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.

Wednesday 23 November 2016

Horrors of the Black Museum (1959)

Director: Arthur Crabtree
Writer: Herman Cohen and Aben Kandel, from their original story
Stars: Michael Gough, June Cunningham, Graham Curnow and Shirley Anne Field

Index: 2016 Centennials.

I was rather shocked to find that I hadn’t seen Horrors of the Black Museum before. I grew up on this period of British horror movies, watched on my sister’s TV late at night after I was supposed to be asleep, and I’ve seen most of them, including the other couple of pictures in what David Pirie called in his book, A Heritage of Horror, the ‘Sadian trilogy’ of horror thrillers from Anglo-Amalgamated: Peeping Tom and Circus of Horrors. That’s an interesting trio, very different in style and approach but with a common theme of cruel violence, and there’s plenty of that on offer here. Being British films from the tail end of the fifties, they’re polite and courteous in their aberrance and so they occupy a curious midpoint between the amoral excesses of the Grand Guignol and the twisted torture porn of today. In doing this, they were massively influential and it’s fair to say that, without them, we may not have had Vincent Price in eight Edgar Allan Poe adaptations from American International, who coughed up half the budget for this picture.

In fact, Herman Cohen, in his role as producer of the film rather than that of a co-writer of the script, wanted Price in the lead, or at least Orson Welles, but Anglo-Amalgamated successfully lobbied for a British actor, partly because of cost and partly because of the Eady Levy. This was a tax on the box office whose proceeds were divvied up between exhibitors and qualifying British movies; the aim was to support the British film industry by keeping money within it. To qualify for such funding, administered through the newly formed British Film Fund Agency, at least 85% of a picture had to be shot in the United Kingdom or its Commonwealth and there could only be three foreign salaries. Cohen took up one of those slots already, so hiring a British lead avoided an immediate second; Michael Gough was born in Malaysia, but it was British Malaya at the time. He’s a fantastic choice for the role of Edmond Bancroft, the arrogant and quite deranged journalist and author of books on true crime. He would have been one hundred today.

Sunday 20 November 2016

Johnny O'Clock (1947)

Director: Robert Rossen
Writer: Robert Rossen, from an original story by Milton Holmes
Stars: Dick Powell and Evelyn Keyes

It’s ironic that the title of this film is never fully explained. It’s a catchy one, especially when compared to the relentlessly generic titles that were usually given to films noir, and it sticks in the brain. It surely contributed to my choice of this picture, which I had not seen before, to remember the career of Evelyn Keyes, its leading lady, on what would have been her one hundredth birthday. Yet, beyond being the current name of its lead character (he has others, for reasons never explained but clearly dubious), it never finds a real purpose. Mostly it just serves to keep time in mind, as do the superb opening shot of a man checking his watch against the large clock above him and the importance of a pair of expensive watches within the story. The title is much catchier than the movie itself, a lot more memorable and, arguably, of a higher quality than the material it advertises. After all, it did a great job of suckering me in, as I’d heard it before often and so sought it out for this project.

I’m happy that I watched Johnny O’Clock though, because it’s an important and interesting film, even if the importance is mostly in the presence of Robert Rossen as writer and director; he wrote the script from an original story by Milton Holmes. He was already known as a writer, having penned a host of screenplays for Warner Brothers in the 1930s, including Marked Woman, Racket Busters and The Roaring Twenties; his greatest up to this point may have been A Walk in the Sun. However, this was his first time to sit in the director’s chair and, while he would never be prolific there, his ten films as a director include classics like All the King’s Men and The Hustler, both of which landed him Oscar nominations for Best Director; the former won three from its seven nods, including Best Picture, but Rossen lost to Joseph L. Mankiewicz for A Letter to Three Wives. I wonder how much of a learning experience this was for him, given that he was firing on all cylinders later in 1947 with Body and Soul, a film which he directed but did not write.
To my mind, Rossen is the weakest link here. While he (and perhaps Holmes) deserve great credit for the quintessential film noir dialogue which fills the script to bursting, this is methodical direction of a methodical script and there’s just no passion in it, even when the actors do their best to generate some. Methodical works well for Lee J. Cobb who, as the capable Inspector Koch, drives everything through his investigations of the various deaths that pepper the story. It doesn’t work well for Dick Powell as Johnny O’Clock or for the other key characters: his partner, his assistant and the three ladies with important parts to play in proceedings. Each of them, in different ways, feel like they’re bridling at the steady pace which Rossen forces onto them and aching to break out of it and into their own momentum. Two of the ladies want to speed things up while the third wants to slow it down. Johnny wants control just because, while his partner is alternately active and passive. None are happy with the pace as it is.

That’s not to say that the script isn’t cleverly written. The first nine minutes are spent at Johnny’s hotel in only two scenes: one in which Charlie, his personal assistant, wakes him up and another in which Harriet Hobson and Insp. Koch, separately but together, meet him downstairs. In other hands, this would be throwaway material but, in Rossen’s, everything has a purpose. They set the stage with a murder, establish the characters of five important people (one of whom we haven’t even met yet) and set in motion the events that will constitute our story, the latter from a number of different perspectives. It’s textbook stuff and the only issue is that it misleads us to believe that the core of the movie will contain a man named Chuck Blayden. Blayden is a dirty cop, one who has just shot a gambler as he supposedly resisted arrest. Johnny knows Blayden (and the gambler as well), Harriet loves him (and wears the bruises to prove it) and Koch wants him off the force (and Johnny to help make that happen).
Another clever aspect to the script is what meaning is brought by the three ladies of importance. Harriet is the first of them, a girl who checks hats and coats at the club which Johnny helps to run. She’s a lovely little thing, played to glorious effect by Nina Foch. She’s always reminded me of a more angelic, less Teutonic Marlene Dietrich but that works especially well in this film as Harriet is a simple girl, both in outlook and, perhaps, in mind too. ‘Old enough. Not smart enough,’ explains her sister. She’s a good girl, but she loves a bad man and can’t stop loving him. That leads to her suicide which, of course, isn’t any such thing. She can be seen as the present for Johnny O’Clock, clearly a man of dubious history who is nonetheless doing an honest job with a clean record. The film noir genre, perhaps more closely associated with black and white than any other, never saw things in anything but shades of grey. Most characters here are straightforward, but Johnny is fashioned from quintessentially deep film noir complexity.

If Harriet is his present, a moment in time where he’s a good man doing honest work, Nelle Marchettis is his past. She’s the trophy wife of Johnny’s partner, Guido (pronounced Geedo), a more traditionally slimy businessman who may or may not be operating in isolation from organised crime. Given that actor Thomas Gomez was 42 and weighed nearly three hundred pounds, but vivacious actress Ellen Drew was a decade younger and reminds of both Joan Crawford and Rita Hayworth, it’s hardly surprising that Nelle has a thing for Johnny instead, who buys a fresh flower every morning for his buttonhole and is played by the dapper Dick Powell, who doesn’t look a year older than Gomez even if he was. I don’t believe that it’s ever said outright but it’s certainly firmly hinted that Nelle and Johnny had a relationship in the past and her attempts to restart that are so overt that it’s difficult to believe that her screen husband doesn’t realise it. That’s one reason why Guido acts like he’s Johnny’s boss but we never buy it.
Our birthday girl, Evelyn Keyes, arrives just shy of a third of the way into the film. She’s Nancy Hobson, Harriet’s elder sister, who flies into town after her death to take care of affairs. She meets Koch first, who’s ahead of everybody else throughout, but falls for Johnny. While the ‘club’ he runs with Guido looks much more like a casino, he tells her that he’s no gambler. ‘Gambler’s a guy who takes a chance,’ he says, though he soon takes a chance on her. Nancy’s first scenes hint at her being a femme fatale, but that role is much better played by Nelle Marchettis. Really, she’s the future in this triptych, the possibility of one for Johnny that’s entirely above board. They’re quick to fall into romance, perhaps much too quick, but we can buy into it happening and the various things happening around it that flavour it in film noir terms. Nancy isn’t the looker that Harriet was but she’s hardly bad on the eyes and she has the depth that was denied her screen sister. Keyes played a substantial character, if not a substantial part.

Keyes was a capable actress who successfully avoided typecasting but failed to escape her most famous role; it eventually found its way into the title of her autobiography, Scarlett O’Hara’s Younger Sister: My Lively Life In and Out of Hollywood. The affairs documented within it include those with three of her fellow 2016 centenarians: Glenn Ford, Sterling Hayden and Kirk Douglas; though none of those featured amongst her four marriages, she did wed film directors Charles Vidor and John Huston. It’s debatable as to whether her life eclipsed her career, but the latter didn’t take off to the degree it deserved. Her favourite of her own films was Mrs. Mike in 1949; given that she plays the Bostonian wife of Dick Powell’s Mountie in the remote north of Canada, it’s not difficult for the more romantic among us to see that as an alternate future to Johnny O’Clock. Certainly, it would be tough to argue against the ending of this picture being weaker than the events which led up to it.
While many of her career highlights were in lead roles of B-movies, she did good work in some major films too. After playing that supporting role of Suellen O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, she landed a contract with Columbia, who had her play an ingenue in Here Comes Mr. Jordan and the female lead in The Jolson Story, amongst others. Personally, I’d call out The Face Behind the Mask, a dramatic crime story from 1941 with a tinge of horror, in which she gives great support to an even better Peter Lorre. Her versatility is ably highlighted by this film noir coming right after The Jolson Story and right before The Mating of Millie, a comedy in which she played the title character. She retired in 1956 after playing Tom Ewell’s absent wife in The Seven Year Itch, but she never really quit acting. Her final film role was as a witch in Wicked Stepmother, also a final film for Bette Davis, and she still had a third appearance to come on television’s Murder She Wrote, playing different characters each time out.

As a versatile actress of consistent quality, it’s perhaps appropriate that she’s consistently good in this film, even in support of an actor who has a little more trouble with his role. There are points where Dick Powell is nuanced and perfect, but others in which I wasn’t convinced he understood his character (or the script’s take on it). Perhaps he had trouble being the lead but not the driving force behind the film; that’s Insp. Koch all the way. Johnny is one of those hardboiled characters who sits back and lets things be as they must be, but usually those characters were pulling strings behind the scenes and he isn’t. For half the film, I imagined Johnny as being rather like Rick Blaine from Casablanca as played by William Powell; that’s not quite as palatable as it is intriguing and he’s not given the grounding. Powell is great while standing up to Koch and delivering fantastic film noir dialogue, whether talking to cops or ladies. He’s less believable during emotional scenes, where he’s too cold, or during the end, where he’s out of character.
That ending is a down point. As carefully as the plot is constructed, it’s not complex enough to mask whodunit and why. The finalĂ© needed more than the solving of a crime but what’s provided doesn’t feel satisfactory. Mostly it’s the writing and I can understand if the acting errors came from that. There are a number of other details that don’t feel resolved either. Clearly Johnny wasn’t born an O’Clock but we’re never given his real surname or any reason why he chose this particular one, especially as it screams to have meaning. Perhaps it was just one of many elements to focus on a theme of the passage of time, which was promptly written away from without the due diligence done in clean up to avoid misleading us. That leads us back to Robert Rossen, an established writer of screenplays who debuted here as a director. I wonder if the best of this picture was due to his experience as the former but the worst was due to his lack of experience as the latter. Certainly it works best as a starting point to his career.

Tuesday 15 November 2016

The Dark Eyes of London (1939)

Director: Walter Summers
Writers: Patrick Kirwan, Walter Summers and J. F. Argyle, from the novel by Edgar Wallace, with additional dialogue by Jay Van Lusil
Stars: Bela Lugosi, Hugh Williams and Greta Gynt

Looking back just over three quarters of a century on, the big name here is that of Bela Lugosi, a Hungarian actor who emigrated to the United States via Germany and found his future in 1927, appearing as Count Dracula on the Broadway stage. Adapting that role to film for Tod Browning and Universal in 1931, he revitalised the Universal horror movie for a new decade and became the first true heir to the throne of Lon Chaney. The Dark Eyes of London, however, came eight years later, at a time when horror films were being reduced in number at the major studios, and so Lugosi was finding himself mired in B-movies of decreasing quality. Even though it would be released Stateside by Monogram, this British picture, made by Argyle Productions and shot at Welwyn Studios in Hertfordshire, must have felt like a break for him. Certainly he sailed out on the Queen Mary to star in it, a holiday on the way to work. Perhaps he’d also enjoyed making The Mystery of the Marie Celeste in the UK a few years earlier for Hammer.

As much as Argyle were keen to capitalise on Lugosi’s legendary performance as Dracula in their advertising for the film, he was not the biggest star associated with the project, that honour surely going to Edgar Wallace, who had written the novel upon which the film was based. Sure, the script was adapted by three screenwriters, one of whom was the film’s director, Walter Summers, in a much more gruesome style than the original novel, but it was an Edgar Wallace picture nonetheless and that’s hard to miss. The success of Wallace, whose name is hardly remembered today, cannot be understated. In 1928, it was joked, believably, that one in four books being read in the UK came from his pen and he churned out material at an amazing rate, even for the pulp era. By the time he was done, he had written over 170 novels, 18 stage plays and almost a thousand short stories, reaching 50 million sales in the process. Over 200 films have been based on his works, though he’s mostly remembered today for creating King Kong.
Having read some Edgar Wallace, this rings mostly true to his novels even though it’s much more horrific. Wallace helped to shift British detective stories away from private investigators like Sherlock Holmes and towards policemen; the string of river murders is investigated here by Det. Insp. Larry Holt of C.I.D., the Criminal Investigation Department of the British police force. There are many scenes that explore the routine of police work, including the projection of crime scene photographs and tests run on a body to ascertain stomach contents. It’s also a fantastic opportunity for Bela Lugosi, who plays a double role well enough that it doesn’t even seem like a double role for the longest time. Monogram released the film in the States as The Human Monster, and while that title surely includes a nod to the morality of Lugosi’s character, Dr. Feodor Orloff, it really shifts the focus of marketing to Jake, a supporting character played by Wilfred Walter, though a few years later it would surely have been given to Rondo Hatton.

I’m watching today, however, for Greta Gynt, a Norwegian actress who lived in the UK as a young child and moved back again as her acting career got under way. She was a regular face in British films of the forties, often playing the female lead; she retired in the early sixties on a high note, playing the lead in The Runaway. She would have been a hundred years old today and, to celebrate, I chose one of the two films she’s best known for. While she was certainly not typecast in genre film, she’s remembered mostly for Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror, with Tod Slaughter, and The Dark Eyes of London, often cited as the first film to be awarded the H for Horrific certificate by the British censor. That’s not strictly true but it ought to be, given what goes down at Dearborn’s Home for the Destitute Blind, an agreeable cover for the sordid goings on of Dr. Orloff. Most H for Horrific films are released as PG today, but this one still carries quite a punch because of that setting and what goes on there.
Gynt doesn’t appear for quite a while, as the story gets established through a number of plot strands. At Scotland Yard, the C.I.D. wonder if five missing persons showing up drowned in eight months is a coincidence. They’ve found no connections thus far but ‘the Home Office is kicking’. Three of those five were on Det. Insp. Holt’s watch, as the Commissioner is happy to point out, so he’s eager to break the case. Elsewhere in London, Dr. Orloff loans Henry Stuart $2,000 under the banner of the Greenwich Insurance Company. He trusts him, he says, because he can read it in his eyes. Meanwhile, on his way back from the States is a forger called Fred Grogan, being extradited and delivered into Holt’s custody. Bringing him is Lt. Patrick O’Reilly of the Chicago P.D., who will follow Holt around to study the methods of the British police. He’ll become the film’s comic relief, even if the Commissioner has a deliciously dry sense of humour. ‘I’ll attach him to you,’ he tells Holt, ‘so he won’t learn anything.’

So far, this feels very much like a detective story, the sort of thing that someone like, hey, Edgar Wallace might write, but there’s an edge that gradually grows as the picture runs on, one that’s quintessential early American horror. It reminds us that there are people out there in our world, not somewhere far away like Transylvania but right here in our town, that are not like us. They’re usually seen as sinister just for being different and the best movies that tread this territory use it as a means to examine what it is to be human. Lesser films merely conflate physical deformities with mental ones, suggesting that anyone different from us must be a monster, but the real classics like Freaks and Island of Lost Souls, highlight that the freaks can be more human than those we’re conditioned to see as their superiors, regular able-bodied folk who can be and often are the real bad guys. The Dark Eyes of London isn’t of the calibre of those two classics but it does try and it succeeds more often than not.
It helps that the ‘deformities’ are mostly ones that we don’t see in a horrific light any more. Orloff supports Dearborn’s Home for the Destitute Blind, where Rev. or Prof. Dearborn, depending on the source, blind himself, tries to rehabilitate the blind by giving them food, shelter and work. Having them shuffle around like zombies isn’t realistic but it certainly contributes to the freaky tone that’s being cultivated. Maybe they’re all newly blind and so haven’t yet found the sixth sense Dearborn suggests will develop. No, I don’t believe that in the slightest but maybe the scriptwriters did. Blindness isn’t the only lost sense here, as Orloff’s secretary is surely mute, as is Lou, the blind violinist who plays in the street outside Orloff’s office and delivers notes for him to Dearborn’s. At the home is Jake, who is not only blind but also looks like a cross between a werewolf and an acromegaly case. After the war, actor Wilfred Walter would have a leg amputated, highlighting in real life the difference between ‘physically different’ and ‘monster’.

The scam that’s going on behind all this isn’t hard to figure out and we follow the details of it through Henry Stuart, the imminent victim that will break the case for Det. Insp. Holt. His eventual death scene is fantastic, the abstraction required in 1939 adding to the effect. Jake looks rather like Leatherface as he lifts his apron, Stuart turns to run and Orloff closes the door on both him and us so that the scream echoes at us from the other side. The cinematography was by Bryan Langley, who had a decade behind him; he had co-shot Number Seventeen for Alfred Hitchcock in 1932. There are a number of highly effective and varied shots, including one shot through an archway and another through a doorway, both of which focus our attention magnificently. Some of the scenes at Dearborn’s are gorgeous too and they make the film often feel reminiscent of Bedlam, which wouldn’t be made for another seven years. Nicholas Musuraca’s camerawork there is legendary but I wonder if he saw this as an influence.
What breaks the case for Holt is the fact that Stuart has a daughter, Diana, something that Orloff hadn’t factored into his plans at all. Through the time honoured art of coincidence, she’s already on her way home from America and Holt actually treads on her foot when she alights from the train right before Fred Grogan; he’s immediately smitten and will have plenty of contact, starting at the morgue as she comes to identify her father’s body. Greta Gynt doesn’t get a huge amount of screen time but she does get to do quite a lot with it, because the role takes her through a variety of situations rather quickly. One minute she’s a potential love interest, the next she’s called on to deliver dramatic reactions, before being sent undercover in a police investigation. I enjoyed her performance but it’s not as consistent as it could be and would have benefitted from more screen time to allow Gynt to find her feet in each scene. When she gets that, she’s great and she’s a fun damsel in distress; without it, she’s not as good.

Lugosi makes the best of his double role, which is surely one of the best such performances of the era. As Orloff, he’s overdone in the traditional Lugosi style, hypnotising with his eyes and going all moody and dangerous when things don’t go to plan. However, his other role, which I won’t name to avoid spoiling the film for you, is thoroughly different and the costume is simple but neatly effective. To be fair, the biggest reason he gets away with it is that the voice of his alternate persona is dubbed by another actor, because Lugosi’s accent was not something he could switch off at a moment’s notice, but he lip synchs very well. Hugh Williams is the actor unenviably tasked with playing the routine, albeit talented, character in a film full of grotesques and so isn’t particularly memorable as Det. Insp. Holt, even though he does exactly what he needed to do. It’s always the case that the outrageous roles dominate in pictures like this and there are a whole slew of outrageous roles stealing those scenes.
Most obvious, of course, is Wilfred Walter as Jake, who would become the focus of the American marketing campaign. If Dr. Orloff is a human monster in a moral sense, Jake is certainly a human monster in the physical one. That’s his visage on the poster, under Bela Lugosi’s name; I wonder how many American filmgoers were confused when they saw The Human Monster in 1940 and found that Lugosi wasn’t playing Jake. While Walter is spot on as the lumbering assassin, I was impressed by Arthur E. Owen as Lou and Alexander Field as Grogan. The former initially seems like a throwaway character, but he keeps finding moments of importance, eventually writhing around on a hospital bed like he’s become Renfield. The latter nails the feel of polite disrepute that Leonard Rossiter epitomised much later on. He’s making the most of his fame, as dubious as it is, lording it over the cops who never fail to be in charge. He gets a memorable final scene too, which I also won’t spoil.

For a 75 minute B-movie that relishes its gruesome inventiveness, this is surprisingly effective and stands up well today, both as a detective yarn and a horror flick. Bela Lugosi had made some incredible movies in the thirties but he’d also made others that were horrific in ways that they never intended. I haven’t seen everything he made after this but I have seen the vast majority and it’s a rare one indeed that’s better than this. It could be argued that there are only two, The Wolf Man and The Body Snatcher, making this an important film in his career, the last of his good work of the thirties. I wonder if part of that was because this was a British film; while that meant that it didn’t have to cater to the American Production Code, the British censor was notoriously tough on horror and I’m honestly surprised this crept through their net. Destroying the hearing of a blind mute and then murdering him in front of our bound heroine is brutal and not what would be allowed at a time other than when the H certificate was brought back in.

Saturday 12 November 2016

Carry On... Up the Khyber (1968)

Director: Gerald Thomas
Writer: Talbot Rothwell
Stars: Sidney James, Kenneth Williams, Charles Hawtrey, Roy Castle, Joan Sims, Bernard Bresslaw, Peter Butterworth, Terry Scott, Angela Douglas and Cardew Robinson

It’s hard to explain to anyone not brought up in the UK just how much of an institution the Carry On team were and still are, even if they haven’t made a movie since 1992 or a decent one since at least 1975. It’s especially hard to explain to Americans how they got away with that sort of material in the 1960s, when the Hays Office routinely stripped out dialogue that had to do with sex, but they even had Christmas specials on television in the UK. You see, Carry On movies are a mixture of double entendre and dirty joke, the seaside postcard brought to life, and they’re a uniquely British thing, a descendant of the music hall. There were 30 original Carry On movies made, plus a 31st that’s new material wrapped around clips; there were also four Christmas specials, a thirteen episode TV show and three stage plays. All were produced by Peter Rogers and directed by Gerald Thomas. The majority were written by two writers: the first six by Norman Hudis and the next twenty by Talbot Rothwell, who would have been one hundred today.

How Rothwell got involved with the series almost sounds like the script for a Carry On movie. He was a Royal Air Force pilot in the Second World War; after being shot down over Norway, he was imprisoned in Stalag Luft III, the Luftwaffe-run officer camp that was made famous by the films The Wooden Horse and The Great Escape. He started to write as a POW, for concerts that aimed to both keep up morale and drown out the noise of tunnel digging. He befriended actor Peter Butterworth in the camp and partnered on those concerts; he would later introduce him to the Carry On series, in which he would become a regular, appearing in 16 of them. Rothwell wrote a spoof of this sort of thing, Carry On Escaping, but it was never made. Having held ‘respectable’ jobs like town clerk and police officer before the war, he turned to writing as a career in the fifties, penning comedy sketches for TV shows featuring established comedians like Terry-Thomas, Arthur Askey and Ted Ray. His first feature film scripts were dotted around the mid-1950s. However, he didn’t write Carry On Sergeant in 1958, or the next five films in what became a thematic series; Hudis did.
Carry On Sergeant was intended as a standalone film. It was adapted from a play by the historical novelist, R. F. Delderfield, and stars the first Doctor, William Hartnell, and Bob Monkhouse, so it’s hardly what the series became. If anything, it’s a 1958 Police Academy, merely with conscripts into National Service rather than policemen. However, the cast list did include Kenneth Williams, Charles Hawtrey, Kenneth Connor, Terry Scott and Hattie Jacques, who all became regulars in the Carry On films that were spun out of this film’s success. The first four were still around for this sixteenth film in 1968; Jacques appeared in fourteen between 1958 and 1974 but not this one. At that time, Carry On movies tended to throw respectable professions into a comedy framework, following quite closely the formula of the first, such as Carry On Nurse, Carry On Teacher and Carry On Constable. However, they would soon begin to take on British institutions, traditions and tropes, especially after Rothwell replaced Hudis as the series writer.

While Rothwell wrote the eighth film on spec, Carry On Jack, it was made after Carry On Cabby, which he hadn’t written as a Carry On film at all; he’d submitted it to Peter Rogers as a standalone picture, Call Me a Cab. Rogers liked his work and brought him on for the series. To my mind, it took him a while to warm up, Carry On Spying and Carry On Cleo being overrated entries in the series, even if the latter did feature what has been voted the greatest one-liner in movie history, which Rothwell admittedly borrowed from the radio show, Take It from Here. Kenneth Williams, portraying Julius Caesar, shouts out, ‘Infamy! Infamy! They’ve all got it in for me!’ To me, Rothwell hit his stride in 1966 with Carry On Screaming!, a spoof of Hammer horror movies, because the next half dozen are great bawdy fun. Personal favourites of mine include Carry On Henry (about Henry VIII’s wives), Carry On Dick (about highwaymen) and Carry On... Don’t Lose Your Head (about the French revolution).
While fans argue about which is the worst feature in the series (many vote for the last, Carry On Columbus, released fourteen years after its predecessor to tie in to the 500th anniversary of Columbus reaching America, but I’d suggest either of the two that came before it, Carry On England or Carry On Emmannuelle), it’s almost universally agreed that Carry On... Up the Khyber, is the best. In fact, the British Film Institute included it in their list of the 100 greatest British films, in 99th place just above The Killing Fields. It’s hard to argue against it being the most quintessential, partly because it featured most of the series regulars in some of their best roles but partly because it focused around subject that were ripe for ridicule in 1968: the colonial era of British expansion, in which we waltzed into other countries and proudly proclaimed that they were ours, and the Kipling-esque adventures that glorified it, like the 1939 version of Gunga Din. The time was right, the people were right and the end result was hilariously right.

We’re in India in 1895, with the British in charge but the natives restless. Her Majesty’s governor of Khalabar, in the northwest of the country bordering Afghanistan, is Sir Sidney Ruff-Diamond, in the form of the irrepressible Sidney James, so good at playing a dirty old man with an even dirtier laugh. His foil is Randy Lal, the Khasi of Khalabar, the local rajah, played by Kenneth Williams. It’s worth mentioning here that the humour is thoroughly English, to the degree that many jokes will fly over the heads of those from other countries. For instance, ‘khazi’ is military slang for a toilet and the film’s title, in addition to referencing a real location, is an example of Cockney rhyming slang, in which a word is obscured by shortening a phrase with which it rhymes. For instance, ‘use your loaf’ means ‘use your head’ because ‘head’ rhymes with ‘loaf of bread’. Of course, this is often used to obscure words not usable in polite company, such as ‘cobblers’ from ‘cobbler’s awls’ or ‘balls’ and, here, ‘Up the Khyber’ from ‘Khyber Pass’ or ‘arse’.
Rothwell defines the state of affairs perfectly at a polo match. The Khasi tells his daughter that Sir Sidney is the British governor, ‘whose benevolent rule and wise guidance we could well do without.’ Why does he smile at him so favourably? ‘Because in these days of British military supremacy, the Indian must be as a basket: with two faces.’ Meanwhile, Sir Sidney tells his wife, Lady Joan, that the Khasi would like to massacre him and ‘every other Britisher in India’. Why does he smile at him like that, then? ‘Because as a top-ranked British diplomacist, I’m as two-faced as he is.’ They do say that the best comedy is based in truth and there’s much truth here, not least in the final scene, in which the native Burpa tribe attacks the Governor’s Residence and, while the men fight outside, the Governor sits down to a black tie dinner, with orchestra, and everyone ignores the battle, even with the room being destroyed around them. This is the most ridiculous yet still truest example of ‘stiff upper lip’ that has ever been filmed.

But how do we get there? Well, Sir Sidney’s province is defended by the 3rd Foot and Mouth Regiment, colloquially known as ‘the Devils in Skirts’ because they are said to wear nothing under their kilts. Rothwell suggests that this is the primary reason why the natives have not revolted. In the words of the Khasi: ‘Think how frightening it would be to have such a man charging at you with his skirts flying in the air and flashing his great big bayonet at you!’ But the local warlord Bungdit Din, surely the best role for the 6’ 7” Bernard Bresslaw in 14 Carry On movies, flashes his scimitar at the cowardly Private Widdle who promptly faints at the sight. Because it’s so important, he looks under the man’s kilt to discover that he’s wearing large underpants beneath it. He takes them to the Khasi, who sees the possibility and, sure enough, it soon escalates to the point where he can convince the Burpas that there is nothing to fear from men who wear such garments under their skirts and a native uprising begins.
This set-up is perfect for a Carry On film and it’s aided by a host of fortuitous circumstances, because budgets were never high for Carry On films. This one cost a mere £260,000, even with a dozen or so regular cast members; even the biggest stars, like Kenneth Williams, were only paid £5,000 per film. Rogers planned Carry On Dallas in 1980, a spoof of the TV show, but had to ditch the idea when Lorimar Productions wanted twenty times the entire production budget as their royalty fee. Carry On Cleo was the greatest beneficiary of circumstance within the series, able to use expensive costumes and sets created and built for the Elizabeth Taylor version of Cleopatra but abandoned when production moved to Rome. However Carry On... Up the Khyber also lucked out, as all the kilts were re-used from the Alec Guinness film, Tunes of Glory. The Governor’s Residence is Heatherden Hall, a Victorian country house located within the grounds of Pinewood Studios. The Khyber Pass scenes were shot on Mount Snowden in Wales.

Rothwell’s scripts were generally written with series regulars in mind for specific characters, which is why Roy Castle’s one and only appearance is in a role clearly intended for Jim Dale, but this one features what are arguably the best roles for many of those regulars. Sid James was top billed in 17 of his 19 Carry On appearances and Kenneth Williams was the most regular of the regulars, appearing in 25 of the 30 films, but these are quintessential roles for them. Beyond Bresslaw as Bungdit Din, I’d suggest that Joan Sims, Terry Scott and Peter Butterworth never got better roles either as the common-as-muck Lady Joan Ruff-Diamond, the gruff Sgt. Maj. MacNutt and the lecherous missionary, Brother Belcher, respectively. Other regulars, such as Charles Hawtrey, Angela Douglas and Julian Holloway, are also well cast and Cardew Robinson is perfect in his sole series appearance as an inept fakir. The consistent quality of these actors and Rothwell’s scripts are the two primary reasons why this series did so well.
And Rothwell was never better than here. Some jokes are truly awful but perfect for the moment, such as when Brother Belcher, horrendously disguised as a Burpa chief, carries on with a harem girl in a jewelled bra. ‘Are those rubies?’ he asks her. She replies, ‘No, they’re mine.’ When the British prepare to defend against the natives, Capt. Keene issues the command to fire at will. Brother Belcher comments, ‘Poor old Will! Why do they always fire at him?’ As the ceiling falls in on Lady Joan during the native uprising, she laughs it off. ‘Oh dear, I seem to have got a little plastered!’ Some are mildly rude, such as an exchange in which the Governor politely receives the Khasi’s compliments with succinct responses, which lead to, ‘And may his radiance light up your life!’ ‘And up yours!’ Many are dirty jokes indeed, like one during the introductory conversation at the polo match. Talking about the Khasi, Sir Sidney tells his wife, ‘I wouldn’t trust him an inch,’ to which she saucily replies, ‘Neither would I.’

Some jokes are situational, such as when Private Widdle paints a thin red line across the courtyard of the Governor’s Residence, a reference to the Battle of Balaclava when a thin line of red shirted Highlanders scared off a Russian cavalry attack, ‘the thin red line’ becoming a symbol of British stiff upper lip. Having the Khyber Pass, ‘the gateway to India’, be a traditional British sheep gate with ‘Please shut the gate’ on it, is priceless. More topically, the Khasi is dismissive when one of his men announces the arrival of Sir Sidney by sounding a gong, uttering the line, ‘Rank stupidity!’ This film was distributed by the Rank Organisation, whose ident is a similarly dressed man sounding a gong. Ultimately it all comes down to the final scene, when Sir Sidney and his officers ask the ladies if they can leave the dinner table, after the natives finally breach their gate. They saunter outside to the battle and treat the whole thing as a polite game. ‘Permission to have a bash, sir?’ asks Maj. Shorthouse, before leaping into the fray.
These final scenes are the Carry On series in microcosm. We British are always good at laughing at ourselves and that pervades the history of our humour. It was a rare Carry On film that didn’t target a traditional British institution, from Hammer Horror films to the National Health Service, from caravan holidays to Brits abroad, from the armed forces to the trade unions. The British Empire was a logical target, but it allowed Rothwell to really hone in on what it meant to be British. These final scenes both celebrate and lampoon the heart of the British mindset. We’re brave, we’re cultured and we’re cool under pressure, but we stand on ceremony, we make a ritual out of everything and we take things to ridiculous extremes. I can’t say that this movie is perfect: not every joke hits, there are slow bits throughout the middle and the plot could have been tighter. However, as a proud Briton who wears a kilt every day, this is part of who I am. It’s an institution in itself, just like the entire Carry On series.