SJH’S FILM REVIEWS Part 1 A-C
A work-in-progress, Part 1 A-C:
ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948)
Dir: Charles Barton
I kept reading rave reviews about how funny this was, so I gave it a go. It’s certainly of interest to show where horror cinema was at in the 1940s. The outright horror of the 20s and 30s had given way to comic send-ups like this, in which all the old favourite monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman) were reunited on screen once again. Boris Karloff flatly refused to reprise his monster role, but Bela Lugosi is clearly enjoying himself no end, complete with Dracula cape, and the adorable Lon Chaney Jnr plays it admirably straight as the tormented Wolfman. My problem personally is with Abbott and Costello themselves, who I find only mildly amusing at best (I accept that opinion is probably not popular, particularly as this film made it into the Reader’s Digest Top 100 funniest films of all time). Lou Costello is an affable little chap, but his constant cries of “Chick! Chick!” got on my nerves. There are some clever jokes though. Example: “I go mad at the full moon”. “You and 10 million other guys”. Worth seeing for Lugosi and Chaney, and for that splendid castle, which is everything a gothic castle in a film should be.
THE ABOMINABLE DR PHIBES (1971)
Dir: Robert Fuest
I watched this one on YouTube, where you can download the whole film for free. It’s a gloriously OTT piece of early 1970s British campness, starring the incomparable Vincent Price. He is Dr Anton Phibes, an academic driven demented with grief by the death of his beautiful young wife, due to a botched hospital operation. Phibes is determined to be revenged on all the doctors involved, and he has some truly original ideas as to how to go about it. He bases each murder on the Seven Plagues Of Egypt, so we have death by frog, death by locusts, death by blood, death of the first born etc. The whole thing has strong echoes of its sister film, Theatre Of Blood, where Price played a ham actor getting revenge on every theatre critic who had ever slated his work, and does so turning to the works of Shakespeare for inspiration (poor old Arthur Lowe having his head cut off and stuck on a milk bottle still haunts me to this day). Anyway, back to Phibes. The film begins with Price, seemingly clad from head-to-foot in black PVC, playing a pop-up organ in his sumptuous art-deco home. This kind of sets the scene for all the camp extravagance that is to follow. He is ably assisted in his dark deeds by his beautiful mute assistant (Virginia North), who has a habit of sawing away at a violin in the swirling fog. This film gets away with everything because not for one moment do we ever get the idea that anyone is taking this too seriously. It is wholly unpretentious, and yet the cast (full of old stalwarts, including the loveable Terry-Thomas, who plays a sort of reluctant blood donor I suppose you could say) all throw themselves into it with aplomb. There are some very gruesome moments – most particularly the death by locusts segment – and yet oddly we are all rooting for Phibes. He’s doing some terrible things, he’s completely barking mad, and yet he’s not doing it because he’s evil. When I watched this I found some of the YouTube comments quite touching, as everyone had sympathy for this grotesque character. TRIVIA CORNER: Keith Moon was watching this film the evening he died. Perhaps I should add his death had nothing to do with the film.
THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN (1957)
Dir: Val Guest
Enjoyable little Hammer thriller from the 1950s, in which Peter Cushing heads a yeti-hunting team of scientists in the Himalayas, based at a Buddhist monastery. It’s a surprisingly atmospheric number, although considering it was scripted by Nigel Kneale, perhaps not so surprising after all. The delightful Richard Wattis is also on hand. Although studio-bound, some of the mountain shots are stock footage. TRIVIA CORNER: the monks were largely played by waiters from London restaurants.
ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS: THE MOVIE (2016)
Dir: Mandie Fletcher
Transferring 30-minute TV sitcoms to the big screen is a notoriously tricky one, and AbFab proved to be no exception. It’s not that this movie is bad (it’s not), it’s just distinctly underwhelming. Once the pleasure of seeing the girls again is over – a few minutes in – unfortunately the worst aspects of the TV show then take over, i.e the relentlessly unfunny celebrity cameo’s. This was always the part of the show that I hated. I preferred it when it concentrated on the solid-gold repartee between the main characters. Edina Monsoon (Jennifer Saunders) accidentally manages to knock Kate Moss over a balcony into the Thames. Believing she’s drowned her, Eddy flees to the south of France with old chum Patsy (Joanna Lumley). The parts about the hysterical public reaction (particularly on social-media) to Kate’s death are spot-on, but the rest of it feels curiously tired and dated. In particular, Saffy (Julia Sawalha) singing Janis Ian’s At 17 to a weepy-eyed drag club felt so patronising and old-hat I almost abandoned ship. A homage to the legendary last scene of Some Like It Hot rounds it all off, but this time it’s as clunky and laboured as one of Theresa May’s speeches. Plus point: Kathy Burke reprises her role as the fearsome Magda, marching through the film barking orders at everyone. Minus point: the excrutiatingly annoying Jane Horrocks as gormless Bubble, who grates on my nerves like an automated helpline. To add to the misery we also get her revisiting her Little Voice days by doing a lame impersonation of Shirley Bassey. This was an indulgence that should have been nipped in the bud at the first draft. Anyway, to sum up, I watched it through to the end, but I feel no great inclination to watch it again. It’s a shame, I had high hopes of this one.
THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1939)
Dir: Alfred L Werker
The second and last of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce collaboration to be made in period costume. From then onwards Sherlock would be updated to modern times. A thoroughly enjoyable little thriller, in which our heroes come up once more against their nemesis, Professor Moriarty (George Zucco), who is intent on stealing the Crown Jewels no less. The photography on this is great, and the sequence where Holmes talks Moriarity up a dimly-lit staircase reminded me of an Escher drawing. We also get to see Sherlock do a neat music-hall turn, where he gives a robust performance of ‘I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside’.
AFTER THE BALL (1897)
Dir: Georges Melies
The earliest example of cinematic soft porn, dating from 1897, and made by Georges Melies. Running at just over a minute long, the plot is acutely simple, even by the usual efforts of pornography. A voluptuous lady returns home from a ball, and her maid helps her to strip off all her clothes. The maid then gets her into the bath, and proceeds to pour a jug of coal dust over her. I must admit that bit baffled me. Was the maid being revolutionary? Was this early slapstick, and not erotica? No, according to YouTube Comments section (don’t say they never teach you anything), this was because water wouldn’t show up very well in early cinema, so they substituted sand or coal dust instead. Fascinating slice of What The Butler Saw-style naughtiness. Also interesting that the actress taking her clothes off makes no effort to be raunchy whatsoever, in fact she strips as briskly as if she’s going for a doctor’s examination.
Dir: Michael Apted
I have to say, in all honesty, that Vanessa Redgrave is not an actress I’ve ever warned to, and that’s not because of her political stuff. There’s just something about her screen appearances that I find vaguely annoying. That was very much the case when she played Mary Queen Of Scots, and yet here, as Dame Agatha Christie, she is actually adorable. I suspect playing a timid character, chronically lacking in confidence (when asked to give a speech at a book promotion, all she can mumble out is “thank you very much”), might have something to do with it, and yet she does seem to get under the skin of a woman who still seems quite an enigma, in spite of the massive popularity of her books. The film covers the ten days in December 1926 when Agatha Christie disappeared dramatically from public view, before finally being tracked down in a Harrogate hotel. Based on the book by Kathleen Tynan, it puts forward its own theory as to what happened to Agatha during those mysterious 10 days, and although the theory is frankly rather preposterous, it’s still an absorbing movie. Dustin Hoffman puts in a showy turn as a brash American journalist, who decides to track her down. He’s not really needed, and his constant wise-guy persona can be a bit wearying. I was far more interested in Agatha kicking up her heels at the posh hotel and finally having some fun. If you’re a fan of Dame Agatha, then the film is well worth watching.
THE AGE OF INNOCENCE (1993)
Dir: Martin Scorsese
I know some people rave about this film. For me, all I can say is … it’s alright I suppose. It’s certainly well-made, and the attention to period detail is first-class. If you want to wallow in Edwardian luxury then this is the film for you. There are some A-list actors on hand, but … heck, I’m running out of things to say about it. I guess I’m just not into people languidly pining for each other. For me, it just all feels too cold, too mannered, too utterly civilised, and vaguely disjointed. But there is no denying that it is very elegant and sumptuous to look at.
THE AIRSHIP DESTROYER (1909)
Dir: Walter R Booth
Very early British sci-fi from 1909. Worth seeing as a slice of history, as it’s very much of it’s time, when paranoia about what the Germans may be building was growing apace. A bit like an Edwardian version of the Red Scare menace of the 1950s. It’s interesting that around this time we had the mysterious airship sightings in Britain, which makes me wonder if that was caused by the making of this film, or the film was inspired by it. Very much of its time, when inventors, still looking immaculate in their smart trousers and ties, knocked up big machines in their back gardens. Quite a lot of fun, and running at only a few minutes long you won’t exactly have time to get bored.
ALAN PARTRIDGE – ALPHA PAPA (2013)
Dir: Declan Lowney
As a die-hard fan of the legendary Mr Partridge I confess to having had misgivings about whether he would transfer to the big screen. What works splendidly for half-an-hour on the small screen, doesn’t always work for 90 minutes on the large one. But no need to worry, this is a very funny slapstick comedy, with the great Mr P on top form. Alan’s Norfolk radio station is facing a buy-out from a big corporation, and some of the old lags amongst the DJs are facing the axe as a result. Will it be Alan who has to go, or fellow ageing DJ, Irishman Pat Farrell? In true Partridge style Alan swings the boardroom vote by scrawling “JUST SACK PAT” on a flip-chart. Pat doesn’t take the news at all well. In fact, he decides to take the station hostage, and suddenly Alan is finding himself the hero of the hour as the police’s main hostage negotiator. The film licks along at a good pace, and the National Lampoon-ish style laughs are constantly coming. Some familiar old friends are here, such as Lynn, Alan’s long-suffering PA, and Michael, the Geordie doorkeeper. Colm Meaney (whom I mainly know as Chief O’Brien from ‘Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’) is great as the tortured soul with the big gun. There are some great send-ups of the horrors of local radio: the excrutiatingly banal question-and-answer sessions, the cheesy music, the brainless breakfast show hosts. There is also an exciting finale on Cromer pier. What more can you ask? The Partridge phenomenon lives on.
ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1903)
Dirs: Cecil Pepworth, Percy Stow
One of the many things I’ve enjoyed about putting this film blog together, is tracking down very old films. The ones from the Edwardian era feel as if they’re giving us a brief window into a world that has vanished forever. Sometimes their strangeness can seem a bit too weird to modern eyes. I’ve seen more than one commenter on YouTube describe films like this as “creepy”. The characters can seem more like puppets that have come to life than human beings I suppose, and they can have a unsettling dreamlike feel. But they have a magic – and often a charm – all of their own. This was the very first adaptation of Alice to hit the big screen, and was a British film, made in 1903. It runs at just over 8 minutes long (absolutely EPIC for that era), and neatly compresses Lewis Carroll’s entire story into that short running time. The White Rabbit at the beginning can feel like the stuff of nightmares, but the procession of playing cards at the end is charming. Interesting to think that the girl playing Alice would have been entirely at home in that Victorian girl’s outfit.
ALL ABOUT EVE (1950)
Dir: Joseph L Mankiewicz
One of the great legendary bitch-fests of 20th century cinema, and a must for any Bette Davis fan. I’d heard heaps about this film before I finally got to see it, and although it’s undoubtedly good, and Davis is good value as always, I didn’t really take to it as much as I’d hoped. It’s a very talky film. There are interminably long scenes, in which characters do nothing but out-gun each other with sophisticated repartee. Which is fine. If you like that sort of thing. I just feel it’s way too Knowing at times, as if the characters weren’t really involved, but standing outside looking in, and passing bitchy judgement. And Margo Channing’s (Davis) constant angst about getting older gets really REALLY wearying after a time. “I’m 40! Forty!” she wails at one point. Oh get over it, love. Been there done that. Move on. Where I found it interesting was in the character of the sadistic Addison de Witt. When he finally gets together with Eve, it is like a coming-together of two psychopaths. “You laugh at THEM, you don’t laugh at me! NEVER laugh at me!” “We’re not capable of love, or being loved”. The film takes a very dark turn at this point, and is all the better for it. I would also like to add that I enjoyed the scene where Margo tells her best friend she’s getting married. This is all handled in a very mature, grown-up way. These days the women would have to go all scream-y and girly, and clap their hands and shout “squee!” and do very silly things like that. Nice to see a time when grown women acted like grown women. TRIVIA CORNER: From what I read in Alan Royle’s book Hollywood Warts N All George Sanders was every bit as sociopathic as his character, Addison de Witt. In 1937 he said that if he lived to the age of 65 he would kill himself. And so he did, leaving behind a suicide note which simply read “Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck”. Very Addison.
ALTERNATIVE 3 (1977)
Dir: Christopher Miles
I remember well the impact this hour-long film had when it was shown on TV in 1977. Although done as a hoax, it felt so real that I recall everyone talking about it in shocked tones the next day. The TV show Science Report decided to make a hoax film and air it on the evening of April Fool’s Day. Unfortunately a strike by technical crew meant the show got delayed, and it wasn’t aired until a couple of months later, which somewhat makes the April Fools prank idea get lost in translation. Since then the plot of the film has emerged in numerous conspiracy theories. The idea is thus: the governments of the world secretly know that our days on Planet Earth are numbered, and are working to save a select few and transport them to safety on Mars. Put in the raw like that, the plot sounds rather silly, but the completely straight-faced playing of it, made it highly effective. Viewing it now, all these years on, it seems even more plausible. We now distrust governments so completely, and are constantly suspecting them of being up to dubious things we know nothing about, that we could easily believe them capable of anything. (Although the idea that they could be quite so organised is probably the most far-fetched idea of the lot). Some of the ideas in the story though do seem to have become all too real. The references to the climate changing now gives an unwelcome frisson. In one scene our host on the show goes to Cambridge University to interview a prominent German scientist. It is a hot day, and there are cicadas in the background. The scientist remarks that he never thought to hear them in Britain. Also the part where they track down one of the US astronauts, and now find him to be a flabby drunk who is clearly battling his own demons, must have spawned enough Lunar conspiracy theories. You can easily find this film on YouTube, and if you’re interested in hoax TV, conspiracy theories, or simply want a well-made drama, then it’s well worth tracking down.
AMERICAN PSYCHO (2000)
Dir: Mary Harron
I remember this film had a somewhat negative reaction when it was first released*, and yet y’know, it’s pretty darn good. Based on Bret Easton Ellis’s cult novel, the film revolves around Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), a sociopathic banker, who lives a vain, shallow life in New York yuppiedom. It is a life so obsessed with competition and triviality, that the sight of someone else’s superior business card can send you into a frenzy. From what I can gather Bale wasn’t the first choice for the lead role, and yet it’s hard to imagine anyone else in it. In the scene where he hires two prostitutes and then lectures them about a Genesis album, I can’t help feeling you get the gist of Bateman’s life. The man is so boring and self-obsessed, that he has to hire women to listen to him chuntering on about nothing whatsoever. *It seemed to confuse people as to what it was. It has moments of pure horror, and yet also enough comedy to be a biting satire.
AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981)
Dir: John Landis
David Naughton and Griffin Dunne play two likeable American backpackers having a perfectly dismal time of it on the Yorkshire moors. They seek refreshment at Ye Olde Hostelry of ‘The Slaughtered Lamb’, a tavern which I doubt will be making its way into the Good Pub Guide any time soon. There they find there’s no food available, and they have to put with gobby Brian Glover and his mates. Just before leaving they are warned to stay away from the moors. Naturally, this advice is not heeded, and soon we hear the ominous howl of a wolf. Left the sole survivor of a wolf attack, David wakes up in a London hospital, to learn that his best chum is dead. Even the angelic ministrations of nurse Jenny Agutter can’t calm David’s nerves as he is prone to nightmares where he is running naked through a forest and attacking the wildlife, and then he starts to get visitations from his dead pal. Done with huge panache, energy and a lot of fun, American Werewolf really is a treat to see. As far as I remember it single-handedly reignited the werewolf genre, which had been dead for some time. The man-into-wolf transformation scene – all done to the tune of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Bad Moon Rising – is still hugely impressive over 30 years on. David Naughton is a very likeable hero. He’s funny, a bit goofy, and we feel for him in his fear and confusion. Jenny Agutter is a bit TOO perfect as his love interest, in fact at times she’s so saintly she’s downright annoying, (anyway, since when was a bedtime reading service available on the NHS?), but she is the perfect English rose in many ways, and that’s what she’s being asked to play here. The final sequence of the big smash-up in Piccadilly Circus is an excitingly apt finale. There are also fascinating little snippets of early 1980s London life here. The complaints about the huge prices in the supermarket (the days of 22% inflation), a London bobby still happy to pose for photographs with tourists, and the TV advert where some good-time girl is advertising her tell-all memoirs in the News Of The World (that happened every week from what I remember). Look out for the congratulations message to Charles and Diana right at the end of the closing credits. Suddenly 1981 looks like the days of innocence and bliss. (It wasn’t really).
THE AMITYVILLE ASYLUM (2013)
Dir: Andrew Jones
My first thought on coming across this film, “was how much more can they flog the Amityville dead horse for?” I then read an absolutely scathing review of it, which perversely made it sound worth watching. Sort of So Bad It’s Good. I found a copy on YouTube. The film opens with Ronald deFeo shooting his family again (we’ve been down this familiar old road a few times haven’t we reader?). Then we encounter a young woman called Lisa (Sophia Del Pizzo), who is being interviewed for a cleaning job at a British mental hospital. To her surprise, she gets the job, and … hang on a minute, you may well ask, what’s all this got to do with the Amityville Horror? Well that’s a valid question. You see, the asylum is built on the site of the Amityville house. Yes. Really. Which sort of ignores the problem that the Amityville house is very much still standing. It’s also a British film, and in spite of the varied accents on offer here, it very much comes across as British, which makes the Amityville connection feel even more tenuous. There is an absolutely peculiar scene in which Lisa is given the low-down on all the different cleaning products she will have use in the course of her duties, which felt like a very dry TV commercial. They might as well have parachuted Barry Scott in to liven it up a bit. It would have made about as much sense. What really kills the film for me though is the dreadful camera-work. It’s one of those films where the camera seems to spend most of it’s time slammed right into the actors’ faces. This is disorientating. Even when the camera does occasionally drag itself out of the actors’ nostrils, it then seems to focus on bizarre angles, like their torso’s, or blurry shots of blank walls. The film does have Eileen Daly in it. A genuinely quirky British actress whom I have a lot of time for, and I was hoping she could save it for me. She pops up in this as one of the high security inmates, but there wasn’t as much of her as I’d hoped. It’s not all bad though. Amityville Asylum does occasionally manage a low-budget low-key Atmospheric chill to it- that night-time hospital building can feel genuinely creepy – and with better camera-work I think it might have stood more of a chance. Plus perhaps more sympathetic characters amongst the staff, and stop trying to pretend it’s American might have helped. Call it ‘Horror Asylum’ or something. Drop the dubious Amityville connection, which I assume was shoe-horned onto it to get it some attention. Well it didn’t help. It went straight to DVD. Perhaps with a bit of tweaking it might re-emerge as a cult favourite. But to be honest, I doubt anyone cares that much.
THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (2005)
Dir: Andrew Douglas
As if the first version wasn’t tedious enough, we now get an even more boring remake. I’m astonished sometimes how successful the Amityville bandwagon has been. The original book had it’s share of chills when it first came out, largely because I suspect we didn’t know what to make of it, and it came buried under a pile of hype. But since then … well people work hard to keep it all going, I’ll give them that. So anyway, just in case, (by some miracle), you didn’t know the story, Ronald de Feo shoots dead his entire family as they sleep one night. And then, because nobody wants to live in the house of doom, it’s going cheap, and the Lutz family move in, only to find it’s haunted … or they hit upon the brilliant idea of faking a haunting to pay off the mortgage, whichever side of the fence you’re on. This film was so dull that a short way into it, I actually started doing some work instead.
Dir: Asif Kapadia
Feature-length documentary about the tragic chantreuse Amy Winehouse, who passed away in 2011 at the age of 27. I remember being shocked on hearing about Amy’s death, and yet at the same time, not entirely surprised. Amy’s life seemed to have been spiralling out of control for so long, that she was an accident waiting to happen. This is a well-made and sympathetic look at a unique talent. She seemed to suffer from a crippling lack of self-belief, which inevitably would have led her to put her faith into people who frankly weren’t worth it. Ella Fitzgerald once said that her own success was all down to the songs she sang. She didn’t see that it was her own special talent that played a substantial part too. And that also seems to have been the case with Amy. From what I can gather Amy’s family have reacted badly to the film, which isn’t terribly surprising considering that her father comes out of it looking like a right bellend. Ultimately it’s a very depressing film, but considering the subject matter that’s only to be expected.
ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY (2004)
Dir: Adam McKay
There is an innocence to this film which I find hard to resist. Will Ferrell plays Ron Burgundy, a 1970s newsreader who is about to have his happy little world shattered when – shock! horror! – a WOMAN is assigned to his cheerfully misogynistic little team. In many ways Ron is like an American version of Alan Partridge. He comes out with lines like “I am important! I have an apartment filled with leatherbound books and an aroma of rich mahogany”. And yet for all his pompous buffoonery, he is quite loveable, and clearly loves his work. If you are looking for a sharp, biting satire about news channels this isn’t really the place to come. It’s a cartoon film, with a shamelessly childish air about it. At times it has a crazily surreal, Monty Python feel, such as the scene where all the newsreaders have a Gladiator-style showdown, and the final scene in the bear-pit at the zoo. The gang also have a go at singing Afternoon Delight, one of my very favourite songs ever. Seriously. I love comedy which has it’s heart in the right place, and such is the case here.
AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS! (1973)
Dir: Roy Ward Baker
One of the things I do like about the Internet is the way that some old films, which flopped on release, and were mauled by critics, are discovered by a fresh audience. And Now The Screaming Starts was released by Amicus in 1973, and was savaged for years afterwards. And yet when viewed now it’s really quite an absorbing little piece of gothic horror. Ian Ogilvy and Stephanie Beacham play 18th century newly-weds, who return to the husband’s ancestral pile to set up home. Unfortunately Stephanie finds herself being haunted by a disembodied hand (straight out of The Beast With Five Fingers), and some dubious old ancestor who likes to put in grotesque appearances in the family portraits. I’ve read much criticism of Steph’s acting, but she does a good solid job of what’s required of her, which is to look beautiful in period costume – particularly that riding-habit she dons for a walk in the woods – appear suitably anguished at chosen moments, and also give quite possibly one of the longest screams in cinema history. Rosalie Crutchley also appears in one of her Sinister Housekeeper roles (see The Haunting below). Finding this again on YouTube I was pleasantly surprised how much people were enjoying it, which suggests that elegant low-key gothic horror has much more of a fan-base now than it did in the oh-we-must-be-so-cool-and-modern early 1970s, I’m glad to say. The only real criticism I have is that we have to wait a perishing long time (nearly 50 minutes) for Peter Cushing to appear.
AND SOON THE DARKNESS (1970)
Dir: Robert Fuest
Or as one Amazon reviewer put it “oh those hotpants!” Yes, if you like the sight of two nubile young women wearing very tight shorts to go cycling, then this is the film for you. Actually it’s also a very passable Brit thriller from the early 1970s. Pamela Franklin and Michele Dotrich (yes, Frank Spencer’s wife, Betty) are two nurses on a cycling holiday in France. Little do they know it but the long country road they are bickering along has been the scene of some unsolved murders. It reminds me a bit of those old Thriller TV plays from around the same time, and has some fairly eerie moments. Someone has pointed out that the film shows the differences between now and then, in that in those days (20 years before the Channel Tunnel) France was still very much a foreign country. These days I suspect the girls wouldn’t be able to cycle far without being nearly run down by British and German families in campervans. There is one scene though which never fails to exasperate me every time I see it. Michele Dotrich decides to do some sunbathing in a remote spot, but first of all festoons all the bushes with her underwear. I know she’s drying her washing, but even so, I do get a bit huffy with that naive bit of recklessness! Pamela though makes up for it in the intelligence and resourcefulness department. When I think what a Hollywood remake would be like … actually no I don’t want to think about that. ADDENDUM: yes, there has been a US remake (in 2010), with the girls now holidaying in Argentina. One critic’s waspish comment was that cinema must be in a truly bad way if it’s reduced to remaking films like this. Feel this is a bit of an unfair slur on the original, which isn’t bad at all.
AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (1945)
Dir: Renee Clair
A real pleasure to find this little gem on YouTube. To the best of my knowledge there have been at least 4 big-screen versions of Agatha Christie’s macabre book, about the systematic deaths of 10 people on a Devon island, and this, the first, is undoubtedly the best. Made in 1945, it sticks reasonably closely to the original book, although the ending has been altered, as I suspect it would simply have been too downbeat and horrific for the time. I think the reason this works where the others failed is simple … it uses the same location as the book, a small island off the English coast. The others by contrast went overboard with trying to create the most exotic, bizarre locations they could. So we have Ten Little Indians from the 1960s set at the top of a Swiss mountain (see further down this list), the 1970s version set in a big hotel in the Iranian desert, and the 1980s version (which I’ve never seen) set on an African safari. This film clearly shows you need to take the story back to its roots to make it work, and chuck out all the exotic gimmickry of the remakes. Shot in atmospheric black-and-white, the house on the island is well-utilised. There are some great touches, such as the opening where we see the characters arriving by boat, and are wordlessly shown each of them in turn. When they get to the house and introduce themselves, they do so directly to camera. There are times it feels more like a dark farce, as the dwindling cast huddle in any rooms that don’t have corpses in them, and complain about the servants being bumped off.
Dir: Francois Ozon
I was very pleasantly surprised by this film. It’s always difficult to come to a movie adaptation of a favourite book (in this case Angel by Elizabeth Taylor). Our expectations are rarely met in reality. This sticks fairly closely to the original story, which is always a bonus, and Romola Garai is spot-on as Angel Deverell, the flamboyant, eccentric romantic novelist. I get the impression the film didn’t do well on release, and although it came out a few years ago I only came across it in recent times. The gist of the story is that romance in real life cannot measure up to Angel’s fictional representations of it. It’s a very sad story, and Angel’s idiosyncratic personality might not gel that well with some viewers. It does help if you loved the original book. Angel starts off as a clumsy, selfish, blunt-speaking schoolgirl, who achieves fame and fortune through her pen, but winds up as a dotty, reclusive old lady, forgotten by her legions of fans. The film is kinder to Angel than perhaps Taylor’s original novel, showing her well-meaning desperation to make life perfect for everyone at Paradise House, but ignoring the fact that they have their own needs and wishes. I would take this film over the ponderous Age Of Innocence any day.
ANGELS AND DEMONS (2009)
Dir: Ron Howard
Dan Brown. The Illuminati. The Vatican. Tom Hanks. An awful lot of rushing about. Characters give lots of tedious explanations in place of real dialogue. I watched an hour of this. Then went away to watch Downton Abbey, when I came back it was still going on. A very long film.
ANGELS AND INSECTS (1995)
Dir: Philip Haas
Very odd and quite unpleasant costume drama. The only saving grace of it is the excellent Mark Rylance, who plays a naturalist, William, returning to Britain after working in Africa. He falls for a strange aristocratic young lady called Eugenia (Patsy Kensit). They marry and produce a raft of children. Anyway, to cut a long story short, William finds out that Eugenia has been committing incest with her awful, arrogant brother (Douglas Henshall) all along. The “insects” of the title are spelt out in a word game as “incest”, just to prod William a long a bit. A cold and unsavoury film, which won a trio of awards when it was released in 1995, but is very rarely seen now. I think the only time I’ve been aware of it on television was once in the middle of the night. I watched it on a rented VHS tape quite some while back.
ANNA KARENINA (2012)
Dir: Joe Wright
You are either going to be utterly captivated by the style of this film, or find it a turgid plod. I’m in the latter camp. There is no denying it is very elegant to look at, but sometimes films which are overly gorgeous can feel robbed of any deep emotion, and that feels like the case here. It’s well-acted, but I found it very difficult to care about any of the characters. There was rather too much waltzing around, which gets tedious very quickly.
ANNE OF THE THOUSAND DAYS (1969)
Dir: Charles Jarrott
Any actor wanting to play King Henry VIII or Anne Boleyn might be advised to study Richard Burton and Genevieve Bujold’s performances here. Bujold to me is the definitive Anne. It’s one of those performances where the historical character really does seem to come alive. With her flashing dark eyes, and soft French accent she knocks all over contenders into a cocked hat. Burton had some criticism for his role as Henry, with some accusing him of doing nothing more than bellowing. This isn’t true. He also plays Henry as sentimental and vulnerable beneath all the tantrum-throwing and bluster. Plus he looks damn sexy in a fur-lined dressing-gown, but that’s another matter. In his diary Burton recorded that he thought Henry was mad, that he seemed demonic. Burton had the hots for Bujold in real life, which won’t exactly come as any great surprise, and Bujold had to put up with Burton’s wife Elizabeth Taylor, hovering jealously on set. “I’ll give that bitch an acting lesson she won’t forget!” Bujold is reported to have said. Well she certainly did. The other actors all do a fine job too. Anthony Quayle gives a many-faceted turn as Cardinal Wolsey. One moment all powerful, the next frail, pathetic old man. Michael Hordern portrays Anne’s father as a greedy, ambitious man, but ultimately weak and hopelessly out of his depth in the high-octane dealings of the Tudor court. Irene Papas looks permanently moist-eyed and sad as the forlorn Queen Katherine. There are some great lines too, “I am accursed!” My favourite is the scene where Wolsey is in bed, and is told that the Duke of Norfolk is paying him an unwanted late-night visit. “The Devil take him!” he mutters. I’ve often muttered that one myself when dealing with unwanted callers.
APOLLO 18 (2011)
Dir: Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego
Since The Blair Witch Project there has been a whole raft of what the critics call “found footage” films. You know the sort of thing – someone claims to have found secret documentary film footage showing some dark, horrible mystery, which usually involved the deaths of all concerned. Classic urban myth stuff. Naturally, they have all varied in quality. Apollo 18 is a bit of a mixed-bag. It takes up some of the conspiracy theories involving the Moon, but unlike Capricorn One, this isn’t a case of We Never Went There, more We Went There And Something Awful Happened So We’ve Never Been Back. I wasn’t impressed with the first part of it. It was dark and confusing, and I couldn’t get a handle on the lead characters. They seemed to be a handful of anonymous men in space. I think this is a bad mistake, frankly. You need characters you can care about, or at least can tell apart from one another. There is some scene-setting, involving the difficulties of living in space, all cramped together in a tin-can. The film improves in the second half, when spooky, terrifying things start happening on the Moon’s surface. This is classic haunted house stuff, albeit haunted house in space. If you’re overly-familiar with conspiracy theories, there might be a touch of same-old same-old about it all, but it’s still quite eerie in parts.
ARABIAN NIGHTS (1974)
Dir: Pier Paolo Pasolini
I watched this on a ropey old VHS tape a few years ago, which didn’t really do the film justice, but on the whole this Italian-made effort is worth a look. There are enough shots of nubile young Italians locked in passionate clinches in shaded rooms, tents and bath-tubs to keep us engrossed. From what I remember the demon is a bit of a letdown when he appears, but he’s alright. The most stunning part though was the young man donning his ragged priest’s vestments for the first time as bells ring out in the town all around him.
AS ABOVE SO BELOW (2014)
Dir: John Erick Dowdle
I’m quite fascinated by the Paris Catacombs, so I was intrigued by this film, although I had a feeling in advance that I shouldn’t get my hopes too high. It’s a “found footage” film, which is a concept which seems to have been done to death in recent years. Cue lots of wobbly camera-work, and hysterical kids no doubt. But this did have Paris as a setting, so I thought it was worth a go. Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) is a young academic, who is hellbent on finishing her father’s work of finding the Philosopher’s Stone, which is buried far beneath the ground. As soon as the Philosopher’s Stone was mentioned, I felt a pang of disappointment. Oh no, not that old chestnut again. And yes, here we are, roaming, or in my case, being dragged kicking and screaming, into Dan Brown territory. We get to look round old churches, whilst Scarlett earnestly gets carried away uncovering old inscriptions on stone slabs. She has around her the usual gang of snotty know-it-all youngsters, or ones who can’t stop goofing about. They all come to the conclusion that hey, it’s just so convenient them being in Paris, because … ta da! … they can look for the Philosopher’s Stone in the Catacombs. Oh very Scooby Doo. She meets a man in a nightclub who can get her into the Catacombs after hours, and so down they go. From then on, it becomes like Most Haunted but without the constant night-vision cameras, and Scarlett, game girl that she is, at least doesn’t keep screaming like Yvette. I didn’t find it particularly interesting, tense or scary. Although Perdita Weeks is excellent as Scarlett, and does a good job of being a young female lead that isn’t a complete embarrassment to our sex, I didn’t care about any of the other characters at all, and all the stuff about eternal lights etc just tried my patience. It was a great idea, but the execution of it was way-off for me.
Dir: Roy Ward Baker
Absorbing Brit horror anthology film from 1972. It begins stirringly enough with dishy Robert Powell driving up to a spooky house, with Mussorgsky’s Night On Bald Mountain as the soundtrack. He is Dr Martin, and he has come to take over at a private lunatic asylum. He is greeted by a wheelchair-bound Patrick Magee, who informs him that his predecessor is now one of the patients, and it is up to Dr Martin to figure out which one it is. Dr M is taken to what is presumably the high-security wing, and is introduced to four patients, who each tell him why they are here. The best story for me is the second one, where Peter Cushing plays a sinister cove who asks a poverty-stricken tailor to make him a suit out of a strange luminous material. I like these 1970s anthology films, and I think we should go back to making them.
AT THE EARTH’S CORE (1976)
Dir: Kevin Connor
Peter Cushing and Doug McClure venture to the Earth’s core and fight prehistoric monsters, who are all very noisy. We get lots of close-ups of a big reptile’s eye, and Caroline Munro doing a Raquel Welch-style turn in a skimpy costume. The film does seem to have it’s admirers, and even though I normally like this sort of thing, it’s not very good. I don’t want to knock it though, it has it’s place in the world of entertainment.
Dir: Buz Luhrmann
This is a film that people seem to love or hate. I’ve read glowing reviews from ones who think it’s “magical” and “Gone With The Wind Down Under”, to bitter, scathing ones calling it one of the worst films ever. So it’s certainly a movie that provokes strong reactions. I personally found it very irritating, tedious, and far too long. I love Nicole Kidman in it, who looks lovely, and is very endearing, although her character of Lady Sarah Ashley can feel like something out of a cartoon. A Guardian review described her as “a parody British aristocrat”. This would be fine if it was meant to be nothing more than a lightweight slapstick movie, but Australia aims high to be an Epic. The brash humour got increasingly on my nerves, and I’ve had an absolute basinful over the years of the Stuck Up Snooty Lady falling for the Rugged (boorish) Charms of The Offbeat Hero (Hugh Jackman). I mean, seriously, this is the 21st century, why are we still getting this type of rubbish served up as entertainment? I didn’t watch all of it, as the thought of getting three hours of this did me in.
THE AUTOMATIC MOTORIST (1911)
Dir: Walter R Booth
Charming British shortie (the version I found on YouTube ran at just over 6 minutes). A honeymoon couple hire a robot chauffeur, who promptly takes them on a dizzying whirl round the rings of Saturn and into the depths of the sea. Everyone looks as if they’re having great fun, and why wouldn’t they be?
AUTUMN CROCUS (1934)
Dir: Basil Dean
For a few years in the 1930s, Dodie Smith – author of I Capture The Castle and 101 Dalmatians – had been a top West End playwright. Autumn Crocus was her first hit. It tells the story of Jenny, a sweet, shy schoolteacher, who finds forbidden romance with a married inn-keeper whilst on holiday in the Austrian Tyrol. From what I remember reading in Dodie’s autobiography, Look Back With Astonishment, the filming of Crocus was troubled, and the end result wasn’t really worth the effort. It’s more famous nowadays for being Ivor Novello’s last film. He’s dashing, quirky and endearing, although having to stride around in lederhosen doesn’t really do him any favours in the sex god stakes. Fay Compton, who had played the role of the school-teacher on stage, makes a charming lead, but, this is a Basil Dean production, and as such it’s way too talky, unable to shake off its stage-y origins.
AUTUMN LEAVES (1956)
Dir: Robert Aldrich
Joan Crawford plays Milly, a lonely middle-aged woman, who spent her youth nursing her sick father, and whose life now revolves around earning her living on a typewriter, and chatting to her gossipy landlady. Whilst dining alone at a restaurant, she is joined at her table by a pushy young man, Burt (Cliff Robertson), who seems determined to make her acquaintance. Naturally Burt isn’t all he seems, in fact he’s a dodgy piece of work, but of course Milly doesn’t realise that. After a whirlwind romance, they get married, and Milly gradually realises that not all Burt’s exotic tales add up. And then an attractive young woman (Vera Miles) turns up, also claiming to be Burt’s wife, who tells Milly that Burt’s a compulsive liar. This is a pretty absorbing little thriller, and Joan is terrific (although her eyebrows can seem as if they’re threatening to take over proceedings!). She’s charming, vulnerable, tough when she needs to be, in fact Joan at her intense, angst-y best. Cliff Robertson is also excellent as the troubled Burt. Joan regarded it as one of her better mature films, and it certainly holds up well as a neat, engrossing story.
THE AVIATOR (2004)
Dir: Martin Scorsese
Always a pleasure to see Leonardo di Caprio in a role worthy of his talents. Here he is excellent as Howard Hughes, one of the most eccentric American men of the 20th century. I remember when Hughes died, and everybody being shocked by the pictures of this brilliant, handsome man being reduced to a skeletal, bearded recluse. Di Caprio is good at conveying his chronic OCD behaviour, but also at showing us a man who wasn’t all rich-boy-flash-git, who had a strong centre to him. Cate Blanchett really makes the film too as one of his many movie star mistresses, Katherine Hepburn. There is an absolutely beautiful piece of movie-making in this film, the scene where Howard lets Kate pilot his plane, and he watches her beautiful profile as she does so, all to the soft jazz melody of Moonglow. Hughes also became obsessed with Jane Russell’s breasts, even designing a special bra for her. He wanted to make her a star, (which he did), only to have some studio bod say “Howard, no one’s gonna want you to make an entire film about tits!” The downside to the film is that, in spite of it being very long, it completely misses out the final reclusive years of HH. Perhaps it was felt that that would jar with the flamboyant tone of the rest of the movie.
One hour TV drama, scripted by Nigel Kneale (part of his Beasts season), which I remember absolutely terrifying me when I first saw it many years ago in the 1970s. A young couple, expecting their first baby, move into a country cottage and begin renovating it. Buried inside a wall they find a large jar, in which is a strange little mummified corpse. From then on they are plagued by weird spooky occurrences. Watching this again on dvd I still found it an eerie experience, and the ending actually made me jump out of my skin, even though I must have seen it before. Film and TV buff Mark Gatiss once described it as “the most disgusting” thing he’d ever seen on television. Still very effective after all these years.
THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953)
Dir: Eugene Lourie
When you see films like this it’s easy to see why old monster b-movies are so much-loved. This is fun. It has a great story (based on a short story by Ray Bradbury), it has a monster, it has a lighthouse, and at just over an hour long, it’s my kind of length too. Atomic blasts in the Arctic have broken out a dinosaur, which has been trapped for millions of years in ice. The poor little thing … sorry the fearsome beast heads off in a leisurely fashion towards New York, taking time out along the way to demolish a lighthouse in the north Atlantic. Once in New York, it stamps on the odd car, gobbles up the odd policeman, and breaks through the odd skyscraper, before it is finally trapped amongst the big dippers at Coney Island. The only problem is that the Beast is more cute than terrifying! Nevertheless, a monster movie as a monster movie should be.
Dir: E Elias Merhige
I had to psyche myself up for ages to watch this one. Its reputation had well-preceded it as one of the weirdest, most uncomfortable films ever made. I had seen clips where a forbidding voice-over went on about something sort of Biblical, and we had eerie black-and-white shots of people rolling around on the ground. It seemed intriguing enough to warrant extra viewing, but I could never bring myself to do so, and this is from someone who sat through Salo, twice, so I’m not usually overly-squeamish. Anyway, one hot afternoon, I downloaded the entire film on YouTube, and braced myself for a disturbing hour-or-so of viewing … and was left feeling “meh!” The only thing that genuinely concerns me about this film is the idea that if I criticise it in any way I’ll get trolled by its ardent supporters, all telling me what a stupid numbskull I am, and how I should stick to watching Carry On films. In which case they’d probably be right. Weirdness I can live with. Controversy I can live with. Cinema – like any art form – should sometimes push boundaries. And new ideas are there to be seized and made use of. BUT boredom is something that always defeats me. And by golly, this film is tedious. The plot (which someone has kindly posted in YouTube comments, and is quite useful in understanding the film) concerns God, who decides to disembowel Himself using a rusty razor. I’m not entirely sure why, but presumably he’d had enough of Mankind and their endearing little ways. This I can quite understand, but you’d think God would find an easier way to end it all, quite frankly. God is represented by a grotesque figure sitting on some kind of veranda. He appears to be wearing a mask and a long robe. The “suicide” (well I’m presuming that’s what it is) seems to take forever. When you first see this image it IS disturbing, but after a while you get sort of acclimatised to it, and you think “OK movie, let’s move it along a bit shall we?” Eventually a woman wearing a disco skirt emerges from underneath God’s chair, and decides to impregnate herself using his dying semen. Classy. If you are devoutly religious, then this film WILL be upsetting and highly controversial, and you probably should stay clear of it. If you are a fan of extreme cinema, then it’s a must, but even running at a little over an hour long, I found it’s glacial pace almost insufferable. It seems entirely wrapped up in its own pomposity. And much as the themes in it are controversial, at the same time they feel strangely tired. Made in the early 1990s, the film feels like a throwback to the 1960s (all that God Is Dead stuff from that era), or the more avant-garde movies of the Silent Era. Weirdly, I found the random clips of it I’d seen prior to the viewing far more disturbing. When I came to watch it in its entirety the shock factor had gone, and I was just left with a cheaply-made film which felt like something some 60s hippy students had thrown together for an art class.
BEHIND THE CANDELABRA (2013)
Dir: Steven Soderbergh
Michael Douglas and Matt Damon are absolute revelations in this absorbing biopic of that most flamboyant of performers, Liberace. Covering his final few years, his troubled relationship with Scott Thorson (Damon), and his death from AIDS, Behind The Candelabra manages to be funny and tragic, scathing, and yet also affectionate. The scene where we see Libs on his death-bed is deeply shocking, but the ending, where Scott envisages Liberace giving one final performance at his funeral is simply magical. “Too much of a good thing is simply wunnerful!” TRIVIA CORNER: I liked the line about Sonja Henie so much I put it on Twitter, and immediately got earnest, po-faced types lecturing me about “beards”. For crissake, lighten up, that’s not exactly in the spirit of Liberace now is it!
THE BELLES OF ST TRINIANS (1954)
Dir: Frank Launder
Very first outing for the little horrors from the girls school from Hell. Joyce Grenfell, as Sergeant Ruby Gates, has to go undercover as games mistress to expose a race-horsing racket. It’s all knockabout (literally) fun, and Alastair Sim plays one of my favourite comic creations, that of Miss Millicent Fritton, the school’s headmistress. Richard Wattis is also very funny as the longsuffering Man from the Ministry. Interesting that the staff-room with it’s full qota of eccentric teachers isn’t that much more exaggerated from what I remember of my own school-days … except it’s nowhere near smoky enough.
Dir: Dee Rees
Excellent biopic of legendary jazz singer Bessie Smith, who hit fame and fortune in the 1920s and 30s. Often called the Empress of the Blues, Bessie, like so many torch-singers had a traumatic private life, plagued by alcohol problems, and stormy relationships. This is a well-made film, beautiful to look at, and not shirking from showing Bessie in all her troubled glory. Queen Latifah is quite brilliant in the title role.
BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL (2012)
Dir: John Madden
A sort of feelgood rom-com for oldies, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel brings together what would probably be called a National Treasure-trove (pause for a moment, I’m feeling queasy) of British actors – Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Penelope Wilton, Bill Nighy – as a bunch of pensioners trying to relocate to India. There are some great lines in it (“I can get HobNobs out here you know, I’ve found a way”), and interesting characters who all have their own demons to face. It’s not the most demanding story you’re likely to find, but it does what it sets out to do perfectly well.
BETWEEN TWO WORLDS (1944)
Dir: Edward A Blatt
It’s many years since I’ve since this film, but I’m including it here because I would love to see it again, and it only seems to be available on Region 1 DVD (don’t get me started). It was made during World War 2, and is a strange, eerie tale about a ship carrying passengers across the Atlantic. Gradually it dawns on them that they are in fact all dead, and are soon about to meet their Maker. From what I recall it rather overdoes the pious morality at times, but nevertheless it’s an imaginative tale, where the good get rewarded, and the awful get their comeuppance in ways that you don’t automatically foresee. Just to give one example: there is a dreadful old lady who has bullied her meek husband for years, and who is obsessed with material things. She gets punished by being given a castle … which she has to live in all alone, FOREVER. Crumbs. Incidentally, the crew of the ship are all suicides, who presumably are all having to work out their passage in the After-Life.
THE BIBLE: IN THE BEGINNING (1966)
Dir: John Huston
Usually regarded as the last of the great cinematic religious epics of the mid-20th century. This American-Italian film takes us from the Creation through to the moment when Abraham is asked to sacrifice his son Isaac. It has many splendid moments, and is relatively free of the pomposity that can all so often makes this kind of thing insufferable. The opening sequence of when God created the world has an eerie magic to it, and the director has more scope with the Garden of Eden scenes than he would have had 10 years earlier. (I read one Christian reviewer who objected to Adam and Eve’s butt-naked nudity, which is somewhat missing the point of the story). The highlight for me was the Noah’s Ark sequence. Huston couldn’t find an actor who was available to play Noah, so he took on the role himself (he also plays God’s voice, sometimes in the ultimate case of Narrator Who Won’t Shut Up problem). He manages to keep these scenes just on the right side of becoming Disney-fied, and I liked Noah bidding a sentimental farewell to the animals in his charge. The Tower of Babel and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah are also very effective, and the latter is quite disturbing. Where the film gets difficult for me is the whole Abraham and Isaac bit. This part is helped by having Ava Gardner giving a very dignified performance as Abraham’s wife, Sarah (she said this was the only film role she ever really enjoyed playing), but the idea behind it doesn’t get any easier to digest, in that God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son to prove his devotion to Him, and then does a “s’lright you know, I was only testing you”. For those of us who veer to having Agnostic views, this is the kind of Biblical thing which we struggle with. It’s very hard not to come away thinking “what a total shit God is!” It’s also the point at which the film ends, and it can leave you feeling disgruntled, out-of-sorts, and wanting to rage about Religion. This is a shame after all the good stuff that’s gone before. Apparently this was meant to be the first in a series of Biblical adaptations, but they never got made. I guess the Big Screen religious epics had had their day, for a while anyway. They were to make a comeback in the 1970s on the small screen, with well-made epics like Jesus Of Nazareth. ADDENDUM: I’ve seen this film included in Phil Hall’s book Greatest Bad Movies Of All Time (recommended). He makes some pertinent comments that the film is disjointed, and veers from spooky, mystical opening, to Disney stuff, to soap opera. He has a point, but I would still watch it again, although I’d probably bail out about halfway through. That God-being-a-bastard-to-Abraham stuff really does grate. I suppose I should blame the source material ….
THE BIG CIRCUS (1959)
Dir: Joseph M Newman
Lavish film about the ups-and-downs of life in a 1950s travelling circus. This isn’t any old fleabitten circus though, but a spectacular American big top. It’s a bit too glossy and lavish (and heartily American) for me at times, as I tend to like my film circuses with a bit of a seedy air to them, but it works fine as entertainment, and it does have Vincent Price as the ringmaster. There is also quite a spectacular scene about a tightrope walk across the Niagara Falls.
THE BIRDS (1963)
Dir: Alfred Hitchcock
Usually, quite rightly, regarded as Hitchcock’s ultimate masterpiece. He seemed to reach the peak of his career with this one, as if he finally threw everything he had at the canvas, and then sank back, satiated. Adapted from a short story by Daphne du Maurier, and relocated from Cornwall to the Californian coastline, The Birds has been analysed at great length already. I don’t feel I can really add much more to it, except to say that it is a truly fine piece of film-making, although at times I have to confess to being baffled as to why. It’s very long for a start, and at times the pace may seem glacial to a modern audience, but this is Hitchcock enjoying himself. After all, you don’t rush something you truly enjoy. Many snarky comments have been made about Tippi Hedren’s acting ability, but she is perfectly right for the role of socialite Melanie Daniels. She is beautiful, elegant, very sweet and charming, and resourceful when required. I don’t quite see why she has such a thing for Rod Taylor, nice enough guy though he is, and his mother (Jessica Tandy) is a complete and utter whingeing pain in the neck. I was more intrigued by his ex-girlfriend, the schoolteacher (Suzanne Pleshette), and the moody, twilight scene where she and Melanie discuss Rod over a stiff drink is a stand-out favourite. I’ve read people baffled by the climactic scene where Melanie is attacked by birds in the attic. Lots of angst about What Was Hitchcock Trying To Achieve? It’s quite simple really. To put it bluntly, it’s a symbolism of rape. The scene where Rod takes her out of the house afterwards, and she seems to be in a state of catatonic shock reinforces that. All in all, a highly disturbing film, particularly when you look at the director’s mindset in filming it, but cinematic art all the same.
BIRDS OF PREY (1930)
Dir: Basil Dean
Absolutely atrocious low-budget “thriller”, (I’m not even sure that’s what I should be calling it), the sort of film which would have Americans shaking their heads and going “those Limeys just dunno how to make a movie”. The director, Basil Dean, was a big noise in the theatre at that time, but his forays into cinema are largely regarded as a disaster. This one is a good case in point. It’s far too slow and talky, there are too many stretches where nothing seems to be happening but a bunch of upper-class nitwits chatting, giving annoyingly affected little laughs, and complaining about other guests who clearly aren’t up (down?) to their social level. The story involves one of them, a retired colonial policeman, being the target of a revenge plot by some ruffians who had run up against him years ago. The murder, when it takes place, has no suspense whatsoever. There is no Whodunnit aspect, as we see who damn well does it, and the rest of the film is taken up with some dim-witted coppers trying to figure out what the audience already knows. The pacing is dreadful. Nobody acts naturally. The villains are out of Panto It-Must-Have-Been-The-Weird-Forriner-What-Did-It school. And the accents are like nails on a chalkboard. Nobody these days – not even the Queen – speaks as painfully posh as this bunch do. Hollywood could have done something half-decent with this plot, but clearly it was beyond us at the time.
THE BLACK CAT (1934)
Dir: Edgar G Ulmer
A young couple, Peter and Joan Allison (David Manners and Jacqueline Wells) are honeymooning in Budapest. A mix-up on their train causes them to be sharing a compartment with the eerily suave Dr Werdegast (Bela Lugosi). When Joan is injured in a bus crash, Dr Werdegast offers to take them to the home of his friend Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff). Far from being the dusty, gothic castle that perhaps we were expecting, Mr Poelzig’s home is in fact ultra-modern. There is clearly unfinished business between Werdegast and Poelzig, dating back to Great War. From this moment on, things get very very strange indeed. Dr Werdegast has a morbid fear of cats, which isn’t helped by Poelzig carrying one around with him. In the basement Poelzig keeps the corpses of young women, their beauty preserved, one of whom is Werdegast’s wife. His daughter meanwhile, shares a bed with Poelzig. To add to the surreal atmosphere, classical music plays continuously in the background. The couple find themselves trapped in the house, whilst Werdegast and Poelzig play chess for Joan. Poelzig is planning to sacrifice Joan at a gathering of his Satanist friends. I really don’t think this film could get any more weird if it tried. The inspiration for the film was “suggested” (according to the opening credits) by Edgar Allan Poe, and the character of Poelzig was thought to be inspired by Aleister Crowley. Apparently the film was denounced as “foolish” on it’s release, and yet it has acquired some cult status. It’s very strangeness is intriguing, and it has a surreal allure which keeps you watching. The ending where Lugosi flays Karloff alive is very effective, even though you only see it in shadow (that’s quite enough). The whole thing is very reminiscent of the pulp fiction horror magazines of that era. Well worth a look. And you also get a chance to hear Lugosi speaking his native Hungarian.
BLACK SUNDAY (1960)
Dir: Mario Bava
“Oh please father! Help me! Don’t leave me alone with all these horrors!” A huge cult favourite amongst horror buffs, and certainly a Must See if you love anything gothic. The photography on this is stunning. Shot in lustrous black-and-white, it has more gothic imagery than you can shake a stick at. A black carriage trundling through fog, cobwebby cellar, a lantern bobbing down a stone passageway, decayed flesh, gnarled hands clawing out of a grave. A castle with secret passageways and trapdoors. The plot: an evil sorceress is put to death, only to return 200 years later to possess the spirit of Katia, her beautiful descendant. Raven-haired Barbara Steele, the queen of the horror B movie, is certainly well-cast in her dual role. Her big eyes can seem other-worldly at times. The dubbing on the version I saw did it’s level best to hijack the film at times, and I could have done without the goody-goody peasant girl, but I watched this film for it’s imagery, not it’s acting (which can be pretty ropey). At times it reminded me of a silent film classic. Any dedicated horror movie buff should make some time to watch this at least once.
THE BLACK SWAN (1942)
Dir: Henry King
Vintage pirate flick, which packs more than it’s fair share of swashbuckling. Watcheable these days mainly for the glorious Maureen O’Hara, who plays a haughty aristocrat Lady Margaret, who is kidnapped by a pirate (Tyrone Power). Herself is at her loveliest, and she manages to take everything that’s thrown at her with dignity. I found Tyrone Power’s character a bit boorish, but hey he’s a pirate, I guess they weren’t renowned for being sophisticated gents! Maureen makes sure he doesn’t get things easy. A must for any fan of pirate movies. TRIVIA CORNER: Ms O’Hara said that Tyrone was a lot of fun to work with. There’s one scene where she’s trying to be indignant with him, and I swear she’s trying her best not to laugh.
BLACK SWAN (2010)
Dir: Darren Aronofsky
This film is that rare thing in modern cinema … a truly unique experience. In fact, I would argue that anyone left completely unshaken by the last 30 minutes should have their pulse tested to see if they’re still alive. At first I wasn’t terribly impressed with it. It felt like All About Eve set in the ballet world, but without the bitchy, funny repartee. A young ballerina, Nina (Natalie Portman), has to take over the lead role in Swan Lake, and finds herself becoming more and more submerged into her role, losing her own identity in the process. She is bullied by her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey), her sleazy tyrannical boss (Vincent Cassels), and most fatally of all, by a fellow dancer (Mila Kunis) who encourages Nina to move over to her dark side. But as the film went on I became more and more swept up into it, until the final part felt truly astonishing. It’s hard to put into words, but at times like this a film ceases to be simply a couple of hours of entertainment, and moves into a higher more magical sphere. Sorry if that sounds pretentious, but this film was truly something else entirely. I’m almost frightened to watch it again in case I can’t recapture that first rapture. Even so, it’s become one of my favourite films of all time, and proof that cinema can still pull the rabbit out of the hat when it chooses to do so.
THE BLACK TORMENT (1964)
Dir: Robert Hartford-Davis
Sometimes it pains me that this film isn’t better known than it is. It rarely features in film guides, not even ones that specialise in horror movies. It dates from the early 1960s, and is a fairly effective little chiller, very much in the Victoria Holt gothic mystery/romance genre. Set in the 18th century, it concerns a young bride (Elizabeth Sellers), who is taken to her new husband’s ancestral pile on the top of a steep hill. Soon she finds herself being haunted by his dead first wife, who roams the grounds at night on horseback shouting “murderer! murderer!” Marvellous. The very first time I saw this – which admittedly was a very long time ago – I actually got quite spooked out by the scene where Anne sees the veiled phantom in her bedroom. The period detail is great without being overwhelming, and some of the lines are terrific. “Madam, you deliberately laid your whip across my arm!” TRIVIA CORNER: John Turner, who plays Charles, makes full use of his formidable voice in this film. He was to do the same several years later when he played Roderick Spode in the 1980s TV adaptation of Jeeves and Wooster.
THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999)
Dirs: Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez
The Blair Witch Project was pretty much a cinema phenomenon, and has spawned a whole rash of copycat “found footage” films since. I remember all the hoo-haa when it first came out, and for a time plenty of us did actually think this film was the real McCoy, that this particular backwoods of America was haunted by some evil old woman with hairy arms who abducted children. Yes I know, silly. But you have to hand it to the PR people on this film, they knew what the heck they were doing. The film does work very effectively as a chiller, and refreshingly, just for once, it doesn’t involve mad slashers cutting people up with chainsaws. In fact, there’s something quite reassuring that we can still be spooked out by the sight of a few voodoo-like devices hanging from some trees. And how many times has Heather Donohue’s shot of her sobbing to camera, snotty-nosed and in a woolly hat, been spoofed now? I think it was even used on a beer ad for a while. I particularly liked the vox-pop scenes at the beginning, where the young film-makers interview the townsfolk for their take on the legend. This is very well done. For reinventing horror, and particularly in a way that was non-violent, it deserves all its kudos it gained. TRIVIA CORNER: the actors were kept in the dark about the plot as much as the audience, and steadily deprived of food as the days went on. Their gradual fear and confusion was probably very real. It was so effective that Heather Donohue’s Mum received condolence messages from viewers for losing her daughter!
BLANCHE FURY (1948)
Dir: Marc Allegret
During the 1940s Gainsborough Pictures produced some highly successful bodice-rippers, classic ones like The Man In Grey and The Wicked Lady. Blanche Fury was an attempt to capitalise on their success, but to give the tried and trusted costume drama format a harder edge. This has a strong feel of a Victoria Holt novel, albeit one without any happy ending. Feisty young woman, Blanche (Valerie Hobson), reduced to waiting on bad-temped bed-ridden old women, is summoned to work as a governess at the estate of a relation. Based on a real Victorian murder case, the story follows Blanche’s tortured relationships, ending in murder, and general tragedy all round. Although the film is handsome to look at, and boasts the ever-watcheable Stewart Granger in the cast, it wasn’t a great success. I suspect the public at the time didn’t want the harder edge. They were more used to Margaret Lockwood and James Mason smouldering at one another. Valerie Hobson was an interestingly different actress. But in this she seems too hard. The first shot of her makes her come across as a spiteful vixen. Nowt wrong with bad girls of course. And in The Wicked Lady Margaret Lockwood committed her share of dark deeds, but she did all that with a sassy style. In this Blanche is just cold-blooded and haughty. According to Wikipedia, the producer Anthony Havelock-Allen, said the film failed to find an audience because “there was real hatred in it … and the public didn’t want it”. Granger described it as “grim and melodramatic”, and it certainly lacks the flashes of humour you often get in vintage bodice-rippers. Still worth a watch if you love bodice-rippers, but it’s not an uplifting experience.
THE BLANCHEVILLE MONSTER (1963)
Dir: Alberto de Martino
Disappointing gothic horror. At first it looks like it’s going to be top-notch stuff. A spooky castle, a carriage and horses thundering through the woods, manic organ music, a thunderstorm, a wolf howling, a girl wandering around in a filmy nightie, and something monstrous lurking in the tower … all done with that dream-like other-worldliness you often get with vintage European horror. Unfortunately it’s all rather tedious. The characters are bland and annoying, and the story un-involving. Emily screams or sniffles at nearly everything (when she’s not catatonic), and her reaction on seeing her afflicted father in the tower just feels completely over-the-top. And that’s another part of the problem. We are shown the man in the tower in the first 20 minutes of the film, and he’s somewhat underwhelming. He’s more deserving of sympathy than having his silly daughter screaming the place down. Daft cow. The film has acquired some cult status, but I tend to agree with the director, who dismissed it as “a little film of no importance”. Many films like this have a nostalgic charm, elegance, and good stories, but this just feels like a very dull parody of Fall Of The House Of Usher.
BLESS THIS HOUSE (1972)
Dir: Gerald Thomas
Film spin-off of a popular Brit TV sitcom from the early 1970s, which starred Sid James and Diana Coupland as the longsuffering parents of two teenagers. I like this film. It makes me laugh (which is all I ask from a comedy really), and has a bit of an escapist feel to it for those of us old codgers who grew up in the 70s. Sally Geeson is a delight as the eco-obsessed daughter, banging on about pollution and tin-cans. Robin Askwith takes the role of Mike, the son, driving about in a flower-painted Volkswagon Beetle, and working on obscure modern sculptures in the garage. There is an innocence to it all, which you probably wouldn’t get in a film about disputes between neighbours, and wayward teenagers these days.
THE BLOB (1958)
Dir: Irvin Yeaworth
I quite like old cheaply-made B-movies, so I was hoping that this was going to be a lot more fun than it was. It was actually just plain dull. Bad acting, sluggish direction, and simply not much happening for most of the film except a lot of whining and moaning. In fact, for much of it there was just inter-generational squabbling, with lots of “tsk! kids of today” type stuff. Older authority figures complain that they’re resented by the youngsters because “I was in the war”, so I suppose it has a sort of archaeological value in seeing all the 1950s concerns about the rise of The Teenager as a phenomenon. It’s largely famous these days for being Steve McQueen’s first film, although with his rugged, manly good looks and quiet self-assurance it’s a bit hard to accept him as a typical snotty teenager (he was in fact 28). The Blob itself is … well it’s just a liquidy mess. It sort of oozes into places like an oil leak. It was actually spoofed here in Blighty a couple of years ago by a Marmite advert. TRIVIA CORNER: I found myself being more intrigued by the film the kids are watching at the drive-in (which is never a good sign with a film, when you’re more fascinated by what the characters are watching than the film you’re supposed to be watching). I looked it up, and it was Daughter Of Horror aka Dementia (1955) (see below).
BLOOD CAR (2007)
Dir: Alex Orr
It’s the near future, and Jeremy Clarkson’s worst nightmares have come true. Petrol is now so expensive that no one can afford to drive. Cars are left piled up and abandoned, fit only for having sex in. Mike Brune plays a nerdy, vegan school-teacher who finds out, by accident, that he can get his car to run on a mixture of wheatgrass (a disgusting-looking bogey-coloured drink) and his own blood. Suddenly, being the only guy around who can run a car sends his sex appeal through the roof, and he’s targeted by the local hot chick. When the car runs out of fuel though whilst he’s giving her a lift, he realises he’s going to have to get more of his special brand of fuel. He begins by having to fight down his vegan beliefs and go shooting a squirrel in the woods. Of course it all escalates from there. This is a stylish horror/comedy, done with a lot of panache. My only real grumble is the constant dropping out of the sound. I’m assuming that was deliberate on the part of the film-makers, and not that I was watching a ropey YouTube copy.
BLOOD FEAST (1963)
Dir: Herschell Gordon Lewis
Dear God, the early 1960s were weird, and some of the low-budget cinematic efforts from that era have to be seen to be believed. In this one Mal Arnold – sporting a weird grey rinse – plays Faud Ramses, who runs an “exotic” catering company. This might be one catering company where it pays to order a strictly vegetarian menu, as Ramses goes around killing young women, and putting their body parts in his banquets. He’s doing this apparently to raise some old Egyptian goddess from the dead (oh not that one again). I find it almost impossible to sum up just how truly bizarre some of the low-budget horror was from this era, and this one is a classic of it’s kind. The acting is absolutely preposterous for a start, and so is the script (“those murders are taking all the joy out of everything!”). The musical score consists of Carnival Of Souls-style organ music, someone sawing away fiercely on a cello, or blasting randomly on a trumpet, like an elephant blowing it’s nose. Blood Feast is usually hailed as the first all-out slasher movie, and the murders in it were considered so graphic that it was put on the banned list here in Blighty for years. It certainly must have been strong meat (ho ho) for the time it was made. The copious lashings of blood are so vivid that it looks straight out of Hammer’s buckets of red paint department, but I still found the film an uncomfortable watch, even though the damn thing’s even older than I am (just about).
BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1971)
Dir: Seth Holt
Another version of Bram Stoker’s Jewel Of The Seven Stars, though this is more tolerable than most, largely thanks to the magnificent Valerie Leon, who gets a rare starring role. It’s the usual old guff about evil Egyptian queen reaching down the centuries who possesses the soul of a young woman in the modern era. This has plenty of curve appeal though, and some moments (particularly set in the hospital) manage to be effectively eerie.
BLOOD OF DRACULA’S CASTLE (1969)
Dir: Al Adamson
If you enjoy camp, cheap-as-chips cult shlocky horror, then frankly they don’t come much better than this. I ended up enjoying it far more than I had expected, in spite of watching a very scratched copy on YouTube. It begins with quite possibly the cheesiest theme tune I’ve ever heard on a horror film. A sort of sub-Tony Christie number. You almost expect it to be break into Do You Know The Way To Amarillo? Anyway, we find ourselves with a young couple having a fun day out at a marina. They find they’ve inherited an old castle in Arkansas. The only trouble is it comes with another couple already in-situ, the Count and Countess Townsend. This is a bit of a bummer, because you see this couple are vampires, and they keep young girls chained up in the basement. Every evening, at sunset, their faithful old butler (John Carradine) goes down there and drains off some of their blood, as though he’s drawing vintage wine from a casket, in order to mix the couple their nightly Bloody Mary’s. The Count (Alexander d’Arcy) looks as if he belongs with the Addams Family, and the Countess (Paula Raymond) wafts around in elegant evening wear, sporting a sort of Raine Spencer/Nancy Reagan hairdo. I’ve read criticism that Ms Raymond plays the Countess too low-key, but to be honest I think she’s fine. I actually found myself losing interest when the those three weren’t on screen. A word must also be said about the castle. Apparently it was filmed at Shea Castle in California, and some of the interior reminds me of Norma Desmond’s mansion in Sunset Boulevard. TRIVIA CORNER (1): Jayne Mansfield was originally pencilled in to play the Countess, but sadly fate took a hand. Now what a film that would have made! TRIVIA CORNER (2): the director of this, Al Adamson, was to die in odd circumstances many years later. He went missing in 1995, and was later found buried under a concrete floor at his house. Fred Fulford, who had lived with him, was charged with his murder.
BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW (1970)
Dir: Piers Haggard
Life was grim in the good old days. You had to plough a muddy field with your bare hands. The only bit of enjoyment you got was playing a gloomy round of cards by the light of a guttering candle. If you had to call the doctor out, he drank all your noggin, consulted books about witchcraft, and then cured you by slitting open your veins. And if you had a bad hair day everyone assumed you were possessed by the Devil. Blood On Satan’s Claw is an eerily effective Brit horror from the early 1970s. A farmer accidentally unearths a skull whilst ploughing one day, and from then on the village is plagued by witchcraft and devil-worship. There is a graphic rape scene at the centre of the film, which is still pretty unsettling to watch. The music is also highly atmospheric, being a sort of strange whistling affair, reminiscent of the kind that was used in the spooky old TV series West Country Tales. According to Wikipedia the film was a flop when it was released, but posterity has been kind to it. A fairly recent analysis of the horror genre on television has probably done wonders for bringing it to a fresh audience. Apparently the film was originally to be set in Victorian times, but the makers thought that era had been done to death, and – inspired by the success of Witchfinder General – relocated it to the 17th century, the era of rank superstition and witchcraft persecution. It’s an odd, eerie little chiller with graphic moments.
BLOOD SNOW (2009)
Dir: Jason Robert Stephens
Irritating modern horror which draws inspiration from the notorious Donner Party expedition of the 1840s, in which a bunch of gold rush pioneers got stranded in the Sierra Nevada mountains, and had to resort to cannibalism. Fast forward to the 21st century and we have a small group of entirely characterless young Americans who are renting out a cabin in the same area. Naturally they do this in spite of being warned off by hostile locals at the nearest bar (obligatory really). The snow-drenched scenery is gorgeous, but the film defeated me because no one in it can act for toffee. In fact, it’s quite painful to listen to. There must be tonnes of young actors out there who CAN act, and would love to be given the chance to do so. But somehow films like this manage to pass over them completely. It happens all the time. TRIVIA CORNER: Incidentally, the Donner Party story also inspired Charlie Chaplin to make his masterpiece The Gold Rush, a classic case of comedy coming out of horror and tragedy.
Dir: Edward Dmytryk
Not exactly the high point of Richard Burton’s career. A nasty exploitative little film from 1972. Now perhaps the story of Bluebeard – the man who bumped off several wives – could actually be made into a half-decent little comedy-horror, if you had someone like Vincent Price or Johnny Depp in the title role, who would be able to camp it up outrageously. Burton can’t. That’s the trouble. As a black comedy it could work. Unfortunately this has all the worst misogynistic attitudes of it’s era running right through it. Burton simply couldn’t do comedy anyway. He bumps off each wife for a variety of reasons, one has had an affair with a Communist, one is a shrew, another is incredibly boring, a fiery Suffragette who finds she has a masochistic side etc etc. Not pleasant.
THE BLUE DAHLIA (1946)
Dir: George Marshall
Competent film noir – scripted by Raymond Chandler – about US navy officers returning from the war. Johnny (Alan Ladd) finds that his wife Helen (Doris Dowling) has been having a high old time behind his back. He leaves her, only for her to turn up murdered, and he then finds he is the prime suspect. Another dream teaming of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. Their films are always worth a watch if you like vintage thrillers. They may not be as highly regarded amongst film buffs as Bogart and Bacall, but I find them very watchable. TRIVIA CORNER: In January 1947 the horribly mutilated body of Elizabeth Short was found in a Los Angeles street. She was nicknamed the “Black Dahlia”, thought to have been inspired by this film. Her murder remains unsolved to this day.
BLUE MURDER AT ST TRINIAN’S (1957)
Dir: Frank Launder
Probably my least favourite of the St Trinian’s films, largely down to absence of Alastair Sim as the adorable Miss Fritton. He only appears in the film very briefly, and for most of the film Miss Fritton is meant to be banged up in Holloway. The film largely concerns the little horrors running amok as they make their way on a “goodwill tour” across Europe, and tangling with jewel thieves, headed by Lionel Jeffries. The highpoint are some romantic interludes between Joyce Grenfell and Terry-Thomas (a dream cinematic pairing if ever there was one). TRIVIA CORNER: “the school swot” is played by fleeting 1950s pin-up Sabrina, who – according to Wikipedia – was given top billing on all publicity, and appeared on posters wearing school uniform (can you imagine the kerfuffle that would cause now?!). In the final result, she had a totally non-speaking role, which simply required her to sit up in bed reading a book, and ignoring all the mayhem going on around her. Sabrina was marketed as a sort of British version of Jayne Mansfield. Ironically, she would take over from Jayne in a low-budget film in 1969, after Jayne’s untimely death.
THE BOAT THAT ROCKED (2009)
Dir: Richard Curtis
I’m hard pushed to think of any film from recent years that has been so spectacularly out-gunned by events In Real Life as this one has been. It was made as a fun homage to the days of British pirate radio in the 1960s. Except since then we’ve been deluged by Operation YewTree and the vile antics of Jimmy Savile et al. Suddenly this doesn’t look fun, but instead incredibly seedy. Take this line, when one of the DJ’s is watching a bunch of young girls approaching the ship: “it’s a boat-load of honey, and I wanna sleep with ’em all!” I’m sure the disgusting Mr Savile would have heartily concurred. Add to that scenes where lecherous DJ’s croon over the airwaves to listening schoolgirls. Kenneth Branagh tries his best in the pantomime villain role as the Man From The Ministry who wants to shut down all their fun, aided by a Mr Twatt (ho-bloody-ho), but it all looks hopelessly cartoon-ish, and has all the charm of an idiot’s stag night. For authenticity, I’m sure it captures the misogyny of the 1960s admirably. The only thing to treasure about it is the soundtrack.
BOXING HELENA (1993)
Dir: Jennifer Chambers Lynch
This film is largely known these days (if it’s known at all) for it’s off-screen drama. It was the film that bankrupted Kim Basinger when she pulled out of it, resulting in a catastrophic legal case. Watching it though, I can quite understand why she got cold feet about it (as did Madonna apparently). It’s a weird, nasty little tale about a surgeon (Julian Sands), psychologically damaged by his ballbreaking mother, who is obsessed with a feisty young lady (Sherilynn Fenn). He kidnaps her and confines her to his house, cutting off her legs and then her arms so that she will be completely dependant on him. This is one of those films where Sands – who can either be very good or very awkward – is simply embarrassing. There is a reasonably good twist at the end, but overall it’s an unpleasant film.
THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE (1962)
Dir: Joseph Green
Absolutely stark staring bonkers low-budget horror from 1962. It’s so mad it must surely fit into the It’s So Bad It’s Good category. A young surgeon wants to give his girlfriend a new body, after she is decapitated in a road accident. So where does our hero go to find a “doner”? Why only the nearest sleazy strip-joint of course. The head of his lady love meanwhile is attached to wires in a basement laboratory, and she has a habit of cackling most unpleasantly. Not only that, but a hideous deformed mutant is kept padlocked in a broom cupboard in a corner of the room (don’t ask). The film actually starts quite well, with a woman’s agonised voice crying “let me die!” But that’s about the only good thing about it. The acting is atrocious. Scenes that are meant to be horrifying are hilarious (such as the lab assistant who, after having his arm torn off by the monster, takes AN ABSOLUTE AGE to die, and staggers all over the house, clutching his side). The monster, when we finally see it, made me laugh out loud. BUT, having said all that, this film is so crazy that I’m actually quite fond of it. Worth seeing if you love low-budget trashy horrors of yesteryear.
BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (1961)
Dir: Blake Edwards
When I bought my DVD copy of this the lady selling it to me went into raptures over it. (I have often noticed that Breakfast At Tiffany’s has that effect on women). She also added “Oh Audrey! I still can’t believe she’s no longer with us”. The image of a radiantly beautiful Audrey Hepburn in long black gloves, wielding a large cigarette-holder, is one of THE most iconic images of cinema. With her little black dresses, French pleat hair, and dark glasses, she became the epitome of female cool. Watching this film again after a gap of many years, I found it as captivating as ever. This is pure movie escapism. That’s not to say it’s flawless, because it’s not, and I’ve seen some argue that it hasn’t aged that well. George Peppard plays Paul, an aspiring writer, who moves into a New York apartment, which is funded by his rich, older married mistress (Patricia Neal). He befriends Holly Golightly, a quirky young woman on the floor below. She’s a bit ditzy. She sleeps all day, goes on odd visits to Sing Sing prison, and has a nameless cat for company. Paul finds himself becoming obsessed with her. In 1961 it must have been pretty tricky to try and convey the lifestyle Paul and Holly lead without offending censors and viewers all over the place. The concept of a “kept man” seems fairly avant-garde (although Sunset Boulevard had done it ten years earlier). Also Holly isn’t a completely sympathetic character. She’s an unashamed gold-digger. Plus she has a frankly tedious obsession with her brother Fred, and selfishly calls Paul by his name. This part of the story is a bit of a drag to be honest. From what I’ve read Audrey wasn’t comfortable with the character. She didn’t like playing extroverts. Truman Capote originally envisaged the role for Marilyn Monroe, and certainly the role does feel just right for Marilyn. Audrey can seem a bit too prim for the role of a flaky young woman who leads a rackety life. She simply doesn’t come across as the reckless little scamp from the wrong side of the tracks, who still occasionally nicks things from a dime store (“to keep my hand in”). Marilyn would have fitted that role like a glove. I suppose something must also be said about Mickey Rooney’s absurd portrayal of Mr Yunioshi, Holly’s Japanese neighbour. It’s a stupid, cartoon character, which jars badly with the elegant tone of the rest of the film. Well anyway, having said all that, it’s still a good film, and there are some scenes which are still great. The sequence where Paul and Holly decide to spend the day doing things they’ve never done before is fun. I have to say my favourite characters tend to be the secondary ones though. John McGiver as the Tiffany’s salesman, getting sentimental over plastic toys sold in cereal packets, and the brilliant Dorothy Whitney as the full-throttle Mag Wildwood, “a model and a crashing bore”. I still love it. TRIVIA CORNER: Rumour has it that, to get the right level of authenticity at Holly’s Greatest Party Ever, director Blake Edwards plied the cast with real alcohol. It paid off, that’s all I can say, it’s a lot of fun, and Audrey shows a masterly comic touch.
BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)
Dir: James Whale
Outstanding horror from 1935, which by many people is counted as even better than it’s predecessor, Frankenstein, released 4 years earlier. This is the sort of film which has been endlessly analysed, usually for it’s camp undertones, so I will just say what I found captivating about it. First and foremost, the marvellously quirky Elsa Lanchester. Even though she only appears for a few minutes, at the beginning and end of the film, the movie is still very much her’s. She owns it. At the beginning she appears in Regency costume as Mary Shelley, discussing her creation with Lord Byron. At the end she memorably reappears as the Bride, sporting the kind of hairdo that Sybil Fawlty would have envied, and hissing like a good ‘un (Elsa was said to have been inspired by the hissing of the swans in a London park). Then there is Ernest Thesiger, camping it up splendidly as Dr Pretorius. When I first saw this as a child I was captivated by Dr Pretorius’s miniature people, and watching it again now I still find them a lot of fun. He also has some great lines. “Would you like a gin? Gin is my ONLY weakness”. And “To the world of gods and monsters”. As a connoisseur of castles and haunted houses in films, I have to say the Baron’s is pretty good (“I think it’s a charming house” – Dr Pretorius). And then of course there is Karloff, clomping around in boots and hobo’s jacket. The only bit I can’t stand is Una O’Connor’s hysterical old woman act, which drives me nuts. I sympathised with the Baron, when he wearily snaps “oh come in!” when she knocks on his door.
BRIDE OF THE GORILLA (1951)
Dir: Curt Siodmak
Probably the only real reason to watch this low-budget flick from 1951 is the presence of platinum-haired Barbara Payton. In this she has a sort of Lana Turner-ish role as the unsatisfied wife of a scientist, buried in some jungle outback. A disgruntled old native woman doctors his drink one evening, and suddenly he starts to come over all animal after sundown. Although the film runs at only just over an hour long, it plods along as though it’s under no obligation to entertain us at all. Ms Payton actually does a reasonably good job, and acts her role with painful seriousness. Unfortunately the film doesn’t really seem to know what it wants to be. It’s not frightening, so it doesn’t work as horror, and in spite of Barbara, the trashy title, and the steamy setting, it doesn’t work as low-budget erotica either. TRIVIA CORNER: Barbara Payton’s life was a terrible object lesson in how cruel the whole Hollywood environment can be. Her career ended in the 1950s, and from then on she turned to prostitution to fuel her drink habit. When she died in 1967, at her parent’s home (she had ended up homeless as well), her heart, lungs and liver had been wrecked.
THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960)
Dir: Terence Fisher
Dark Transylvanian forest, thunderstorm, carriage driving recklessly through the trees, yes we’re in vintage Hammer territory. Low-key but effective effort from 1960. There is no Christopher Lee. Instead we have David Peel, as a strange young man who is kept manacled up in the ancestral family home by his anguished mother (Martita Hunt). Yvonne Monlaur is the damsel-in-distress, on her way to a young ladies academy, who is enticed back to the house from the village inn. She looks fetching in a lush Victorian negligee, but is a bit of an irritating dimwit, constantly ignoring good advice, and plunging everything into chaos as a result. But I guess if she showed common-sense, she wouldn’t have gone to the house, and it would be a very short film! Peter Cushing is on hand, to lend stalwart support as Van Helsing, but Freda Jackson acts everyone off the screen as Greta, the family’s demented servant. In fact, at times her constant maniacal cackling got right on my nerves. I’ve rarely seen such an irritating old bint on screen since the days of Una O’Connor. It’s interesting to compare the restrained school scenes with the outright soft porn efforts in Lust For A Vampire, made just over 10 years later. The 1960s changed everything. ADDENDUM: watching this again, I was struck anew by just how beautiful this film is to look at. An underrated, well-crafted little gem.
BRIDGET JONES’S DIARY (2001)
Dir: Sharon Maguire
I must admit I never really understood the whole Bridget Jones phenomenon. We are meant to believe this young woman is a loser, and yet (a) she has an interesting job, (b) she’s not short of male attention, and (c) if you think she’s fat you really need to get out more. But phenomenon it is. It’s an enjoyable bit of chick-lit entertainment, and Rene Zellweger is great fun as Bridget (although at times it does seem to have typecast her into wacky screwball roles). Hugh Grant and Colin Firth play the male eye-candy, and do a pretty splendid job of it too. TRIVIA CORNER: when Bridget Jones first appeared in the early 1990s as a column in The Independent, I thought she was a real person. This confused me for ages.
BRIEF ENCOUNTER (1945)
Dir: David Lean
It’s quite astonishing really how well this film holds up after so many years. Of course it’s dated in parts. The children in particular speak with incredibly plummy voices, and Celia Johnson’s husband seems remarkably non-reactive, with his old-school Mustn’t Make A Fuss Now-type Britishness. But as a romantic film it still packs a powerful punch, and Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard do a sterling job of portraying doomed love. The comedy interludes in the station bar, with Joyce Carey and Stanley Holloway, add some much-needed light relief from all that angst amongst the steam trains. It’s been spoofed and lampooned many times, but I defy anyone not to be bawling their eyes out at the end of it. I feel quite weepy just thinking about it.
BURNT OFFERINGS (1976)
Dir: Dan Curtis
Haunted house horror movie from 1976 which was received poorly at the time of its release, but which seems to have since been re-valued, and is now regarded as much better than some professional critics would have you believe. I even saw it on a list of the 40 Best Haunted House Movies Ever. It is an intriguing little chiller, with a good, solid cast, and its fair share of eerie moments. Also, unlike a lot of more recent horror films, it doesn’t rely on flashy gimmicks to give you scares. I actually don’t understand what caused it to get so savaged in it’s day. The only real complaint I have about it is that nearly 2 hours running time, it’s probably a tad too long. Apparently it is one of Stephen King’s favourite films, and it does bear a similarity in many ways to The Shining. A married couple with a young son arrive to take up a temporary tenancy of an isolated house. Only instead of a vast hotel, we have a colonial white-pillared mansion. The owners are a creepy pair, who are offering the house at a vastly reduced rent, on condition they don’t mind putting up with their reclusive old mother, who lives in the attic. Oliver Reed does a splendid job as a mild-mannered academic, Karen Black as his wife who finds her personality being taken over by the house, and the legendary Bette Davis as the feisty aunt. The gist of the haunting seems to be that it is the house which is the spooky entity, and the house demands a human sacrifice to rejuvenate itself every so often. An idea which was first used in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting Of Hill House. In essence, the house is vampirising the people who live in it. TRIVIA CORNER: Bette Davis hated making the film. She found Oliver Reed’s drunken rampages back at the hotel terrifying. It’s hard to imagine anyone terrifying Bette Davis, but she was a frail old lady by then. On screen though, they work well together, with no hint of any underlying tension. True professionals.
THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI (1920)
Dir: Robert Wiene
If you want the cinematic equivalent of the Crazy House at the funfair, then this film is it. Made in Germany in 1920, The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari is often regarded as the first full-length horror film. The sets are all abstract and crooked, and most of the actors wander about in panstick make-up, looking like a Goth’s dream. At the beginning of the film, one young lady walks slowly towards the camera in a Ring-like white nightgown and long dark hair, reminding me of some creepy joke vids that used to be posted on the Internet years ago. Dr Caligari is a very odd old man, who puts on a turn at a funfair, whereby he exhibits a young man, whom he claims has been in a deep sleep for the past 23 years. He will rouse this man out of his protracted slumbers, and he will answer any question the audience asks. The Somnambulist looks suitably freaky, with his Alice Cooper eyeliner. When one man asks how long he has to live, the Somnambulist replies eerily “until dawn tomorrow” … and then the man is murdered in his bed. This is a truly eye-catching film. I did wonder if it had been inspired by the peculiar “sleeping sickness” which afflicted some people immediately after the First World War.
CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA (1945)
Dir: Gabriel Pascal
Several years before Elizabeth Taylor stunned the world in the epic Cleopatra (see below) came another hugely expensive take on the story of the Queen of the Nile. Caesar and Cleopatra was taken from the play by George Bernard Shaw, and it starred Vivien Leigh as the young queen, and Claude Rains as Julius Caesar. Like the 1960s version, the story of the making of this version of Caesar and Cleopatra could make a film on its own. No expense was spared. Sand was imported from the Egyptian desert, and care was taken to even make sure the stars in the sky would appear in the same place as they would have been during Cleopatra’s time. All fine and dandy, but it’s a shame more thought couldn’t have been put into giving the script and the direction some Oomph! I realise I’m probably committing heresy by writing that, after all this is the great Shaw we’re talking about here, but even so, this film is horribly stagey and theatrical. It is however a very beautiful-looking movie, particularly with its soft, dreamy colours. There are some magical shots, such as Cleopatra snoozing in her bed overlooking the waters of the Nile. Claude Rains is brilliant as Caesar. He’s an actor who is always worth watching. Vivien Leigh looks absolutely exquisite, as if she’s made of bone china, but plays the queen too much as a bratty upper-class schoolgirl. There is no denying when you’re watching her that she was an outstanding actress, but she doesn’t seem to have been allowed to give the role any depth. It’s simply not worthy of her. I found it hard to believe that she was making this nearly a decade on from Scarlett O’Hara. The film lacks all the earthy, torrid undercurrents that made the Liz Taylor version so notorious. Flora Robson also irritates the darned bejaysus out of me as Cleo’s bossy nurse. A tragic fact about the movie is the scene where Cleo goes to whip a quivering slave. Vivien tripped and fell as she rushed to do so, and miscarried her baby. Something she never forgave the director (Gabriel Pascal) for. The cost of the film was ruinous. It was the most expensive British film to be made up to that time, and the public stayed away in droves. Worthy, hugely expensive theatrical pieces clearly were not what they were after. It’s worth a look now for the beautiful sets, costumes and colours, and the splendid Claude Rains. It’s just a pity that by and large the makers of this movie were too damn awed by George Bernard Shaw to remember that they were actually supposed to be providing entertainment. No amount of Egyptian sand, bright stars in the sky, and lovely costumes, can make up for a stodgy, passionless pudding of a film.
CALL HER SAVAGE (1932)
Dir: John Francis Dillon
Ooh what a saucy little minx that Clara Bow was! Made in 1932, this is one of It Girl Clara’s few Talkies. She plays Nasa Springer, who can best be described as a Right Old Handful. We first see her riding hell-for-leather through some woods (minus a brassiere). She thrashes a rattlesnake with her whip, and then proceeds to beat the living daylights out of her besotted admirer as well. When a guitar-player annoys her with his strumming (well it IS annoying to be honest), she smashes his instrument over his head. In a forlorn attempt to turn her into a lady, her grumpy father packs her off to a Young Ladies’ Academy in Chicago. Unfortunately Nasa sees this as a golden opportunity to get into even more trouble. Before we know it, she’s getting into a cat-fight with brassy Thelma Todd, and racketing into an unhappy marriage. This is a great film for Clara, enabling her to showcase all that red-headed fiery-ness, and yet bring out her sensitive side too. There’s no denying she was a good actress, and a right sexy little bundle too. TRIVIA CORNER: Clara’s platinum-haired co-star, Thelma Todd, had the terrible honour of ending up as one of Hollywood’s most famous deaths. She was found dead in her car in suspicious circumstances in 1935, and the mystery still remains unsolved to this day.
CAPTAIN KRONOS VAMPIRE HUNTER (1972)
Dir: Brian Clemens
An admirable British attempt from 1972 (although it wasn’t released until 1974) to sort of cross-breed the Hammer vampire tale with the spaghetti western genre. I watched this on YouTube, where it seems to have acquired cult classic status, and I’ve read glowing reviews of it from younger viewers. It’s a very imaginative effort, and I did like the way the hoary old vampire legend has been reworked to great effect. Instead of Christopher Lee in a black cape sinking his teeth into the necks of pretty girls, we have a strange entity in a hooded black habit, who is haunting a forest. Whatever it passes, such as flowers, or wild mushrooms, are left withered and rotted. Human victims are left aged and frail, even if they’re in the full bloom of youth. This to me seems a far more frightening concept than something nicking your blood, and I’m amazed it hasn’t been used more often, particularly in these days when everyone’s obsessed with health and youth.
THE CAR (1977)
Dir: Elliot Silverstein
I remember this being shown late one night many years ago, and the TV reviews being generally very dismissive of it. Yes it is a bit of a silly story – a weird black car terrorises a remote desert town – and yet I think it still has it’s share of creepy moments. Like Duel we never find out who the driver is, so we are led to speculate that it is the Devil behind the wheel. I was reminded of it again when seeing it mentioned on the Church of Satan’s list of recommended films. (See Carnival Of Souls below). Very very rarely shown on British TV these days, but it does seem to be available on dvd, and clips are on YouTube. Apparently it was made to capitalise on the huge success of Jaws, but with a car in the shark role. Not as daft as you might think.
CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962)
Dir: Herk Harvey
I hope you like organ music, because oh boy, do you get a lot of it in this film. Mary is a young woman who is involved in a car accident. When she recovers she gets a job as a church organist in Utah. Unfortunately she finds herself being haunted by a sinister pasty-faced man in a black suit. Carnival Of Souls enjoys impressive cult status, and there is also something distinctly eerie and other-worldly about these kind of low-budget 1960s movies, which always gives them a disturbing quality. I can’t quite make my mind up about it. As I said, it has an unsettling air. Unfortunately I was put off by the acting which is absolutely atrocious. All the characters seem to drawl at Very Slow Speed as though they’ve been doped or lobotomised. I may have to watch it sometime again to do it justice.
CARRY ON ABROAD (1972)
Dir: Gerald Thomas
I do get sick and tired of po-faced politically-correct lot who seem to regard this film as xenophobic. It’s an unpretentious bit of fun, about a bunch of Brits who go on a weekend break to Spain. That is all. Am not sure where the xenophobic bits come in, unless it’s the running gags about the hotel being half-built (which are very funny). Trouble is, I’m old enough to remember when that was what you got if you went on a low-budget trip to the Med. Anyway, if you’re NOT politically-correct, then this is a fun way to spend a bit of time. Most of the gang are here, Kenneth Williams, Sid James, Barbara Windsor, Joan Sims, Charlie Hawtrey, Hattie Jacques and Kenneth Connor. June Whitfield also pops up as a whining, nagging wife who gets magically transformed into a saucy minx after an evening with a suave local. There is also a sweet touch when the booze at the last evening’s party gets spiked, and the vicar leads everyone in a sing-song.
CARRY ON AGAIN DOCTOR (1969)
Dir: Gerald Thomas
The one which is probably most famous for Barbara Windsor appearing wearing nothing but 3 small sequinned love hearts. Affable Jim Dale plays the hapless Dr Nookey who, after causing chaos at the hospital, is exiled to a tropical outpost to help the rogue-ish Dr Gladstone Screwer (Sid James, naturally). Dr Nookey finds nothing there but rain, a cabinet full of whisky, and a jigsaw puzzle. Sounds like my kind of posting! A fun entry in the Carry On canon, even if it’s not one of the classic ones.
CARRY ON CAMPING (1969)
Dir: Gerald Thomas
‘Cleo’ and ‘Henry’ are undoubtedly better Carry On films, but I have a soft spot for this one. It was filmed in a sodden field in October, and shows middle-aged men leering over schoolgirls, which these days looks dodgy to say the least, but it’s still an engaging bit of fun. It probably helps if you remember the “schoolgirls” in this were being played by women in their late twenties and thirties. It also contains Barbara Windsor’s legendary bra-busting moment, the most famous scene in Carry On history. I read a while back that Sir Laurence Olivier was being driven to work one day when he saw Charlie Hawtrey, on his way to the ‘Camping’ set walking along the side of the road. Sir Larry gave him a lift. What a conversation that would have been to eavesdrop on.
CARRY ON CLEO (1964)
Dir: Gerald Thomas
Rightly regarded as one of the best from the Carry On stable. I’m not arguing. Kenneth Williams is superb as Julius Caesar, strutting around like Tony Blair in a hissy fit, constantly exclaiming that no one understands him. The magnificently shrewish Joan Sims gobbles grapes in her bath, and tears a strip off him for being 4 years late coming home from his latest invasion. Amanda Barrie makes an absolute adorable Cleopatra, spending most of her time in her asses milk bath, being ditzy and alluring in a bath-cap. Jim Dale puts in his usual loveable goofy turn as an ancient Briton, hampered by his bumbling best mate, Kenneth Connor as Hengist Pod, inventor of the square wheel. I watched the classic “infamy! infamy! They’ve all got it in for me!” scene again recently on YouTube, and was struck by just how fast and furious the gags come flying. Respect.
CARRY ON COWBOY (1965)
Dir: Gerald Thomas
Another classy entry in the Carry On series, as the team send up B-westerns. Jim Dale is a British sanitary inspector – Marshall P Nutt – who is sent to a mid-west town to check on its drains, only to be mistaken for the new sheriff. Sid James is the Rumpo Kid, Joan Sims as the saloon madam, Kenneth Williams as a drawling lawyer, the marvellous Angela Douglas as sharp-shootin’ Annie Oakley, and Charlie Hawtrey camping it deliriously as the local Indian Chief. In many ways it’s like a forerunner of Blazing Saddles, particularly when Hawtrey downs a bottle of scotch in one go. I still found it very laugh-out-loud, and great to see the team on such top-form. The shoot-out at the end, when Nutt makes full use of the drains to take on the Rumpo Kid, is legendary.
CARRY ON CRUISING (1962)
Dir: Gerald Thomas
Can you imagine getting away with a title like that now? Anyway, the Carry On team take on cruising holidays in this affable, but unambitious outing. It does exactly what it says on the tin, although only three of the regulars are in attendance, Sid James, Kenneth Williams and Kenneth Connor. Lance Percival makes his only Carry On appearance here. The wonderful Esme Cannon does her dotty old lady bit. It all feels incredibly innocent really, particularly when you think what a send-up of cruise ship holidays would be like these days. TRIVIA CORNER: I gleaned this following enjoyable little nugget from the pages of Wikipedia. In Cruising, Lance Percival’s character Haines the chef, breaks a load of eggs for a cake by dropping all the eggs and straining out the egg shells. Apparently this has now become known as The Haines Technique in data processing.
CARRY ON GIRLS (1973)
Dir: Gerald Thomas
Some might argue this is the Carry Ons at their most objectionable, and yes it’s very much of it’s time, and no it’s not one of the best in the series by any stretch of the imagination. It doesn’t have the charm of the early black-and-white Carry Ons, or the quality of the costume ones like Cleo, Khyber and Screaming, and yet it still does the job in it’s own unique way. A down-at-heel seaside town decides to host a beauty contest to boost trade, which raises the ire of the local Women’s Lib movement, who decide to sabotage it. And that’s basically it. Except we do have the delicious sight of Bernard Bresslaw in drag. Poor old Joan Hickson gets a cameo part as a dotty old lady, and there’s something a bit uncomfortable about seeing the future Miss Marple going on about her knickers! My favourite character is Patsy Rowlands as the woebegone Lady Mayoress, clumping around in her dressing-gown, fag in mouth. Often shown late at night on British TV over Christmas and Easter, when I’m usually in the right frame of mind for it. TRIVIA CORNER: according to Wikipedia, Valerie Leon (who plays Bresslaw’s prim girlfriend) had her voice dubbed by co-star June Whitfield. No one knows why.
CARRY ON HENRY (1971)
Dir: Gerald Thomas
The Carry On team take another hatchet to history, with this deliriously fun romp set at the court of King Henry VIII. Whereas Carry on Cleo was effectively a piss-take of Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra, this is a send-up of Anne Of The Thousand Days. So we have Joan Sims with a lay-it-on-with-a-trowel French accent, snacking on garlic bulbs in bed. Sid James is a randy Henry, appearing lecherously in his nightshirt, clutching his orb and sceptre. Barbara Windsor puts in her customary saucy, buxom wench mode (“Ma’am the King has done me!”). Terry Scott is Cardinal Wolsey (he threatened to wear his robes to church to try and intimidate everyone), Kenneth Connor is the Prince Of Berks, and Charles Hawtrey makes one of the most unlikely red-hot lovers ever to grace the screen, Sir Roger of Bedside Manor, Wilts.
CARRY ON JACK (1963)
Dir: Gerald Thomas
Only two of the Carry On regulars (Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtrey) appear for this affable send-up of life on the high seas, but it still manages to be one of the better Carry On’s. It’s not Class A Carry On, but it’s still a more handsome production than some of the tatty ones which were to emerge ten years later (Carry On Dick). Loveable Bernard Cribbins is due to take up his duties as Midshipman Poop-Decker on the good ship ‘Venus’, but is clomped on the head by Juliet Mills, who takes his place to go looking for her errant lover. All sorts of undemanding silliness ensue. Mills is a delightful female lead, and many of the jokes revolve around her looking pretty unconvincing as a young man in her naval uniform.
CARRY ON SCREAMING (1966)
Dir: Gerald Thomas
Classy and very funny effort from the Carry On team, sending up the Hammer Horror genre with total panache. Harry H Corbett, of Steptoe And Son appears in his only Carry On as a Victorian police sergeant investigating the disappearances of young women from a public park. Little does he know it but they’re being kidnapped by a splendidly gothic brother and sister (Kenneth Williams and Fielding Fielding) to be turned into shop window mannequins. I love just about everything about this film. The cast all seem to be enjoying themselves (particularly Williams, who has never been better), a fruity-voiced Fenella vamping it up outrageously in a skin-tight red gown, Joan Sims in full throttle in one of her battleaxe roles, and Jim Dale in one of his loveably goofy modes. It takes every horror element it can, from Hammer, the Universal studios classics of the 1930s, and the Addams Family and has a ball. There is some superb comic timing going on here, and the actors all spark off each other splendidly. A word must also be said about the costumes and decor, which comfortably ape Hammer’s attention to period detail. Creepy old house with fog swirling around it, horse-drawn carriages, corsets and brandy decanters. Love it. TRIVIA CORNER: Carry On Screaming was one of the more improbable entries in Channel 4’s list of ‘The 100 Scariest Moments’, but then so was The Wizard Of Oz.
CARRY ON UP THE JUNGLE (1970)
Dir: Gerald Thomas
I don’t usually think of the 70s Carry Ons with the same affection as the older ones, but I’ll make an exception for Jungle. Spoofing old Tarzan films, the gang head off into the jungle in pursuit of the legendary Oozlum bird (which has a novel way of getting rid of itself). These days I’m reminded of George Of The Jungle, with Terry Scott in the Brendan Fraser role. Sid James must have enjoyed looking all Clark Gable/Stewart Grainger-ish in his safari suit, bush-whacker hat and neckerchief. Frankie Howerd is as lovable as ever as eccentric ornithologist Professor Tinkle. The statuesque Valerie Leon also puts in a memorable appearance as an Amazonian woman intent on kidnapping men for fertility purposes. TRIVIA CORNER: according to Wikipedia, Bernard Bresslaw gave some of his lines in Swahili. Sid – who was South African born – was the only member of the cast who understood him, and congratulated him. One of my favourite film facts EVER.
THE CASE OF THE WHITECHAPEL VAMPIRE (2002)
Dir: Rodney Gibbons
Absorbing TV film in which the great Sherlock Holmes (Matt Frewer) is called in to investigate a possible outbreak of vampire killings in darkest Whitechapel at Christmas-time. It took me a bit of a while to get used to Matt Frewer’s interpretation of Holmes. At first I found him too arch and supercilious (although that’s all too often Holmes I guess), and to be honest, I was missing Jeremy Brett. But he grew on me. Always fun to see Holmes, the hyper-skeptic and realist, having to deal with religious cults, spiritualist mediums, and anything that smacks of the supernatural, and the film is enjoyably atmospheric. TRIVIA CORNER: Matt Frewer played the immensely irritating Max Headroom on Channel 4 in the 1980s. All I can say is, he’s a vast improvement here.
CASINO ROYALE (1967)
Dirs: Ken Huges, John Huston, Joseph McGrath, Robert Parrish, Val Guest, Robert Talmadge, Old Uncle Tom Cobbley and all.
Orson Welles, Peter Sellers, David Niven, Deborah Kerr, Ursula Andress, George Raft, Woody Allen, Bernard Cribbins, Richard Wattis and Ronnie Corbett. This sounds like a film cast to die for. So what the blazes went wrong?? Every time this film trots around on TV, you can hear a groan go up across the land as everyone saw Casino Royale in the listings, and thought they were going to get Daniel Craig (see below) instead. Every time I see this film, I think WHY didn’t it work? It wasn’t through lack of talent (obviously), and it wasn’t through lack of zest and vitality. The list of directors gives me a bit of a clue. Too many cooks and all that. I’m starting to develop a theory that the more directors a film has, the more chance of a dog’s breakfast it’s going to be. And Casino Royale seems to illustrate that. It’s very much of it’s time, it has the Sixties stamped all through it, but that shouldn’t exactly be a problem. My own twopennarth is that it lacks warmth, and because it lacks warmth it lacks any true sense of fun. Plus people always try to do send-ups of Bond films, ignoring the fact that the Bond franchise itself is the best one for doing that. It has a smug in-joke feel, which must have been great for the actors – who were clearly queuing round the block to appear in this – but feels alienating for the viewer. Sort of “look at all these big stars having fun … so why aren’t I then?” I did read one review which argued that it tries too hard to be hip and cool, but instead comes across as a bunch of embarrassing old farts (and to be blunt, they don’t come much more embarrassing than Deborah Kerr does in this) trying to be down with the kids. By 1967 the cool kids were into flower power and letting it all hang out, whereas this feels as if it’s stuck 5 years before. Sellers looks dishy in his Cary Grant specs, but again there’s no warmth to him here, none of the bumbling charm of Clouseau for instance. It’s worth watching for the scene where Orson Welles tortures Sellers with a bagpipe sequence, which should give you some idea just how bonkers it is. But overall, it’s an over-long, over-indulgent mess, which proves – once again – that big names alone don’t automatically make a great film.
CASINO ROYALE (2006)
Dir: Martin Campbell
Daniel Craig’s first foray into stepping into Bond’s shoes, and a much welcome overhaul of the series. Gritty and exciting, this ranks as one of the best in the entire Bond canon. Taken from Ian Fleming’s first novel, the film can be confusing at times as it’s referring to Bond as a new character, yet to earn his 007 stripes, but no matter, that’s a small quibble. The film is remarkably faithful to the original book, although opened out considerably. Whereas the book was set entirely in France, the film – in true Bond movie tradition – ventures all over the place. Starting in Uganda, and stopping off at the Bahamas, Miami, and Montenegro, before winding up with a spectacular finale in Venice. Running at well over 2 hours you certainly get your money’s worth. It might not have all the charm of the vintage Bonds, but Craig is a worthy successor to Connery and Moore.
Dir: Nicholas Roeg
The film of Lucy Irvine’s bestselling book can be seen as a parable about marriage compressed into one year. Gerald meets Lucy. Gerald can’t believe his luck because Lucy is sexy, smart and beautiful. Lucy thinks Gerald is witty and adventurous. They get married and set up home together (albeit on a tropical island on the other side of the world). Lucy goes off sex, Gerald gets bad-tempered. Lucy becomes more shrewish and naggy, Gerald turns into a fat lazy old slob who just wants to lounge around all day. Lucy finally lets Gerald have his oats. Gerald can’t believe his luck, and becomes a more loving, caring husband as a result. At the end of their time together, they have reached a state of mutual understanding and respect. Both Oliver Reed and Amanda Donohue are first-rate as the two leads, which is just as well as they largely have to carry the film between them. I remember when it came out the real-life Lucy saying that if Gerald had been as cute and cuddly as Oliver Reed, she’d probably still be on the island! And certainly Reed does a fine job of making Gerald likeable. A lesser actor would have made him a boorish lout. This proves what a good actor he was, and he deserves to be remembered for more than just drunkenly making a tit out of himself on chat shows. Amanda Donohoe also does well in the difficult role of the complex Lucy, a woman made tense and difficult by a traumatic life (read her pre-Castaway memoirs, Runaway, for more info on her past). The film taps into our fascination with desert islands, and shows us that it’s not all golden beaches and the freedom to wander around in the nude. When their garden fails, the couple face near-starvation, which is summed up by them driving each other to a frenzy by describing their favourite food. It also has a great theme song by Kate Bush, Be Kind To My Mistakes.
CAT PEOPLE (1942)
Dir: Jacques Torneur
I’m writing this one largely from memory, as it rarely appears on television these days, the full film isn’t available on YouTube, and the DVD is too expensive, BUT it is a classic of the horror genre and well-deserving of its reputation. In fact, one Halloween I did dig out the two most famous scenes from the film – the swimming-pool scene, and the scene where Alice is stalked as she walks along the street, which are available on YouTube – and posted them to Twitter. Simone Simon is a young dress-designer, Irena, living in a classy apartment in New York, who is haunted by a legend from the Balkan village of her ancestors, which says that if she has intimacy with a man she will turn into a big cat. Which is a bit unfortunate when she meets and falls for an engineer (called Oliver Reed), played by Kent Smith. Shot in scrumptious black-and-white, the film has oodles of Atmosphere. The couple marry, but Irena can’t shake that dreadful legend from her mind, and so we have to assume that the newly-weds’ life is somewhat lacking in intimate bliss. To add to Irena’s misfortunes, Oliver shares an office with Alice (Jane Randolph), who confesses that she secretly loves him, and she just can’t bear to see him so darn unhappy. Hmm, if you ask me, that Alice is a right bitch, although I think we supposed to believe she’s just an all-round good ole American gal, down-to-earth, and not like these moody European women. Irena gets suspicious about Alice’s intentions (you can’t really blame her), and starts to stalk her in cat form. The scenes in the street and at the swimming-pool are genuinely creepy, and still hold up well now. There are also some engaging secondary characters, such as the zoo-keeper, the cleaner at Oliver’s workplace who is obsessed with removing cigarette ash from her bosom, the chatty waitress at the restaurant, and the receptionist at Alice’s lodgings with her delightful 1940s slang. Watch out for the wedding breakfast scene, where Irena is accosted by a fellow Cat Woman. The film was remade in 1982 with Natassja Kinski and Malcolm McDowell. That is a good too, and the relocation to New Orleans works well, but the original has the edge for its monochrome, haunting quality.
THE CAT’S MEOW (2001)
Dir: Peter Bogdanovich
I was expecting to enjoy this one a lot more than I did. The era of 1920s Hollywood is one I find endlessly fascinating, and it covers one of the great mysteries of that time … what happened to movie producer Thomas Ince aboard Randolph Hearst’s yacht in 1924. Hearst, and his mistress, the actress Marion Davies, threw a lavish birthday party for Ince, which ended in Ince being shot dead. To this day no one fully knows what happened. There are all sorts of theories, that Hearst shot Ince in a jealous rage when he suspected him of having an affair with Marion. Or even that Charlie Chaplin did it (for the same reason). The main problem I have with this film is the sluggish direction, plus the general all-round muted, somewhat dull atmosphere, and that kills it for me. I admit this is entirely a matter of personal taste, and that many will vehemently disagree with me. And then there’s the matter of the casting, which is a bit hit-and-miss. I have a lot of time for Kirsten Dunst (mainly from performance in Marie Antoinette), but she just doesn’t feel right as Marion, and I don’t know why (sorry, I know that’s not much help).* Edward Herrmann and Eddie Izzard as Hearst and Chaplin, respectively, are spot-on though. I’ve read complaints that this is a hatchet job on Chaplin, but I actually think – particularly considering what we know nowadays of his love life – that it’s reasonably sympathetic. I’ve also seen criticism of Jennifer Tilly’s helium-voiced turn as the arch-bitch journalist, Louella Parsons. But Parsons was an over-the-top character, and it’s actually quite interesting to get a showing of her in her younger days, before she became the vicious old witch of the gossip columns in the 1950s. Sadly, Joanna Lumley just doesn’t cut it for me AT ALL as romantic novelist Elinor Glyn. I think that’s probably because I always envisage Elinor as some formidable grand-dame, sort of a bit like the characters Margaret Dumont would play in the Marx Brothers films. All fox furs and regal bearing. She was a true Edwardian diva of literature. Whereas Lumley’s portrayal is a more a low-key version of Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous, only nowhere near as funny. She feels too modern, too knowing, whereas I always get the impression that Elinor didn’t know she was a caricature of herself by this stage (though that may well be just my impression of things). That was the biggest disappointment for me, particularly as the main reason I watched this was to see Elinor Glyn portrayed on film. There is some vigorous debate about this film on the IMDb website, with one viewer even calling it the “worst movie ever”. I wouldn’t go anywhere near that far (they’ve obviously never sat through Robot Monster, or Madonna’s version of the Wallis Simpson story W.E), I would just describe myself as mildly disappointed. It’s not a bad film by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s not as good as I thought it was going to be. ADDENDUM*: I read the relevant thread about Kirsten Dunst on the IMDb website. Many people seemed to feel that she was dreary in the role, too affected, and she didn’t fit in with the era in which the film is set. Marion was certainly a bubbly personality, a gifted comic actress, but Dunst just portrays her as a ditzy blonde airhead, with zero charisma and likeability. Whatever the opinion, Dunst’s performance helped kill the film for me.
Dir: Frank Lloyd
Based on a play by Noel Coward, this film shows the life of two English families (one upper-crust, one working-class) during the first few years of the 20th century. It’s very much of it’s era, with lots of “England won’t be the same place without the dear old Queen” sort of stuff. It’s a bit too slow in parts (although, having said that the Roaring Twenties seemed to be dismissed in a flickering montage of gloom and depravity), but it’s interesting enough, and still very moving in parts. TRIVIA CORNER: it was one of the first films to use the word “damn”, which caused some concern amongst the censors at the time.
A CHALLENGE FOR ROBIN HOOD (1967)
Dir: C M Pennington-Richards
Low-budget non-horror offering from the Hammer stable. Even as undemanding teatime viewing fare, I found it hard to like this one. I know comparisons are odious, but it’s safe to say we’re not exactly talking Errol Flynn here. Barrie Ingham does the smug, characterless know-it-all bit as the legendary outlaw. He is backed up by a supporting cast who look as if someone bought up a job-lot of cut-price actors at the bargain bin of a jumble sale. Characters are prone to breaking into hearty guffaws of laughter (which frankly made me want to slap the lot of them). To add to the misery we also get some unendurable singing in Ye Olde Sherwood Forest. Gay Hamilton makes almost no impression whatsoever as Lady Marian. The absolute nadir is a custard pie fight (yes I know that’s not what you’re expecting in a Robin Hood film), which is signposted a mile off, and is as lame as all the rest of it. I would argue if you’re going to put an all-out custard pie fight in a film, then it has to be as spectacularly messy and anarchic as possible. Hardly anyone gets hit in this one. When I read up on this film afterwards, I was astonished to see it had had so many positive reviews, although someone on the IMDb website did say you know you’re in trouble when you get Alfie Bass as the special guest star! The New York Times said it was “excellent”, and that the low budget “seldom shows”.
CHARLOTTE GRAY (2001)
Dir: Gillian Armstrong
This is one of those films that you expect to work, and it doesn’t. Cate Blanchett is the eponymous heroine who parachutes behind enemy lines into Occupied France during WW2, to help the French Resistance. The photography on it is beautiful, and there is good attention to period detail, but perhaps that’s part of the problem. It doesn’t make the film ring true. Everyone looks too well-nourished, sleek and immaculate for people suffering the extreme trials and tribulations of Wartime. This feels more like a sentimental TV advert than a realistic movie. I also have a problem with the character of Charlotte herself, who carries an aura of insufferable superiority around with her all the time. I know comparisons are odious, but I kept being reminded of Carve Her Name With Pride, which is an infinitely better film in every way. It has very good reviews on Amazon, but although it’s well-made, it just didn’t work for me.
CHEER BOYS CHEER (1939)
Dir: Walter Forde
The last comedy Ealing did in peacetime, before WW2 broke out. Released in August 1939, it is often seen as a satire on the time, with a quirky, idiosyncratic brewery (meant to be the Brits), facing take-over by a ruthless organisation obsessed with efficiency (meant to be Nazi Germany). It’s an engaging film, and worth seeing for Will Hay’s sidekicks Graham Moffatt and Moore Marriott, appearing without him for a change. They’re no less funny without their old sparring partner (in fact some have argued they’re even more so). Nova Pilbeam, as the token girl, doesn’t seem at ease with comedy, coming across as rather too muted and serious, although she’s a good sport, and does her best. (Her voice reminds me so much of Jenny Agutter). There’s a very funny piece where the CEO of the big brewery is shown reading a copy of ‘Mein Kampf’! Can’t help feeling you could easily remake it now, with all the fears of small businesses being crushed by huge faceless corporations.
CHEMICAL WEDDING (2008)
Dir: Julian Doyle
Perhaps it’s old age coming on, but I seem to have reached a stage in my life where I am seriously bored by Aleister Crowley, and even more bored by any attempts by overgrown students to make out that he was some kind of misunderstood genius. Having said that, I do think there is scope to make a good film about Crowley’s bizarre life, if only to show how he criminally abused and wasted the many talents that Life saw fit to give him. This film isn’t it though. In 1947 two young men go to see a dying drug-addicted Crowley at his Hastings boarding-house. The jolly theme tune – Henry Hall’s Bogeyman – is played so loudly and is so distracting though that I couldn’t make out a single word of what the two men were saying to each other when they arrive there. Crowley, a sad, panto figure in shabby pyjama’s (one YouTube comment-er remarked that he looks remarkably like Coronation Street’s Fred Elliott), goes over-the-top and dies on them. Fast-forward a few decades, and there are sinister plans afoot to resurrect Crowley. This is where I got seriously fed up with the film. I don’t know which was worse, the earnest, annoying students, the brash, rude visiting American, or Simon Callow hamming it up HORRIBLY as a university professor. Jeezus, the man can’t even pour out a glass of wine without gurneying all over the place! He seems to have been under the impression that he was appearing in some old Comic Strip spoof. And then we have my absolute bete-noire of horror films – the violent slam-dunk noises which are put in when anything happens. When this occurs just because a girl has opened her eyes (oh God, how many times has that been done???) you know it’s bad. I’ve read some reviews comparing this film to the old Hammer horrors, which makes me rise in umbrage, as the Hammers were in a class way above this. I also take issue with a ‘Guardian’ review which said “at least it isn’t boring”. But it is! I have to confess the tedium did me in, I couldn’t finish it. The only good thing I can say about it is that you can download it for free on YouTube, which saves you from having to part with any cash for it.
CITIZEN KANE (1941)
Dir: Orson Welles
It’s a funny thing. If you were to ask me for a list of films I’d want to take to a desert island, it’s doubtful Citizen Kane would be on it (but then, that’s because I’m probably a Philistine, who would pick films like The Legend Of Hell House and Carry On Camping instead), and yet when I come to watch it again I truly appreciate it’s greatness. Inspired by the life of media mogul Randolph Hearst (the Robert Maxwell/Rupert Murdoch of the inter/war years), Kane is a masterpiece of the corruption of power. There is a scene where a colleague objects to the way Kane always refers to “the people”, “as if you own them”. It resonates just as much (probably even more so) than it did back then. My favourite character is Kane’s second wife, the tragic Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore) whom Kane wilfully tries to force into opera stardom, even though she has limited talent. The scene where she knows she is bombing on stage I find almost unbearably sad. Watching it again, I couldn’t help thinking that no person truly capable of love would force their loved one to go through such public humiliation, just so that he could get his own way. And then there is Charles Foster Kane’s monstrous great house ‘Xanadu’, a place so huge that even a big guy like Kane can stand comfortably under the mantelpiece, and where the characters have to shout across the room to be heard by each other. Lonely Susan spends her time in this gothic great pile doing jigsaw puzzles. Orson Welles peaked early with this one, and I’ve heard it said that he seemed to live his career backwards, peaking at the beginning and then gradually declining over the decades that followed. The trouble is … how on earth do you top Citizen Kane? TRIVIA CORNER (1) Much mental energy has been expended over the years on the Rosebud question, and what it all means. I’ve seen someone argue that it’s Kane harping back to the one time in his life when he knew happiness, free from the constant mental strife of relentless ambition, to when he was a child playing with his sledge. In the scene where Susan finally leaves him, and Kane mutters “Rosebud”, it is packed full of pathos. Kane is wondering why Life has so consistently failed to measure up to that early happiness, in spite of all his efforts to secure it. So, for me anyway, Rosebud is a symbol of carefree childhood happiness. That elusive magic we can spend our entire adulthood trying to find again. TRIVIA CORNER (2) Welles insisted that Kane was a compendium of several different characters (which is usually the way with anything creative, to be fair), and that Hearst was just a part of it. But it won’t stop people drawing comparisons with Hearst. I would argue that – possibly – Hearst’s private life was less tragic. Marion Davis (the Susan character) genuinely seemed to love him, and they had fun times together, summed up in the title of her memoirs, ‘The Times We Had’. When Hearst hit financial problems, Marion bailed him out with a $1,000,000 cheque. Unlike Susan, Marion was talented, a gifted comic actress, whose talent is more respected now, all these years on, than it probably was at the time. In fact, from things I’ve read, Hearst was more of a hindrance to her career than a help, stopping her from doing roles that she would have relished. When Hearst died in 1951, Marion married a few weeks later. Her husband was said to bear a strong resemblance to a young Hearst. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the marriage was a troubled one. Marion summed it up by saying “thank God we all have a sense of humor”.
CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981)
Dir: Desmond Davis
Let’s get the negatives out of the way first, yes it’s overlong, yes the lead hunk is bland (Harry Hamlin), and yes some of it’s galaxy of A-list stars do seem to weigh the film down a bit. Laurence Olivier may have the authority to play Zeus, but he seems far too grand and theatrical for the film, and Ursula Andress as Aphrodite doesn’t seem to have much to do, other than stand there and look decorative in a Grecian dress. Having said all that, it’s still got a great story, and entertaining special effects by the master, Ray Harryhausen. It also beats the pants off it’s 2010 remake. Perseus’s girlfriend, Andromeda (Judi Bowker) is doomed to be sacrificed to the Kraken, and Perseus has to find a way to rescue her. The Stygian Witches (cannibals who live in a cave, with one eye between the lot of them) advise him that he will need the head of the gorgon Medusa. Some films are worth sitting through for just one scene alone, and for me the showdown with Medusa is well-worth waiting for. It’s creepy, tense, and Medusa herself is a formidable opponent. I’ve seen the remake version with Russian model Natalia Vodianova, and it’s heavy emphasis on CGI (plus having Medusa in a bikini top, which makes her about as scary as an underwear catalogue), and it just doesn’t match it. Although I have seen some argue that the remake shows more sympathy with the original character of Medusa, a beautiful woman cursed with a head of snakes, who turns anyone who looks at her to stone. Even so, the original still wins hands down for me. I loved it when it first came out, and will still watch it when I get a chance.
Dir: Cecil B de Mille
Thoroughly enjoyable biopic about the Queen of the Nile, starring the very likeable Claudette Colbert in the title role. Although it has plenty of the trademark Cecil B de Mille lavish spectacle, it’s much less pompous than the Elizabeth Taylor version, or the British 1940s Caesar and Cleopatra. There are some bits you can get po-faced about if you want, such as Cleo’s lady-in-waiting Charmain (Eleanor Phelps) having blonde hair and plucked eyebrows, and Calpurnia (Gertrude Michael) looking as if she’s hosting a swanky dinner-party for the 1930s American elite, but I don’t care. Warren William makes a far more believable Caesar than Rex Harrison did (there’s a touch of Daniel Craig about him), and Henry Wilcoxon is a rugged, sexy Marc Anthony. But with a de Mille picture it’s the spectacle you turn up for, and he doesn’t disappoint. There are high camp moments galore. The cat-fight featuring ladies wearing leopard-print costumes, the burning hoops, the female onlookers bitchily dissecting Cleo’s looks during her entry into Rome, Claudette dripping in pearls, and Cleo and Marc Anthony consummating their relationship in such over-the-top style that you simply have to wallow in it. The entire story is brought in too at a brisk 100 minutes. Eat your heat out Mankiewicz.
Dir: Joseph L Mankiewicz
Whole books and films have been made about the making of this hugely expensive epic. It seems to have a reputation as a bit of a bleedin’ disappointment, yet it’s not. It does have a hackneyed, and somewhat pompous, beginning, with the kind of risible narrator which must have been already out of date when this was made in 1963. And at times I did find myself missing Sid James, Amanda Barrie and Kenneth Williams, who sent the whole thing up beautifully in Carry On Cleo. As a visual spectacle though it’s still pretty awesome, particularly Cleopatra’s entry into Rome which ranks as one of the great stunning scenes of big cinema. When I first watched this many years ago I was a bit disappointed with Liz Taylor. I must’ve been having an off day, because she’s great. Imperious, witty, sexy and emotional by turn. Apparently when she first saw the finished product, she ran to the ladies’ powder room and was violently sick. But really, she gets the job done fine. I warmed to her from the first scene when she criticised Caesar’s maps for being out of date. My only criticism of her is that she has a tendency in some scenes to look a bit matronly. Having said that, in the entry into Rome scene, where she winks knowingly at Caesar, she looks about as splendid as it’s possible to get. Rex Harrison puts in a solid (though frankly not very exciting) turn as the ageing Caesar, although his early scenes where he’s constantly admonishing Cleo with his “young lady” remarks, I kept expecting him to morph into Professor Higgins. Richard Burton makes an OK Mark Antony, but my favourite is Roddy McDowell as Augustus. I don’t really need to say any more than that. This is a film that any film fan needs to watch at least once. If you want to get the full benefit of the lavish scenes though it’s probably best to watch it on a big screen, and not on a small portable dvd player as I did.
Dir: Matt Reeves
I REALLY wanted to like this one. It sounded right up my street. Found-footage and big alien monsters. Marvellous. Unfortunately it wasn’t quite the fun I thought it was going to be. The plot: a bunch of young friends are holding a party, when a big monster attacks New York. I think the problem for me was that it was simply too noisy (the poor old dear) and too chaotic. And at times the relentless noise and dashing-about began to feel as if it was hiding the fact that really the film doesn’t add up to much. There is one absurd part which sticks in my mind when I think of Cloverfield: Apocalyptic chaos is reigning supreme, and in the midst of all this mayhem a tourist-hire horse-and-trap gently clops down the street. Perhaps I’m missing something. Perhaps there’s Some Great Significance to that. I dunno. I may need to see it again. Sometime.
COCO BEFORE CHANEL (2009)
Dir: Anne Fontaine
I didn’t enjoy this one. Yes, it’s well-made. Yes, it’s well-acted. Yes, if you’re fascinated by Coco then it’s a good look at how she got started. But I still hated it. I think part of the problem for me is that I just can’t warm to Coco Chanel. So she revolutionised women’s clothes. Ho-hum. I still think she was a cold fish, and she ended up dying alone, with everyone terrified of her. She was also a Nazi collaborator. It’s going to take more than a few elegant dresses and a bottle of perfume to make me like her. If you’re nuts about fashion and haughty, cold-blooded French women, you’ll love it. Enjoy.
THE CONQUEROR (1956)
Dir: Dick Powell
I am fascinated by the darker side of Hollywood, but when you read books about Hollywood tragedies and scandals, there is one that is remarkably little documented, and that is the making of The Conqueror. This isn’t just about the film having one of the biggest casting mistakes in film history (more of that in a moment), but that the making of it is thought to have contributed to the deaths of many involved. The Conqueror was shot in the desert near the nuclear testing site in Nevada. As if this wasn’t grim enough, the producer, Howard Hughes, also arranged for some of the radioactive soil to be taken back to the studio’s as well. In the space of a few years afterwards, the director Dick Powell, stars John Wayne, Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead and Pedro Armendariz all succombed to terminal cancer. To add to the roll-call of tragedy, both Wayne’s sons and Hayward’s son also had to be treated for tumours after visiting the set. It has been pointed out that The Duke was a very heavy smoker, and this probably contributed to his demise more than any other, but The Conqueror still has to remain one of the most tragic film episodes in Hollywood history. As to the film itself, well what can I say? Apparently John Wayne begged to play the role of Genghis Khan, the notorious Medieval Mongolian war-lord. There were some misgivings about this at the time, but Wayne was flying high after the success of The Searchers, and it was felt that no one could say no to him. So here you have one of the most bizarre casting decisions in film history: Wayne, the all-American guy playing a Medieval Mongolian war-lord. Then we have the script, which is so thick-eared it beggars belief, with Wayne and Moorehead constantly referring to each other as “my mother” and “my son”, like a second-rate Monty Python sketch. Wayne was said to have been in despair with most of the lines he had to deliver. It doesn’t help that when Khan has to deliver a public speech, he sounds as if he’s got a built-in PA System in his voice! Then we have the dodgy sexual politics. Now Wayne’s leading ladies notoriously got a hard time of it (in fact the only one I can think of who ever seemed comfortable as his female co-star was Maureen O’Hara), but poor old Susan Hayward really goes through the mill. She has her dress ripped off, she’s slapped in the face, she’s raped (but oh it’s OK, she enjoys it really doncha know). No wonder she looks grumpy and fed up for most of the film. I don’t blame her. At one point she does a pretty aggressive sword-dance, and you can understand why Wayne looks uncomfortable all the way through it! Talking of dancing, we also have a topless Lee Van Cleef doing a pretty strange little number too, as if someone’s just tried to electrocute him. I don’t think I have ever been so relieved to see the magic words “THE END” come up on a film. TRIVIA CORNER: producer Howard Hughes was so depressed by the end result that he ordered all copies to be locked away, and the film wasn’t released into the public arena until after his death in 1976. It was said that during his final years of reclusive existence, he would watch it over and over again in his room. He would order the projectionist to wear a blind-fold though. The projectionist must have been grateful for small mercies.
THE CONSTANT HUSBAND (1955)
Dir: Sidney Giliatt
I can’t think of any genre that’s dated quite so horribly as the 1950s English upper middle-class comedy. Sometimes I can quite see why the Angry Young Men were so determined to kick out the likes of Terence Rattigan and co. The Constant Husband is by no means the worst I’ve seen of this ilk. If you’re feeling half-awake it can rumble on unobtrusively in the background, but when it’s not being flat and dull, it occasionally rises to the level of mild annoyance. It simply has no zest to it. All the actors are going through the motions, as if they know it’s a waste of time. The plot isn’t bad as plots go. Rex Harrison wakes up in a Welsh seaside boarding-house, with no idea who he is or how he got there. He’s suffering from total amnesia. Gradually, he begins to piece together this life, only to find that he’s weaved a tangled private life, with several wives on the go. Now, as an idea for a comedy, this should be OK, but it needs to be done with a A LOT more panache. It’s hampered too that because of the era in which it was made it has to tone down any saucy bits so much that they barely exist. I can’t help thinking that Hollywood would have made a damn sight better job of this. Now, don’t get me wrong, I can be as patriotic as the next person, but can you imagine a film like this with Rock Hudson and Doris Day, or Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers, or Bob Hope and Lucille Ball? Yes, see, it would be on a different level entirely. As it is, it’s just dreary and turgid, and we also have to put up with George Cole hamming it up mercilessly as a young Italian.
COUNT DRACULA (1977)
Dir: Philip Saville
For me, this is the definitive Dracula film. Forget that overblown load of old flatulence, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, where Gary Oldman mooches around, either looking like Glenn Close, or a lugubrious bloodhound in tinted glasses. No, for my money it’s Louis Jourdain (although Frank Langella in the 1979 version is also well worth a look). It stays extremely close to the book, there are no Hammer-esque liberties taken here, and the cast underplays things nicely. We get so used to seeing hysterical versions of Dracula, where everyone’s hamming it up to the hilt, that it’s nice to see a low-key version for a change. The opening scenes where Jonathan Harker travels by coach up into the Carpathian mountains are laden with menace, and a feeling of impending doom. Unusually too, for a Dracula film, the Brides are shown, not sporting snakes in their hair, and creeping up from under the bed, as in the Keanu Reeves version, but simply marching resolutely, in their white dresses, towards a cowering Harker. With this scene the film pays homage to its Victorian wet dream origins. Harker is the decent, spiffing English chap being seduced against his will by these formidable, exotic foreign ladies. As Stephen King once put it, it’s quite a shame when the Count bursts in and breaks it all up. Pretty Susan Penhaligan also makes a charming Lucy, showing her simply as an exuberant schoolgirl, instead of the hysterical nymphomaniac she’s sometimes portrayed as. Louis Jourdain got some criticism in his role as the Count, with some feeling he was too … er … bloodless. He’s not. Here Dracula isn’t a tormented romantic soul, or a horrid reptilian creature, he is the refined aristocrat, shut out from a world that has left him behind. Although we see him scaling his castle walls, batlike, and dumping a baby in a bag for his Brides, it is the scene where he brags about his fine notepaper to Harker that sums up the Count for me. In his gloomy, decaying castle, he is still living on past glories, unaware that nobody cares.
THE COUNTESS (2009)
Dir: Julie Delpy
Excellent French/German film about the life of the notorious Erzsebet Bathory, the blood countess, who allegedly murdered hundreds of women, in the mad belief that washing in their blood would restore her youth and beauty. The achievement is all Julie Delpy’s, as she wrote it, directed it, produced it, starred in it, and even did the music! For me she has become the definitive Bathory, even managing to eclipse Ingrid Pitt (see below). I am so tired of revisionist history, which tries to portray Bathory as some wronged woman at the mercy of jealous noblemen. The Countess sticks to the more familiar view of the legend, which has Bathory as one of the strangest women in European history. it is beautifully shot, with moody views of the countryside, and the Countess’s castle. The film also wins Brownie points from me for not copping out at the end. It covers the Countess’s punishment, which was to be walled up alive in a room of her castle. A brooding, dark gothic tale, which should be absolutely required viewing for anyone who is fascinated by the real-life Countess Dracula.
COUNTESS DRACULA (1971)
Dir: Peter Sasdy
One of my favourite Hammer efforts. To my disappointment it doesn’t seem to be highly regarded these days, or at least not amongst male reviewers, which astonishes me considering the amount of heaving bosom that is on permanent display. One argued it didn’t contain enough sex and violence (okey-dokey), another argued that he couldn’t find Ingrid Pitt sexy when he knew she could change back into an old hag at any moment. (Sigh). The film can be best viewed these days as an adult dark fairy-tale about ageing, and trying to hang onto the glories of youth at all costs. Instead of sticking needles into her face and making it freeze up with botox though, the Countess here bathes in the blood of young virgins. Only trouble is, the effects keep wearing off, and she has to keep topping it up (a bit like botox really). And every time she relapses into Old Bag mode she gets uglier and uglier. The magnificent Ingrid Pitt is at her sexiest (in spite of what neurotic New York reviewers may say), and clearly relishes her role as the dastardly Countess Bathory. She is supported by a capable cast, and a location which ranks as one of my favourite castle sets. The penultimate scene at the wedding altar is quite shocking the first time you see it.
CRACK IN THE WORLD (1964)
Dir: Andrew Marten
Above-average apocalyptic film. Dana Andrews (whom I will always have a soft spot for, after Night Of The Demon) plays a dying scientist, who causes mayhem when one of his experiments causes a huge crack to form in the world. Janette Scott, looking very beautiful with her Monroe-esque blonde bob, plays his wife, who is also taken with younger scientist Kieran Moore (it seems we often have to have a troubled threesome in these types of films). The final half-hour is very exciting, and I remember the ending have a big effect on me when I first saw it many years ago.
CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954)
Dir: Jack Arnold
Proof that, even after all these years, a man in a lizard suit can still be quite effective in the scary stakes. A party of explorers are on some remote Amazonian river, which (unbeknown to them) is frequented by a hideous reptilian monster. The scene where the graceful Julia Adams, in a white swimsuit, swims down the river whilst being tracked by the monster below, is still quite unnerving. (I’m not surprised that this was a big influence on Steven Spielburg when he came to make Jaws several years later). The feuding bare-chested men back on the boat all looks a bit unintentionally gay these days though.
THE CREEPING TERROR (1964)
Dir: Vic Savage
This has the dubious distinction of being one of the worst films ever made, and I am not going to argue with that one. This film can even make Robot Monster (see below) look like a masterpiece, and that’s saying something. Where do I even begin with it? There is a forbidding voiceover which seems to take the place of dialogue much of the time. I assume this was done to give the film some kind of realistic documentary flavour, but instead you find yourself thinking “can’t we just hear the actors?” Of course when you do, you wish they hadn’t bothered. The story is this: a monster from an alien spaceship is out to terrorise the inhabitants of a small American town. How the monster doesn’t reduce them to fits of hysterical laughter instead is one of the great mysteries of the universe. The monster looks like some flea-bitten old rug that has decided to go for a stroll in the countryside, and when it does it strolls VERY VERY SLOWLY. Honestly, you could be the most unfit person on the planet, and you could still easily out-walk this one, and not have to remotely break into a sweat doing so. I find it hard not to call this ‘The Creeping Carpet’. Only watch if you really are a connoisseur of really bad films.
THE CRIMSON PIRATE (1952)
Dir: Robert Siodmak
Colourful and popular pirate swashbuckler, although personally I found it a bit tedious, largely because it’s humour grated on me. It sort of felt relentless at times. Worth watching to see Burt Lancaster doing some very impressive acrobatic shinnying up the ship’s masts (well he did start out as a circus acrobat). Eva Bartok makes a formidable leading lady in one of her few film appearances. When I first began watching I could have sworn she was Maureen O’Hara! There’s plenty of action to keep you watching.
CROOKS IN CLOISTERS (1964)
Dir: Jeremy Summers
Enjoyable vintage Brit comedy, about a hopelessly inept gang of crooks who stage “the world’s smallest train robbery”, and then have to go into hiding. They disguise themselves as monks on a Cornish island (as you do). A pretty endearing and comical holy order they make, particularly considering they include Barbara Windsor as Brother Bikini (she does a pretty nifty jive in her monk’s habit too). A nice bit of escapism comedy, which should be better available than it is these days.
CRY OF THE BANSHEE (1970)
Dir: Gordon Hessler
Gloomy horror from 1970, which has one saving grace … Vincent Price, who seems to revisit his Matthew Hopkins role, but without the same success. In folklore, a banshee was a wailing spirit, of an old woman or a witch, who predicted death when she was heard. In this film it’s a rabid dog. It scarcely seems to matter, as the film’s not much cop anyway. The peculiar opening credits set the tone, with the trippy Terry Gilliam artwork. And then we’re in the 16th century. Price is a ruthless man, ruling his area with an iron hand. Punishments are meted out severely. A woman is whipped through the village, and put in the stocks. A very young brother and sister appear in front of Price, and end up killed, when the sister resists his advances. I feel like I’m running out of the will to live writing up this plot. Rape seems to feature overpoweringly in this film. You could argue that was the time it was set, more like the time it was made. There’s far too much of frightened women having their bodices torn off, and men acting like apes. Sorry to sound like Mary Whitehouse, but there you go. I got fed up with it. TRIVIA CORNER: the title of this film apparently was the inspiration for Siouxsie And The Banshees when naming themselves.
A CUCKOO IN THE NEST (1933)
Dir: Tom Walls
Film based on an Aldwych farce from 1933. Being over 80 years old, naturally it has dated, but it also has a great deal of charm and curiosity value. It’s mainly watchable these days for Ralph Lynn, a monocle-wearing comic actor who specialised in this sort of thing. He is very funny. The farce centres around two old friends (Lynn, and Yvonne Arnaud), who are forced to spend the night at the same hotel, and if the truth got out, a huge scandal would ensue. The plot is nonsensical to modern eyes, which can make it exasperating. The timing can also feel painfully long-winded, and there are far too many “idiotic yokels” in the cast, but it’s heart’s in the right place. It was misguidedly remade in 1954 as Fast And Loose. Even in the strait-laced early 1950s it must have seen lamentably innocent (Kay Kendall causes one man to almost have a seizure by appearing in the kind of flouncy nightgown which is about as revealing as a floor-length buttoned-up thick cardigan). It doesn’t have the charm of the original.
CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR (1968)
Dir: Vernon Sewell
British horror from 1968, which these days is largely of interest for seeing Christopher Lee and Boris Karloff in the same film. Other than that, there’s not really very much to recommend it. Mark Eden plays Bob Manning, who drives into the countryside in search of his missing brother. There he winds up at a country house which is holding it’s annual celebration of a witch-burning. It’s all a bit hackneyed, but there was a lot of this kind of stuff about in the late 1960s/early 70s (in films and books I mean, I can’t speak for real life, though I have heard rumours doncha know). He finds himself watching bemused as some “wild young things” hold a sort of swinging rave, which largely seems to involve two girls having a paint fight. Boris Karloff was 81 when this film was made, and not in the best of health at all, spending the film confined to a wheelchair, but he really is the only reason to spend time on this. Other than that, the pace moves at a plod, and it’s all rather uninspired.
THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957)
Dir: Terence Fisher
Hammer at its very best. A colourful, elegant, fast-moving adaptation of the Frankenstein legend, with the splendid Peter Cushing plays the Baron. The film opens with him about to be sent to the guillotine for murder, and he decides to recount to a priest the process of how he got there. Melvyn Hayes plays the Baron as a young, precocious boy, and Cushing takes over the role as an adult. I know you’ve probably read heaps of praise about Cushing’s talents as an actor, but they really are deserved. He wasn’t just a a gifted actor, who had the knack to make any film he appeared in watcheable, he was also one of the most nicest. Even here, when he’s playing an outright psychopath, he still manages to bring charm to the role. Hazel Court (absolutely mistress of the magnificent art of bosom-heaving) plays his fiancee. She doesn’t have much to do, other than look beautiful in crinoline dresses, but she does what she can with the role. Christopher Lee is almost unrecognisable as the Monster. The original make-up, made famous by Boris Karloff in the early 1930s, was still in copyright, so Hammer had to do their own version. By all accounts, the other actors found Lee’s make-up so revolting that he had to take his lunches alone. The film got panned by the critics when it was initially released, branded as gratuitous and nasty. But it proved to be a smash-hit, and set Hammer on their long, lucrative horror career. The scene where the Baron and his tutor first bring a living creature (a dog) back to life is particularly well-done. It still ranks as one of my favourite versions of the Frankenstein tale.
CURSE OF THE MUMMY (1970)
Why do people keep trying to film Bram Stoker’s The Jewel Of The Seven Stars? It rarely works. The story is pretty hackneyed, and would defy even the most brilliant director to make something of it. This one was part of Thames TV’s Mystery And Imagination series, aired in 1970. Patrick Mower plays an Edwardian doctor, called out in the middle of the night, to attend an archaeologist (Graham Crowden), who has collapsed. It turns out the prof is an Egyptologist, obsessed with bringing back to life an evil old queen, whose mummified body he keeps in the house. And wouldn’t you just know it, his unspeakably annoying daughter (Isobel Black) bears a strong resemblance to her. Hammer tried this story (Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb), which isn’t regarded as vintage Hammer, and in 1980 Charlton Heston tried it (The Awakening), which didn’t work at all. I hope no one else gets any bright ideas about it. Some plots are best left forgotten.
CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961)
Dir: Terence Fisher
In 18th century Spain a beggar turns up at feast being hosted by an evil marquess. He is made to dance for his supper (a ropey old chicken leg), but then wrecks everything by making an off-colour joke about the marquess and his beautiful young wife. The beggar is chucked into the dungeons for his sins, and left to rot. Fast forward 10 years, and the evil marquess, now a widower, is a truly revolting sight. When a mute serving-girl repels his advances, she is thrown into the dungeon as well, and is raped by the beggar, who has long since been driven insane by his solitary confinement. On release, the girl stabs the marquess and then flees into the forest. She is taken in by a kind couple, who find she is pregnant. When it’s worked out that her baby is due on Christmas Day, a feeling of foreboding creeps over the household, as this is considered unlucky. The film from then on charts the life of the baby as he grows up into a handsome young man, Leon (Oliver Reed), albeit one at the mercy of his dark side. As is often the case with cinematic versions of the werewolf legend, Leon is a sympathetic character, haunted by the curse that has been put on him by his birth. This is an elegant, well-made effort by Hammer, and the first half hour in particular is a favourite of mine, as it has a weird Grimms Fairy Tale feel to it. Reed is good, as always. For anyone who thinks he may have been nothing but a fat, mad old drunk, I can only say that every film I’ve seen him in he gave a committed performance.