even though the camera doesn’t move much, the effect is still highly cinematic because the motion is in the frame so that, even when characters are talking, they’re cleverly choreographed to ensure that the shot is one painting to begin with and a different one when it ends.
The visuals never stop impressing, some shots leaping out for attention, but it’s a character-driven piece. The script, by Koichi Inagaki from a novel by Norio Nanjo, explores a tangled web of machinations, as the various people who Kawahara trusts are about the last people he should ever have trusted, playing each and every one of each other to get ahead. I wonder how Toto Precise Tech did any business! Then again, maybe they were each biding their time all these years, waiting for this moment to pounce. Miyagawa is the only one of them who seems to care about anyone but herself. She’s his current secretary, who cares for her boss and even admits to have had a little crush on him in the past. The others are careful to bow the requisite number of degrees but we’re not convinced by any of them, not before Kawahara’s disease is announced and certainly not afterwards, when his fortune is dangled in front of their greedy little eyes and they all start to manoeuvre into the best positions to take it.

His wife, Satoe, has the best position throughout, as the law guarantees her a third of it anyway, but she wants it all and plays everyone against each other to get it. Misako Watanabe plays her as an ice queen, cold and heartless and someone not to underestimate. It’s hardly surprising that Kawahara married her for her body and wants little to do with her otherwise. Of course, that says as much about him as it does about her: the man is dying of cancer, an inherent sympathy point, but we never feel sympathy for him; in fact, we get less sympathetic for him as the movie runs on, because the situation he finds himself in is arguably a much deserved one. Minoru Chiaki takes the opposite approach to Junichi Fujii, the secretarial chief. He’s friendly and engaging, with a mild air of ineptitude that’s calculated. He and Satoe are tasked with finding a seven year old girl, Kawahara’s daughter by a maid. Fujii’s thought is to not find her, but Satoe talks him into it as she would become the girl’s guardian and so gain control of her portion too.
The second group is comprised of Kawahara’s legal team. His lawyer, Naruto Yoshida, in the experienced form of Seiji Miyaguchi, the most serious of the Seven Samurai, is a patient and confident man who feels content nudging others into the directions he wants them to take. One such person is his assistant, Kikuo Furukawa, played by a calm but scheming Tatsuya Nakadai, so insincere that we don’t believe any of his promises to begin with, but fully expect him to use them over and over again on a succession of women. Yoshida remains behind in his sanctum of an office while Furukawa goes out and about to achieve their goals. They’re tasked with finding Miyumi Kamio, who would be a young woman now, but Yoshida wants Furukawa to search and not find, because his real goal is to set up a Kawahara Foundation. He would sit on the board and direct affairs, while his assistant could manage the day to day operations. However, it doesn’t turn out to be remotely as simple as that, because Furukawa’s search triggers plenty.

Finally, there’s a boy Kawahara fathered in Manchuria twenty years earlier, perhaps an easier person to find as he doesn’t just have a name, he also knows who adopted him. He has Miyagawa go to fetch this young man, Sadao Narimune, which gives Keiko Kishi even more opportunity to steal the film. She’s the first and last person we see and, if the story is built on So Yamamura’s strong performance as the dying man, it unfolds primarily through Kishi’s as Yasuko Miyagawa, especially as the bulk of the picture takes place through a visualisation of her recollections of a tough time in her life, a time that she describes as ‘the wound I’m so proud of’. She’s given plenty of opportunity to shine, with that initial glamorous scene in the street being contrasted so strongly with the beginning of her recollections that I didn’t even catch that it was the same girl at first. She’s a traditionally submissive but capable secretary and she grows as the film runs on, being moved to Kawahara’s house and becoming closer to him than she expects.
Perhaps one reason why this bunch of unsympathetic characters remain so watchable is that we know it won’t end well for all of them and we want to see each of them fall. It’s phrased rather like a mystery, in the sense that our varied cast of characters manoeuvre their way through the story to end up gathered together for the final unmasking. In a mystery, one of them is usually the perpetrator of whatever crime has been committed and the others mere red herrings, but in this story, they’re all perpetrators in their own ways and we watch to see which will be unmasked by a brutal sense of karma. Certainly these final scenes are the most powerful in the film, because each successful coup makes us happy and leads on to the next. What we might feel about the eventual outcome may determine what we might feel about the film, because there’s a poetry to it and a sense of justice but nobody leaves the film untarnished by the events we’ve witnessed.

I clearly need to watch more of Masaki Kobayashi’s films. My first was Kwaidan, many years ago, after it cropped up so often in discussions of Japanese horror. Everything didn’t really start with it and Onibaba, but they’re as good a starting place as any to find out what else is out there. I’ve revisited it since and it stands up well. I’ve also seen Samurai Rebellion, one of many pictures about samurai to be overlooked in the west, where ‘samurai film’ is often equated to ‘Akira Kurosawa’. I’m not saying to avoid masterpieces like Seven Samurai, Yojimbo or Ran, but check out Hideo Gosha pictures too, like Sword of the Beast and Three Outlaw Samurai, a half dozen of the best Zatoichi films and others like Kill! and Samurai Rebellion. From what I gather, Kobayashi’s Seppuku, also known as Hari-Kiri, is deserving of that company too so I should seek it out soon, along with some of his other work from the late fifties and early sixties. I have a feeling that The Inheritance, utterly not a samurai movie, will resonate with me like Kurosawa’s films noir.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

The Finishing Line (1977)

Director: John Krish
Stars: Juniors and Seniors of Roebuck Junior School, Watton-at-Stone Primary School and the Simon Balle School, Hertfordshire, Peter Hill, David Millett, Jeremy Wilkin, Kevin Flood, Antony Carrick, Yolande Palfrey, David Howe, Don Henderson and members of the St John Ambulance Brigade, Hertfordshire
This review of part of a series to look at the strangest films of all. Here's an index to my Weird Wednesdays reviews.
If One Got Fat was traumatising, and I’ve heard that adjective used a number of times, then The Finishing Line is nightmare-inducing. It’s a British short, made by John Krish for British Transport Films, on his return to work for them after a period on the blacklist, following his unauthorised commentary on the closure of London’s trams in 1953’s The Elephant Will Never Forget. He was asked to make a film that might help to stop children playing on railway lines and vandalising them. What he came up with, in collaboration with co-writer Michael Gilmour, was The Finishing Line, which surely features more maimed and dead children than The Hunger Games and Battle Royale combined. It proved immediately controversial (like, duh) and was debated on the TV show Nationwide. Some felt it was a tough film for a tough problem, while others worried about it traumatising their kids or even encouraging the very sort of vandalism that it purported to prevent. It was promptly pulled from circulation, replaced by a safe, inconsequential film called Robbie.

So what did John Krish do that so upset the British public in 1977? Well, contrary to every other example of a public safety film out there, he turned the problem at hand into a game. Well, not really a game. It’s a competition, a prominent school competition spawned from the sonorous words of a headmaster that resonate over the opening shots. ‘The railway is not the game field!’ he pronounces, so the one kid who sits dangerously on the edge of a stone bridge overlooking a railway line, immediately thinks, ‘Yeah, but if it was...’ He’d have lots of trains, a twenty foot scoreboard and even a brass band, which strikes up as we watch his twisted imagination at work. I grew up with British sports days and was six when this was released, so there’s much I remember here, from the bowl haircuts to having to restart the first race after some eager kid jumped the gun. The only bit that doesn’t feel familiar is when the folk from the St John’s Ambulance bring stretchers out of tents in preparation for what’s to come.
And off we go! We get four events, to be competed by four teams of kids. They’re each introduced by an announcer, eagerly explained by the anonymous kid on the bridge through narration and illustrated by a very basic diagram of what’s going to happen. It begins with ‘9 and Under Fence Breaking’, a particularly simple to explain event, in which the kids from each team have to run to the wire fence, break through it, get all their members down the bank, across the rails and up the opposite bank to cross the finishing line. Sounds easy enough, right? Well a train is due to drive through halfway just to spur some extra speed out of these kids, and you just know someone’s going to trip on a rail and lie sprawled on the track. It’s a girl from the blue team and his team-mates have to abandon him when they can’t summon up the strength to carry him away. ‘Blue are disqualified for failing to complete with a full team,’ mentions the announcer as everyone goes silent while the bloody corpse of this pre-teen is lifted onto a stretcher and hauled off.
Now you’re getting the idea? Well you have ‘12 and Under Stone Throwing’ next, then ‘Last Across’, with the ‘Great Tunnel Walk’ to finish things off. Each event wraps up with dead or maimed children and stone throwing adds disfigured adults to the mix. That involves simply throwing bricks, colour coded for teams, at a passing train from ten feet away from the track. There’s two points for each smashed window, we’re told, and four for ‘a direct hit’, which means a passenger. Yellow even score six for hitting the driver, who holds in his eyes while the blood pours out of them. Last Across ups the stakes, with two teams on either side of the tracks, fighting each other to get across before the oncoming train hits them head on. By this point I was counting myself and can swear there are twelve kids sprawled in the train’s wake, even if the announcer only claims five injured and five dead. The Great Tunnel Walk is when it gets really serious; as Krish told Fangoria, he wanted to make it ‘look like the Somme from 1914.’ And yes, it did.
It’s utterly surreal to watch this and realise that it was commissioned by a government department. Krish pitched the concept to British Transport Films, which he had co-founded decades earlier before his stint in the wilderness, and their in house psychiatrist loved it. ‘This is exactly what we need!’ he announced. So Krish made it, with the expected audience to be schools, screening to children between the ages of eight and eleven, as it was felt that older kids might see it a little differently. It played in some schools, always to a ‘very silent’ audience, with a few kids needing to be taken out partway through. Krish describes them as ‘the nosebleeders - the ones who are going to faint at anything’. Then the controversy that built up led to it being screened on TV and, to quote Krish, ‘there was a riot afterward,’ so British Transport withdrew it from circulation and banned it for 21 years. The next time anyone saw it in public was in 2003 as part of the Krish retrospective that was organised by the British Film Institute.
Anyone immediately surprised by the boy sitting on the wall of the bridge at the beginning of the picture, in a long shot that zooms into him and clearly shows that there’s no safety equipment underneath just in case he falls off, won’t be too surprised to hear stories of the shoot. According to Krish, he was given 175 kids for five days in the last week of term before the holidays. Given that the line was active, he couldn’t get onto it until 9.30am and he had to be back off it by 3.30pm. He had to finish by the Friday or all those kids would vanish and some of the extras with them, as none of the parents were there. The final shot of the massed dead had to be shot in only twenty minutes, because the production office had cut costs with the sign for the Great Tunnel Walk. They’d printed ‘Start’ on one side and ‘Finish’ on the other so, running out of time, Krish had to shoot the beginning, pull the sign down, transport it through the three and a half mile tunnel and put it up the other way round so he could shoot the final scenes.
I was six when The Finishing Line was made, so I didn’t see it in school. I vaguely remember seeing a few films but not what any of them were, which is a shame as apparently the seventies were strong for public safety films in Britain. Donald Pleasence voiced Lonely Water as the Grim Reaper, warning kids about the dangers of playing near rivers. Apaches was made in 1977 by John Mackenzie, who would go on to helm The Long Good Friday with Bob Hoskins; it features kids playing Cowboys and Indians in the countryside, only to fall prey to a host of hidden dangers, like suffocating in grain pits or burning alive in hayrick fires. Perhaps part of this came from the techniques being borrowed from the horror and exploitation films that dominated the late sixties and early seventies, as Katy McGahan, a BFI curator, suggests. This is helped by the BBFC, the censors whose scissors got busy in the video nasty era, as they left public safety shorts alone. They didn’t even ban this which, like A Clockwork Orange, was voluntarily withdrawn.

The Finishing Line can be watched for free on YouTube.

Sources:
Kier-La Janisse - School of Shock: Q+A: John Krish on Railway Scare Film 'The Finishing Line' at Fangoria.
Jude Rogers - Consider Yourselves Warned: Public Information Films at The Guardian