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A PHILISTINE’S A-Z GUIDE TO HER FAVOURITE FILMS

Posted on: February 26, 2018

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I decided I needed a little break from the paranormal world at the moment, (or at least some of the people in it), and thought instead to do an A-Z tribute to my favourite films of all time. I should stress right from the start that I am by no means saying these are the finest, most cultured, most high-brow, most artistic films ever made (hence the title of the piece). In fact some of my choices may well have Serious Movie Buffs clutching their pearls and waving their scented lace hankies around in shock. These are the films that I have watched several times over the years, and would happily watch several more times. These are the films that I would choose to take to a desert island with me. Some of them I have watched more times than I can possibly count. As is the way with any list like this, it’s very much a personal choice. As the old saying goes “one man’s meat is another man’s poison”. I’ve limited myself to one film for each letter of the alphabet, which sometimes required a HUGE amount of self-discipline. You can read longer reviews of each film on my film blog.

A – Angel (2007)

This film is based on the novel of the same name by Elizabeth Taylor, and stars Romola Garai as Angelica Deverell, a sensationalist romantic author at the turn of the 20th century. Angel is a writer very much in the Elinor Glyn style. Elinor’s scandalous novel 3 Weeks was the 50 Shades of its day, centring round an older woman seducing a younger man on a tigerskin rug, leading to the rhyme “would you sin with Glyn / on a tigerskin”. The film details Angel’s struggle to make Real Life accord with the world of her romantic fiction. It captures the Edwardian era beautifully, and Romola is first-class as the idealistic, but controlling author.

B – The Black Torment (1964)

There was some competition for the letter ‘B’, as I was also tempted by Breakfast At Tiffany’s and Black Swan. This one won out simply because it reminds me of the Victoria Holt gothic romance novels I used to read when I was younger. Elizabeth Sellers plays an innocent young 18th century bride who goes to live in her new husband’s handsome manor-house, only to find herself being haunted by the ghost of his first wife. Some genuinely spinechilling moments and a lovely country house all add to the mix.

C – Carry On Camping (1969)

Yes really. The Carry Ons have had more than their fair share of flak over the years, and yet they’ve endured, and are probably even more popular now than they were in their day. They now come with a heavy nostalgia factor, harking back to a more innocent time for humour. Their strength lay in their tight-knit team of actors, and Camping stars a few of the more familiar, much-loved faces, such as Kenneth Williams, Sid James, Joan Sims, Charles Hawtrey, Hattie Jacques, Bernard Bresslaw and Terry Scott. It’s most famous for having the scene where Barbara Windsor bursts out of her bikini top. “Matron! Take them away!!”  Also has quite possibly the most joyous opening theme music I’ve ever heard, a jazzed up version of One Man Went To Mow.  Charlie Brooker famously borrowed it for his Screenwipe series.  I’m still waiting for someone on YouTube to put together a 10-hour version.

D – Dance With A Stranger (1985)

I’m fascinated by the life of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain. Ruth was executed in 1955, for shooting dead her lover, David Blakely, outside a London pub on Easter Sunday. In DWAS Miranda Richardson, with a Monroe-esque blonde bob, gives a faultless performance as Ruth, and the film captures the atmosphere of the 1950s drinking clubs to perfection.

E – The Earth Dies Screaming (1965)

A little-known British B-movie, which is about an invasion by a sinister crowd of robotic zombies. As cheap as chips and running at about an hour in length, this film comes across like a lost episode of The Avengers, but without the humour. It’s not perfect, but I found parts of it quite eerie, and I love the fact that the Brits head to the pub in it. As we no doubt would.

F – The Fog (1980)

Another film that often seems to get a rough ride from critics, and yet everyone I’ve ever watched it with over the years has thoroughly enjoyed it. Directed by John Carpenter, it concerns a sinister fog which rolls in off the ocean and blankets a small Californian town. In the fog are the ghosts of shipwrecked lepers from a century before, and they are out for revenge on the townsfolk. I particularly liked Adrienne Barbeau’s DJ character, running her late night radio station from an isolated lighthouse. Also has some enjoyably spooky music. Don’t get me started on the remake.

G – The Gorgon (1964)

I have a fondness for this lesser-known Hammer Horror effort, because it was effectively the very first horror film I ever saw (way back when), and also because I’m endlessly fascinated by the legend of the Gorgon. Beautiful Barbara Shelley plays a nurse in a German village at the turn of the 20th century, who believes she is being possessed by the spirit of the legendary monster. It also stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. There are some poetical moments in this, most particularly the scene where one character is lured through the forest by the Gorgon’s singing, only to meet his fate at the sinister Castle Borski.

H – The Haunting (1963)

This film scared the bejaysus out of me when I first saw it as a child, and all these years on it still holds up as a classic of the haunted house genre. Four psychic investigators are sent to stay at the sinister Hill House, headed by Dr Markway (the excellent Richard Johnson), who is assisted by Clare Bloom, Russ Tamblyn and Julie Harris, who gives the performance of her life as the neurotic Eleanor. Scary faces in the wallpaper, a door that seems to breathe by itself, loud knockings in the night, and a murderous spiral staircase all add to the Atmosphere. The much-savaged remake in 1997 is possibly worth watching for the huge, ornate house, but is let down badly by awful characters and a lazy over-reliance on CGI.

I – The Innocents (1961)

Based on Henry James’ classic novel The Turn Of The Screw, this film stars Deborah Kerr as a governess sent to look after two lonely children, living an isolated existence at a huge country house. She finds that the place is being haunted by the ghosts of two previous servants. There is an indefinable quality about this black-and-white film which almost seems to lift it into another dimension at times. It includes some outstandingly spooky pieces, such as the sobbing in the classroom, and the sighting of the ghostly figure across the lake.

J – The Jokers (1967)

Oliver Reed and Michael Crawford play an unlikely pair of posh brothers in this enjoyable Swinging Sixties caper from the directorship of Michael Winner. For a lark, the brothers plan to steal the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London, and then put them back. This film is stylish, with an infectious sense of fun (although being a Winner film, it also has its dark moments). Oliver Reed is adorable. Devilishly handsome and very funny to boot, he’s clearly having the time of his life here.

K – King Kong (1933)

The original and the only one I get excited about seeing. Faye Wray is the classic damsel-in-distress, at the tender mercy of that hulking great ape. The scenes on Skull Island still hold up well for excitement.

L – The Legend Of Hell House (1973)

Based on Richard Matheson’s novel*, Hell House basically almost reprises The Haunting ‘s plot of 4 psychic investigators sent to stay in a grim, forbidding mansion, during the week running up to Christmas. This one is the formidable Belasco House, “the Mount Everest of haunted houses”, a gothic pile with bricked up windows, where it is rumoured no one gets out alive. The small cast of Clive Revill, Pamela Franklin, Gayle Hunnicutt and the sublime Roddy McDowell all do a fine job. I admit it, I am a complete anorak about this film. I’ve read the book countless times, seen the film countless times, downloaded the music on YouTube, and researched all the locations. I can’t get enough of it, and come the closing months of the year, I always get an urge to see it again. These days it would probably feature a bunch of silly, squawking kids running around with gadgets, swamped with CGI, and generally being perfectly insufferable. *when is this book going to finally be released on Kindle??

M – Marie Antoinette (2006)

Very hard to choose between this and the lavish, Norma Shearer version from 1938. I adore both these films, and Norma’s version has the added bonus of the sexy Joseph Schildkraut as the Duc d’Orleans, but the 2006 is a glorious, colourful romp. The director, Sofia Coppola, got some flak for using modern pop music as the soundtrack, and yet it works brilliantly. The use of Hong Kong Garden for the masked ball scene, and I Want Candy to showcase Antoinette’s indulgences were brilliant choices. It is a beautiful, abundant film, and I love it.

N – Night Of The Demon (1957)

Based on M R James’s story Casting The Runes, NOTD is about an American psychic investigator, Dr Holden (Dana Andrews) who is sent to England to investigate a devil-worship cult headed by the peculiar Julian Carswell (Niall McGinnis), who is clearly based on Aleister Crowley. Holden finds he has been cursed by Carswell, after he is surreptitiously passed a slip of parchment bearing runic figures. The spooky scene where Holden is chased through the woods by an invisible demon has been described as pure poetry, and I’m not going to argue with that one.

O – Oh Mr Porter! (1937)

The lovable Will Hay in his most famous film. Hay usually played well-meaning but bumbling schoolmasters or police officers. In this one he is a railway worker who is sent to a remote country station on the border between Northern and Southern Ireland. He finds himself assigned with two hopeless assistants, Moore Marriott and Graham Moffatt. The grand finale, involving a showdown with IRA gun-runners on the roof of a moving train is an absolute classic of vintage slapstick comedy.

P – The Private Life Of Henry VIII (1933)

There have been numerous films made about our most memorable monarch over the years, of quite variable quality. This one plays fast and loose with historical accuracy, but it’s all done with such panache, and featuring such a lovable performance from Charles Laughton, that I don’t much care. He is ably assisted by real-life wife, Elsa Lanchester, who is absolutely adorable as Anne of Cleves. And I love the sets too, all flickering torches and twisted stone staircases. Love it.

Q – Quo Vadis (1951)

One of the many lavish historical dramas which Hollywood put out in the 1950s, usually because they were too nervous of the McCarthy witch-hunts to make modern films (and I have a terrible fear we’re heading back to those days at times). Quo Vadis is lavish, and features an unforgettable performance by Peter Ustinov as the Emperor Nero. Also has Patricia Laffan, as the the Empress Poppaea, keeping her pet leopards on a leash.

R – Ring Of Spies (1964)

I was a bit spoilt for choice when trying to choose one for ‘R’. I was tempted by two Hitchcock dramas, Rebecca, and Rear Window, both of which I love, but the low-budget Ring Of Spies won out. It details the Portland Spy Ring of the early 1960s, and at times has a documentary-style feel to it.

S – Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Gloria Swanson camps it up superbly as the forgotten silent era star Norma Desmond, hiding away in her dark, gothic mansion. I love her in this. She clearly relished sending herself up, but the film also has quite an eerie feel at times. Worth seeing just for her impersonation of Chaplin alone. Incredibly, this film was set only 25 years after Norma’s heyday. It’s hard to imagine someone nowadays making a film about a long-lost star from 1993! (Now I’ve said that, they probably will). Anyway, one more time: “I AM big, it was the pictures that got small!”

T – Tale Of A Vampire (1992)

Very little-known low-budget British offering, directed by Shimako Sato, which rarely gets a mention in film guides. I’m every bit of an anorak about this film as I am about Hell House*. Something about it absolutely fascinates me, and that’s not just Julian Sands, who is incredibly sexy as vampire Alex! Suzanna Hamilton plays Anne, a young woman who gets a job at a creepy London library (the film was shot on location around glamorous Deptford). From then on all sorts of strange, surreal things begin to happen to her, and she finds herself being preyed upon by the handsome Alex. She is also being stalked by a sinister man in a fedora hat (the ever excellent Kenneth Cranham). Some parts of this film simply do not make sense, and I suspect it has been heavily edited, losing something in the process. But for me, that is all simply part of its quirky charm. Wintry London has never looked more eerie, and there is a good soundtrack by Julian Joseph. *If anyone ever wants a novelised version of this film, then I’m up for it.

U – Up In The World (1956)

My favourite Norman Wisdom film. Not only is it very funny, but it has a summery, almost idyllic feel to it at times. Norm gets a job as a window-cleaner at a stately home (it was filmed at Woburn Abbey), where he finds himself being plagued by the spoilt son of the house, who is an incorrigible practical joker. Jerry Desmonde, who often crops up as the fierce, staid straight man in Norman’s films, is on top form as his new boss. I loved Norman’s greenhouse accommodation in the grounds.

V – A View To A Kill (1985)

I’m a Bond fan, I admit it, and normally Live And Let Die would get top billing on any list of my favourite films, but ‘L’ was already taken. AVTAK is often rubbished in the Bond canon. It was Sir Roger Moore’s last outing as the super-spy, and it was felt (with some justification) that at 57 he was simply too old for the role. Nevertheless I still have a fondness for it. It’s a lot of fun, if you don’t take it too seriously, and Christopher Walken makes a superb boo-hiss villain. It was also Lois Maxwell’s last outing as Miss Moneypenny.

W – The Wicked Lady (1945)

Hard to believe now, but there was a time when Margaret Lockwood’s heaving bosom was enough to give a film notoriety all on its own. She is magnificent here, as the sociopathic Lady Barbara, snatching her best friend’s fiance away from her on the eve of their wedding, and then turning to highway robbery to enliven her dull country existence. James Mason is at his funniest and sexiest as rascally highway man, Jerry Jackson, and Patricia Roc does an equally spirited turn as Lady Barbara’s thwarted friend.

Y – Yield To The Night (1956)

At the end of her incredibly flamboyant life, Diana Dors said if nothing else, she would always have Yield To The Night to be proud of. DD had been a sort of British version of Jayne Mansfield, more famous for her glamorous looks and her scandalous private life than any serious acting ability, but all that was to change with YTTN. In it she plays Mary Norton, a young woman sentenced to death for shooting her lover’s mistress in the street. It is often wrongly assumed that YTTN was based on the story of Ruth Ellis, but Joan Henry wrote the original story before Ruth’s trial. Nevertheless YTTN was made in the immediate aftermath of Ruth’s execution, when there was a considerable groundswell of public feeling against the death penalty. This is a thoughtful, moving film, quite beautiful in some scenes, with outstanding acting from all involved. DD shows an incredible maturity and ability here, and it is a crying shame that she never again got offered roles of this calibre.

There is no ‘Z’ (actually there’s no ‘X’ either), as I really couldn’t see me wanting to take Zombie Flesh-Eaters to a desert island, and the old Ziegfeld musicals are interesting to watch once, but I’m in no hurry to see them again. If I ever do an A-Z of the Worst Films I’ve Ever Seen, then I’m sure Zeta One will be rounding it off. I was surprised by some of my own choices, as no Bette Davis or Marilyn Monroe films cropped up, and only one Bond. It seems I have a distinct taste for low-budget vintage horror or comedy. Now there’s a surprise. But if we ever get a Star Trek-style Holo-suite in the future, where we can re-enact our favourite films, then sign me up for the Belasco Mansion, or the Deptford gothic library, or Tudor-era Hampton Court, or Swinging Sixties London, or the palace of Versailles, or Buggleskelly railway station, or mucking about with the Carry On team ….

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