SJH’S FILM REVIEWS Part 2 D-G
A work-in-progress, Part 2 D-G:
THE DAMNED (1963)
Dir: Joseph Losey
Released as These Are The Damned. Unusual Hammer outing from 1963, which met with indifference on release, but which has since grown in stature. Oliver Reed plays King, the leader of a gang of thugs, who terrorise the seaside town of Weymouth. He has a bit of an unhealthy attachment to his sister Joan (an annoying Shirley Anne Field). Joan is rescued by a visiting American (Carey McDonald), who whisks her away on his boat up the Dorset coast. King pursues them, and before they know it they find they are at a top secret clifftop scientific base. Hidden away at the base are 9 radioactive children, who are being prepared as some sort of chosen tribe for when nuclear war breaks out. I was expecting to enjoy this film far more than I did. I think part of the problem was that at times the pace felt absolutely glacial, we spend far too long scene-setting before we get to the base, and frankly, I couldn’t care less about Joan and her problems. Having said that though, the ending gets under your skin, and will leave you stunned for a moment.
DANCE WITH A STRANGER (1985)
Dir: Mike Newell
Very well-made biopic about Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain. Platinum-haired Ruth (Miranda Richardson) was a nightclub hostess in 1950s London, who had a tempestuous affair with posh young motor-racing fanatic David Blakely (Rupert Everett). Things went pear-shaped when Ruth found herself pregnant, but by that time their tempestuous relationship had reached rock-bottom. Having lost her job, and then miscarried the baby, a desperate Ruth gunned down Blakely outside a London pub one Easter weekend. Miranda Richardson is excellent as Ruth. Film critic Pauline Kael once sniped “she never stops ACTING”. I think I see what she means, although it’s a bizarre criticism to make about someone appearing in a film. The thing is that Ruth, with her put-on posh BBC-style accent, would have spent most of her life putting on a front, and that seems to be how Miranda plays her. Particularly in the first part of the film, where Blakely is mesmerised by Ruth’s clipped voice (“do join us Mr Blakely”), blonde hair and swirly, stiff-petticoated dresses. Ian Holm puts in a good turn in the thankless role of Ruth’s devoted admirer, Des Cussen. And the whole world of seedy, mock-glam 1950s private drinking-clubs is well captured. Curiously, I watched this film many years ago in the company of two women, both of whom were utterly scathing about Ruth. “She had 2 men on the go!” “She didn’t reply to her little boy, she was a lousy mother, she deserved to hang”. Blimey. Sisterhood eh?
Dir: Clare Beavan
Biopic of the author Daphne duMaurier. For me, it’s another of those “well it’s good BUT …” films. I’ve heard women praise it for its realistic portrayal of a lesbian relationship for once (admittedly too rare in films), and so I hesitate to slate it. I think the problem for me is the character of Daphne herself. She comes across as a moody, self-obsessed woman, sulky, and indifferent to the feelings of those close to her. The tone is set at the very beginning of the film when her husband is trying to get intimate with her after a long time apart, and the moody wotsit says “I’ve been thinking about Daddy”. Pretty much a passion-killer right there. She’s a grown, married woman, with children, and yet she’s still childishly obsessed with her father. To be fair, the other characters in the film get pretty brassed off with Daphne’s self-absorption too, and a couple of times she gets castigated for it. This might well be the problem I’ve always had with this author. I read Rebecca many years ago, and I loved it, and yet at the same time I found it cold and annoyingly frigid, in a very English middle-class way. I’m probably being unfair, as I think du Maurier was a more interesting and complex character than that. I do think the film is well worth seeing, but Daphne does need shaking at times.
DARK VICTORY (1939)
Dir: Edmund Goulding
I adored this film when I was young, I thought Bette Davis was the epitome of cool, with her stylish clothes, and her brisk, confident mannerisms. But these days I feel her films haven’t aged as well as those of her arch-rival Joan Crawford, whom I revere even more. Bette’s cut-glass voice grates, and I find her too arch and brittle. HAVING SAID ALL THAT, this is still a fine tearjerker of a film. Bette plays Judith Traherne, a pampered horse-riding socialite, whose world is torn apart when she is diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour. Naturally this being vintage Hollywood, our heroine doesn’t get to really suffer until the final scenes when her eyesight fades, and then Bette puts in the mother of all hanky-wringing death scenes. Humphrey Bogart mangles an Irish accent as her plain-speaking stable-hand, and Ronald Reagun wanders in and out the film as a young man who is permanently drunk.
DAUGHTER OF HORROR (1955)
Dir: John Parker
AKA Dementia. I’d never heard of this film, I came across it when watching The Blob (see above), and was intrigued by the movie they were watching at the drive-in. Daughter Of Horror must rank as one of the oddest films ever made. Clearly heavily influenced by the Silent Era (and I’ve seen it compared to The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari), it is virtually dialogue-free, apart from a rather nasty and forbidding voice-over. A young woman (Adrienne Barrett) wakes up from a nightmare. She’s staying in some seedy boarding-house, and decides to go for a walk through the dark city streets. She’s accosted by a dwarf news vendor, showing her a front page with a headline screaming about a stabbing. A drunk tries to pour booze down her, and then she’s picked up by a fat man, smoking a cigar, who takes her off to a nightclub, where he letches over a dancer. As I said, there is virtually no dialogue in this film, you just get the creepy music, and incidental noises, such as footsteps, sobbing, slaps, the breathing out of cigarette smoke, the screech of a police car etc. Described as a study of insanity, the taunting voice-over jibes the woman that she has a “crazed mind”. This is a very weird film indeed, but the photography on it is brilliant, and it’s well worth checking out if you’re into alternative cinema, or just want to see how odd cinema in the mid-20th century could get! I found several copies of it on YouTube. TRIVIA CORNER: I tried to find out more about Adrienne Barrett, but there is very little info about her available. A brief bit on the IMDb website mentions that she appeared in only 2 films, this and one in the mid-1980s. Otherwise, na-da.
Dir: Michael Relph
By the late 1950s Harry Secombe had earned himself a place as a national treasure by his appearances in the hugely-popular Goon Show radio series. Davy was an attempt to propel him into a film career, but it didn’t really work. Although we get to hear Harry singing, and doing some comedy, the rest of the film has him acting rather mournfully, and not in the larger-than-life jolly persona most people knew and loved. The film centres around the Mad Morgans, a family vaudeville act. Davy (Secombe) is the most talented of the group, and ructions occur when it looks as though he might be lured away by the Royal Opera House. The Mad Morgans’ slapstick routine is the highlight of the film, and it does brings a smile to the face. The rest of the plot though is a dreary, overly-talky backstage drama, with lots of relationship angst which it is frankly impossible to care about. There is also an annoying little kid who keeps popping up and slaughtering the pace even further, even managing to get himself stuck up some scenery at one point. The film is largely of interest now for seeing the dying days of the music hall. Television was quickly going to put paid to the likes of the Mad Morgans, which (from the benefit of now) makes the ending rather more ironic and downbeat than they clearly planned. Also of interest for looking out for some familiar faces in small bit roles. Joan Sims and Liz Fraser as tea-ladies, Kenneth Connor as a new comedian, and Bernard Cribbins (glimpsed fleetingly) as a stage-hand. There is also a brief turn by Clarkson Rose who was apparently one of the greatest pantomime dames ever. TRIVIA CORNER: whilst watching this, I read up on Wikipedia about Susan Shaw, who plays Gwen. She was a Rank starlet (like Joan Collins). Sadly, unlike Joan, she wasn’t to have a successful career. She had a drink problem, which put paid to her acting in 1963. When she died, of cirrhosis of the liver, Rank paid for her funeral. She briefly shines in this film during the slapstick routine, when she comes across endearingly like Lucille Ball.
THE DAY AFTER (1983)
Dir: Edward Hume
I usually regard this as the American version of Threads, about what would happen if America came under nuclear attack. Watching this again after so many years, it gave me heebie-jeebies even more than it did back then. It’s surprisingly hard-hitting. Yes I know, it’s about a nuclear war, it’s bound to be hard-hitting, but we get so used to Hollywood sanitising everything, that a film like this (which was made for television) can come as a shock. The footage of the attack is mesmerising, and the shots of the satanic-looking mushroom-shaped clouds in the background are deeply unsettling. Two other parts stand out, as something we’re not used to in American movies. One is the preacher trying desperately (and angrily) to still believe in a merciful God, as his congregation pick their way through the wreckage. Plus the shell-shocked people listening to the President’s out-of-touch broadcast. Total belief in God and the President are very American things, so to see this on an American film is quite something, particularly one from the 1980s. From what I read on Wikipedia, this film did have an effect on the powers-that-be. President Reagan found it deeply depressing, and it changed his policy on nuclear war. Four years later it was even shown on Soviet television. I have a horrible feeling that modern day leaders wouldn’t be quite so open-minded. I really hope I’m wrong on that one.
THE DAY OF THE JACKAL (1973)
Dir: Fred Zinnemann
The decision to cast Edward Fox as a one-man killing-machine, a ruthless hired assassin, is a bit of turn-up for the books. Fox is best known as the actor who usually plays very aristocratic roles, and is arguably most famous for his portrayal of King Edward VIII in the TV series Edward And Mrs Simpson (for which he rightly won cartloads of awards), but he does a pretty splendid job here. Something about that icy upper-class Englishness works so well in his playing of an unfeeling psychopath. Apparently the director was hoping that the audience would find the cuddly French police inspector the fascinating character, and was stunned when people related to the Jackal instead! I wouldn’t go so far as to say we were rooting for him, but certainly we are fascinated to see just how long he can stay one step ahead of the police as he leads them on a merry dance across Europe. There is a scene on the French/Italian border, when the Jackal hears from his “employers” that the police are onto him and they’re effectively cancelling his contract. The Jackal is faced (literally) with two roads to take. One, to disappear into Italy, the other, to carry on with the job and head up to Paris. He takes the latter option, leaving us in no doubt that he’s not in the job for the money, but because he actually enjoys it. A host of familiar British actors pop up in secondary roles, including comedy actor Anton Rodgers as a pick-up in a Turkish bath, and Edward Hardwicke – better known these days as Dr Watson to Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes – makes a fleeting appearance at the end. A first-class thriller, and one which keeps you enthralled until the very final scene. The misguided remake, starring Bruce Willis, isn’t fit to lick its boots.
THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS (1962)
Dir: Steve Sekely
I loved this film when I was a child, but when I went to watch it again very recently (full-length version is available on YouTube), it was a heck of a struggle. I thought I’d watch it again for the lighthouse scenes, as lighthouses always fascinate me, but the whisky-swilling self-pitying jerk and his nervy wife got me down immediately. The IDEA is still scary, that due to a meteor shower large killer plants are now stalking the Earth, where most of the population has been struck blind, but John Wyndham’s classic novel now feels badly mangled in this version. Howard Keel is the lump of wood who plays main male lead. In the book he had a beautiful woman called Jocelyn as his sidekick. Here in this film she has inexplicably been turned into a perky little girl called Susan (!). Quite why they did that baffles me. The film has dated horribly in parts. For instance, when the drunken prisoners descend into the French chateau, Susan runs to Keel for help, shouting “they’re making the women DANCE with them!” Oh crikey. And the compulsory tacked-on God-botherer stuff at the end is very much of its time. Having said all that, the sinister noise the plants make when they move still gives a shudder, and I still feel sorry for the little greenhouse-keeper at the beginning, who is the first victim of the triffids. Interestingly, reading the YouTube comments on this film, a couple of plot-holes were pointed out. Most glaringly, that only half the planet would have been struck blind by the meteors (the other half being in daylight), and if sea-water destroys the triffids, how did the plants manage to run amok on the lighthouse island, where the sea-water would have constantly drenched the rocks? Don’t say YouTube can never teach you anything.
THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE (1961)
Dir: Val Guest
I once did a review of this for Amazon, and described it as one of the best British thrillers ever. I stand by that. My favourite character in it is Leo McKern (Rumpole), playing a hard-nosed newspaper reporter who stumbles upon the biggest, and most unwelcome, story of his career. It turns out that a succession of nuclear blasts has caused the Earth to get kicked off its orbit, and we are now – gulp! – heading towards the Sun! Yes, the story is probably preposterous, but go with it, as this is an exciting, tightly-paced adventure. A lot of the action centres around the real-life Daily Express offices, starring the REAL editor, Arthur Christiansen. It’s a fascinating look at Real Journalism, before it all turned into the version we have now. There is one part where Arthur, on hearing the worst, advises his staff to “try and keep it upbeat, everything’s going to be alright”. That wouldn’t happen now. It would be “WE ARE DOOMED!” emblazoned everywhere. There is a disturbing montage of scenes showing the weather going haywire all over the world, which strikes a particular chord in these days of Global Weirding. Also look out for a brief sighting of Michael Caine as a traffic cop. You’d recognise that voice anywhere.
DAY THE WORLD ENDED (1955)
Dir: Roger Corman
I saw this many many years ago when it was shown late one night, and I sneered my head off at it, at the cheapness of it, at the hackneyed characters, at the way the women stay elegantly gowned and coiffed in a post-apocalyptic world. And yet, watching it again now, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s a Roger Corman production from 1955, about a small bunch of survivors at a ranch-house in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear war. I found the story taut and engaging, and although the characters seem a bit cardboard cut-out at times (the brassy blonde stripper, the old man with his moonshine, the Bible-bashing father), it still kept me absorbed. Worth seeking out if you’re a fan of post-apocalypse scenarios.
THE DEAD (2010)
Dir: Howard J Ford, Jon Ford
This is a marvellously atmospheric take on the popular zombie apocalypse scenario. An American air force engineer is stranded in the African outbreak after civilisation hits the fan. Somehow he has to try and reach help, whilst battling zombies along the way. I read someone on Twitter complaining that these zombies move so slowly they’re no threat at all. On the contrary, I’ve never found the running zombie very scary. Whereas I feel there is always something extremely eerie and unnerving about the relentless, shuffling version. The African bush makes an interestingly different setting from the usual American/British urban backdrop we get to zombie apocalypse plots. Well worth seeking out.
DEAD BIRDS (2004)
Dir: Alex Turner
From what I vaguely recall this is set during the American Civil War. It begins with a bank robbery in a small town. The thieves then abscond to a remote, abandoned farmhouse, and it’s there that their troubles really start. I didn’t like this film. There’s too much time spent in confusing, darkened rooms, and some nonsense about demons or ghostly children (I can’t be too sure to be honest). The characters are all thoroughly dislikeable, which makes me care not one jot what happens to them. Anyway, sorry to be vague, but I watched it once several years ago on DVD, and that’s all I can remember about it.
DEAD END (2003)
Dir: Jean-Baptiste Andrea
Someone once tried to tell me that this was far more frightening than Ghostwatch. Pshaw! It’s a great idea for a story, of that there is no doubt. A family driving home for Christmas find themselves on a remote road, from which they can never get off, and which is haunted by creepy spectres. So far so good. I did find it absorbing when I watched it, but it didn’t make enough of an impact for me to come back to at any time since. There is a bit where someone’s brains literally fall out of their head, and which I can still recall with unwelcome clarity now.
DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID (1982)
Dir: Carl Reiner
I know that for many Steve Martin has a godlike status, but I’ve always been fairly neutral about him. It’s not that I dislike him – far from it – but I’ve simply never felt the same awe of him. Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is a spoof of the old 1940s film-noirs, and for many viewers it will do the job just fine. I personally found it a bit too slick. Perhaps I like spoofs to be more anarchic, sort of Police Squad style. It’s impossible to truly dislike this film, but it’s not one I think of with any great affection either. Am neutral on this one. Having said all that, the intercutting of old films is cleverly done.
DEATH LINE (1972)
Dir: Gary Sherman
Cult Brit horror film from the early 1970s, in which Donald Pleasence (clearly enjoying himself enormously) plays a sardonic police officer investigating the disappearances and murders of various people at Russell Square tube station. The Underground – particularly when it’s sparsely populated late at night – naturally lends itself to an eerie atmosphere, and nowhere better than here. I don’t think it’s giving away any spoilers to reveal that the murders are being committed by the last of a tribe of underground cannibals, who have been living in the tunnels since the line was dug out in the 19th century. Pleasence really makes this film, and I can’t help feeling somebody should have given his character more films to appear in. When he’s not busy drinking tea and filling in his pools coupon he gradually unravels the gruesome mystery lying beneath the streets of London. Released in the US under the title Raw Meat. TRIVIA CORNER: there is currently an urban myth circulating that a race of primitive cannibals haunts the London Underground. Derek Acorah even came out with it when Most Haunted investigated Aldwych tube station (now disused). In fact Death Line was actually filmed at Aldwych, not Russell Square where it is set.
DEATH ON THE NILE (1978)
Dir: John Guillermin
Probably my favourite of all the big screen Agatha Christie adaptations. Exotic locations, and an entertaining all-star cast make it well worth a couple of hours of your time. The wonderful Peter Ustinov makes an affable Hercule Poirot, even if he can’t quite eclipse David Suchet’s impeccable command of the role. There is also the dream cinematic pairing of Bette Davis and Maggie Smith who bicker magnificently together as a kleptomaniac old lady and her acerbic companion. The show-stealer for me though is Angela Lansbury, who camps it up marvellously as Salome Otterbourne, a drunken lady novelist who wafts around in some eye-boggling Gloria Swanson-style creations. (Watch out for her tipsy tango with David Niven). I suspect all female writers have a secret hankering to be Salome Otterbourne on the quiet. Another cocktail barman! TRIVIA CORNER: I read a rumour somewhere that movie moguls weren’t happy with the title, believing that the public wouldn’t want to see a film with the word ‘death’ in the title. They couldn’t have been more wrong.
Dir: Felix E Feist
Just to prove that apocalyptic films about earthquakes and tsunami’s are nothing new, Deluge is one of the first apocalyptic films ever, made in 1933. It’s pretty creaky to be honest, and the special effects look more like the washing-machine’s sprung a leak, than anything on an end-of-the-world scale of terrifying. It can also be unintentionally funny, such as “the entire west coast of America has been destroyed, but there’s no reason to panic”. (So when would you say was a good time to panic then?) It’s probably only of interest to serious film buffs, who want to see just where the earthquakes-running-out-of-control scenario first started.
DEMENTIA 13 (1963)
Dir: Francis Ford Coppola
The early 1960s produced some highly strange results in low-budget cinema. The huge success of Psycho led Roger Corman and Francis Ford Coppola to emulate it with this cold little number. A bickering married couple are out rowing a boat late one night. The husband gets so stressed by their quarrel he has a heart-attack. His wife covers up his death, and heads off to the old ancestral pile over in Ireland, where she finds a dreary family wittering on about some little girl who died years before. I’ve read someone comparing this film to The Innocents (see below), and I guess it does indeed have the same black-and-white dreamlike feel at times, although The Innocents was by far and away in a superior league of its own. I personally didn’t find the story at all involving, and as with Carnival Of Souls (see above) I found the dopey, lethargic feel to much of the acting somewhat alienating. Check out the scene where Louise arrives in Ireland. It contains the weirdest-sounding airport announcer ever. WTF was all that about??
THE DENTIST (1996)
Dir: Brian Yuzna
Normally a horror film about a dentist would have me heading for the hills, but this was the one and only thing that remotely tempted me on the telly-box one night, and I ended up being more absorbed by it than I had expected to be. When Dr Feinstone (Corbin Bernsen) finds out his wife has been cheating on him, his mind goes into total collapse and … well perhaps I don’t need to say any more. The idea of a deranged, psychopathic dentist should be more than enough horror for anyone! As you would expect, there are some suitably gruesome scenes, including one where he pulls out a patient’s teeth with a set of pliers. Corbin Bernsen is great in the main role. He just seems to sum up the mad dentist brilliantly, glaring at you in his white coat and safety goggles, as he rants on about dental hygiene. It’s truly the stuff of nightmares. It’s not the most profound film you’ll ever see, but as an unpretentious little horror it does the job fairly effectively. It has a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but what do they know.
DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS (1954)
Dir: David MacDonald
Absolutely cheap-as-chips British sci-fi from 1954, which – largely because of it’s sheer ineptitude – has become a cult classic. The setting: a small hotel in the Scottish Highlands in the depths of winter. Not much going on you might think. WRONG! There’s an escaped convict on the run, a top London fashion model renting out one of the rooms, and stone me, if a flying saucer doesn’t go and land in the garden. Out steps Nyah, an incredibly posh-speaking alien clad in black hotpants, long vinyl cape and matching skull-cap. Nyah promptly starts issuing stern orders to everyone, like an intergalactic Margaret Thatcher, and says that she’s here to round up the men to take back to Mars for breeding purposes. Instead of jumping at the chance to head off with this dominatrix figure, the men (who frankly look a pretty sorry lot for breeding purposes) get mildly affronted. There is a lot wrong with this film of course, but in it’s own way it has a lot of charm. I liked the setting. Patricia Laffan manages admirably to keep a straight face in her ludicrous outfit. Hazel Court (who went on to become a Hammer stalwart) is charming as the model. And naturally, because the film is set in Scotland, John Laurie is also on hand. Based on a stage play (and it shows), Devil Girl was apparently made in just 3 weeks. The budget was so small that no retakes were allowed. All of which gives it a fascinating feel of an early TV play. I could have done without the escaped convict plot, which is just a drag, but other than that I’m quite fond of it. An interesting relic from a time when talk of intergalactic breeding and sexy aliens didn’t reduce the characters to bawdy jokes and laughs. It’s all played remarkably straight. Hazel Court had fond memories of making the film, and said that everyone enjoyed it. TRIVIA CORNER: Patricia Laffan said she often had people ringing her up in her London flat, after the release of the film, wanting to speak to “Devil Girl”. Which must have been a bit trying. She said her costume was hellishly uncomfortable.
THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (1968)
Dir: Terence Fisher
Well-made and highly-regarded pic of Dennis Wheatley’s most famous novel, and a feather in the cap of Hammer films. Full marks to them for keeping the 1920s vintage, and not updating it to the Swinging Sixties of the time. Christopher Lee is the Duc de Richleau, an aristocrat who is concerned that a young friend, Simon (Patrick Mower) has become involved with a cult of devil-worshippers, and sets out to rescue him. All these years on it’s still a very watcheable little number. Of particular note are the scenes of the Sabbat – when the Devil puts in an appearance it still packs a surprising punch – and the night in the pentagram. Charles Gray is superb as the villainous Mocata, head of the cult. Niki Arrighi is Tanith, a beautiful damsel-in-distress. The loveable Paul Eddington does his affable guy routine. Look out for Gwen Frangcon-Davies as a snooty Satanist. Her withering “monsieur” and disdainful flick of her cigarillo when she’s introduced to a man without an aristocratic title is wonderful. TRIVIA CORNER (1): I saw an interview with Christopher Lee once where he said he hoped one day there would be a remake, as modern special effects could do wonders with the night in the pentagram sequence. Maybe. These days I often find special effects make things LESS scary not more so. TRIVIA CORNER (2): American distributors weren’t happy with the title, as they thought The Devil Rides Out sounds like a Western! That conjures up some interesting ideas.
THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA (2006)
Dir: David Frankel
I admit this isn’t the sort of film I normally go for, chicklit’s not really my thing, but I’d heard rave reviews of Meryl Streep in full snarling mode, and I wanted to see it for myself. There is no doubt whatsoever that she is the best thing about this film, and without her in it I doubt I would have ever bothered with it. But praise should also go to Emily Blunt, as her bitchy, snooty assistant (“you eat carbs for god’s sake!”). Streep apparently got the idea for speaking in a low-key style from watching Clint Eastwood in the Dirty Harry films, and certainly I don’t think her character would have worked anywhere near as well if she’d portrayed her as a screaming harridan. Her icy stare and necklace-fiddling “that’s all” will ring a bell with anyone who’s ever had a scary female boss.
DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER (1971)
Dir: Guy Hamilton
A sub-standard entry in the Bond canon, and proof that the rot most definitely didn’t set in with Roger Moore (in fact, Live And Let Die is vastly superior in every way to this one). Connery is looking a bit flabby round the edges. Charles Gray, an actor I normally like immensely, plays Blofeld, but with none of the hissing class of Donald Pleasance. In fact, this cartoon Blofeld would be more at home in an Austin Powers movie. We have Blofeld and his double, we have Blofeld in drag, for pity’s sake. And the silly, childish voice-changing machine … pah! I’ve seen praise heaped on the camp pair of gay assassins, who are quite fun, but the whole thing is laid on with a trowel, and they feel like rejected characters from Little Britain. Jill St John adds some desperately-needed class to the whole thing (although her character seems to change halfway through the film, going from sassy femme fatale in the first half, to pathetic gormless Miss Goodnight-clone in the second). There is a bit where Bond gets trapped in a coffin as it is fed into a crematorium, which haunts me every time I see it, but the really scary part is the Las Vegas stand-up comedian, a grizzled runt of a man, flanked by two showgirls, who boasts he’s been doing the same act for 40 years … dear God. Someone on a film website wrote that the Las Vegas setting is what really kills DAF, and I’m not arguing. It just doesn’t seem to work at all as a Bond setting. Having said all that, any Bond film is better than none, and my complaints don’t stop me watching DAF when it comes round on TV.
Dir: Oliver Hirschbiegel
It’s really not that bad. I just wanted to make that clear from the off. This film got absolutely slated on release, and I remember having bad vibes about it myself, simply because biopics about modern royals tend to be pretty atrocious as a rule. Everyone is so afraid of offending anybody that they usually turn out to be bland, syrupy hagiographies, which you would have to be a pretty vacuous sentimental royalist to enjoy. I’m pleased to say this one is not like that. In fact, there were times watching it when I forgot it was about Princess Diana at all, and thought it was a simply a doomed romance between a wealthy, pampered Englishwoman and a hardworking Pakistani doctor. The film covers the last 2 years of the life of the Princess of Wales, most particularly her affair with heart-surgeon Dr Hasnat Khan, who really was Diana’s great love in the 90s. I swear Dodi was simply a holiday romance, on the rebound from Hasnat. I suspect where some don’t like it is that it presents Diana as a very complex human being. We get a bit about her landmines crusade, but on the whole it shows the emotional complexity of the woman. There still seems to be a school of thought that Diana must be portrayed as a saint, or we will rip your film/book/whatever to shreds, usually accompanied by a mawkish cry of “think about the boys!” (“the boys” are now grown men in their 30s by the way). As a film about a love story which never really stood a chance, it is good. Also the rest of the royals are left out, and the film concentrates on Diana, so we don’t get all the Buckingham Palace Reaction stuff that usually clogs up most modern royal films. Naomi Watts is very talented, but she has a bit of a thankless task as Diana, as she has to constantly avoid the trap of doing a caricature of her. The script also isn’t anywhere near as hackneyed as I was expecting. As I said, it’s really not that bad. ADDENDUM: I watched this again recently, and am still flummoxed as to the amount of vitriol it’s incurred. As a doomed love-story it works very well, and the ending is very moving. The only thing I can gather as to why it’s hated is that people were expecting a complete hagiography of Diana, focussing on her good works and not her emotional life. I hope it gets fairer treatment in the future.
DIE ANOTHER DAY (2002)
Dir: Lee Tamahori
Final outing from my least favourite Bond, Pierce Brosnan. Once again, I’m in the minority, but I can’t help it, I just didn’t warm to him. The film itself isn’t popular, relying overly much on special effects. Brosnan, for me, has all the wit and charm of Mel Gibson (not good). At the beginning of the film he is imprisoned in North Korea, and as one caustic reviewer put it, he comes out fatter than he went in. He’s also sporting long hair and a beard, as though he’s been marooned on a desert island for several years (comparisons have been made to Michael Palin’s “It’s!” character from Monty Python). At least this does have a moderately interesting villain in the brattish Toby Stephens, although I can’t help feeling he would have made a better – if somewhat quirky – Bond than Brosnan did. All topped off by a bizarre theme tune from Madonna, which was so disjointed in parts that I thought my dvd was scratched.
DIE DIE MY DARLING! (1965)
Dir: Silvio Narizzano
With a title like that, this can only be from the mid-1960s. Made by Hammer, and starring the legendary Tallulah Bankhead, this is more of value as a curiosity than for it’s merits as a film. Stefanie Powers is a young American girl, who, whilst in England, decides to pay a visit on her late boyfriend’s mother. When she gets there, she finds Mrs Trefoyle is a Bible-thumping religious fanatic, who doesn’t seem too keen on Stefanie leaving again. The problem the film has is that I’m never entirely sure how seriously we’re meant to be taking it. The jaunty opening credits persist into the movie, and that, combined with some witty moments, can make it feel more like a black comedy. Even sporting scraped back hair, a bare face, and a severe black dress, Tallulah doesn’t seem scary enough. In fact, it can feel like an old Avengers episode. There are other familiar faces on-board, including Peter Vaughan, Donald Sutherland, and Yootha Joyce (whom I didn’t recognise at first, in her brunette state). Mrs Trefoyle’s house is great though, even if it does feel like it belongs more in the American Deep South, than the English countryside. Released in Britain under the title Fanatic.
THE DOCTOR AND THE DEVILS (1985)
Dir: Freddie Francis
Based on the real-life story of Edinburgh bodysnatchers Burke and Hare, who stole corpses, and then resorted to murder, to supply Dr Knox with subjects he could experiment on, in order to further the cause of medical science. In the film Knox becomes Dr Rock (Timothy Dalton), and Edinburgh seems to have been written out entirely. There’s a fair bit of talent in this film, co-starring as it does the likes of Patrick Stewart and Beryl Reid, and based on a script by Dylan Thomas (written several years earlier), but it’s a dreary affair. The best thing about it by far is the ever brilliant Mr Dalton, but he’s let down by too much talk and too little action, and some intensely irritating supporting characters. Twiggy, as Jenny, does her tedious spunky little salt-of-the-earth Cockney girl bit to the hilt. She even breaks into song, which suddenly makes the whole thing feel bizarrely like a Disney film, or as if it’s suddenly morphed into Oliver! Julian Sands seems awkward as Rock’s assistant, Dr Murray, who – for some God only knows what reason – falls in love with Jenny. Sands is a handsome chap, particularly in period costume, but his character here is a pathetic snivelling little wretch, which doesn’t do him any favours. He even manages to make “I love you” sound like someone whimpering for mercy. An Amazon reviewer described him as having the most annoying voice he’d ever heard, which is a bit harsh, but he can at times sound as though he’s having trouble spitting his words out. The whole film is probably way too talky for anyone expecting a straight-up gothic horror film, and it has an almost complete absence of Atmosphere.
DON’T LOOK NOW (1973)
Dir: Nichola Roeg
This film is hugely regarded, I mean HUGELY. It usually crops up on the lists of the top best horror/supernatural films of all time. Based on a novella by Daphne du Maurier, it stars Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as grieving parents. who have recently lost their daughter in a drowning accident. They take themselves off for a holiday in Venice in winter-time, where they start being hassled by two old mediums, and Donald keeps catching fleeting glimpses of a little figure in a red coat, who reminds him of his deceased daughter. Yes, Donald Sutherland is always splendid, yes, out-of-season Venice is very atmospheric, and yes, the twist at the end (if you’re one of the few left on the planet who doesn’t know about it) is reasonably good, but it’s not a film I’m greatly fond of. Part of the problem for me is the two batty old dears. I just find them irritating, and there’s one scene, where they seem to stand and laugh hysterically at nothing, which I simply don’t get, even though I’ve seen this film no end of times. Plus the worthy love-making scene feels oddly out of place. I’ve seen someone describe it as like having the 1970s Joy Of Sex book suddenly plonked down in the middle of the film. I don’t object to explicit sex scenes in films, but I do object to ones that make me feel like a seedy voyeur to an intimate act between a loving couple.
DON’T TALK TO STRANGE MEN (1962)
Dir: Pat Jackson
This is one of those films that I really like, but couldn’t for the life of me tell you why. It’s a (very) low-budget little Brit thriller, which possibly comes across more as an extended public information film than anything else. The acting is terribly English and of the period, and the story is pretty basic to say the least (don’t trust strange men who try and chat you up on the phone). And yet there are some surprisingly eerie parts to it. Noticeably at the beginning, when we get shots of a woman walking down a nocturnal street, accompanied by a howling wind soundtrack. Likewise the part where Our Damsel In Distress is waiting for her mysterious boyfriend to meet her down a remote country lane, again complete with howling wind soundtrack. The only really familiar face is Dandy Nichols (most famous now as Alf Garnett’s longsuffering wife), who practically steals the show as a no-nonsense bus-conductress. I’m not going to pretend this is a great film, as that would be silly, but I like it quite a lot.
DOUBLE BUNK (1961)
Dir: C Pennington-Richards
A lot of fun this, even if it has dated quite badly in parts. The wonderful Ian Carmichael plays a newly-wed who can’t afford to buy a house (some things haven’t changed then), so he decides to buy a leaky old houseboat instead. All sorts of comic, slapstick mayhem ensue, which is great fun. He and the wife (Janette Scott) then decide to take a little sailing-holiday, with Sid James and Liz Frazer on board. More comic mayhem. It’s a very undemanding film. The characters are all likeable, and it should leave you smiling. Liz is sexy in her formidably upholstered bikini, and Janette Scott is feisty and great fun as Carmichael’s longsuffering bride. The scene where she watches, perplexed, as Sid’s grizzled face glides serenely past the porthole, still makes me smile when I think about it. The marvellous Irene Handl appears in one scene as the wife of the former owner, severely traumatised by boat living.
Dir: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Exceptional drama chronicling the final days of Third Reich. Every time I see this I’m struck by just how good this is. All the acting is absolutely superb, and the anarchic claustrophobia of life in Hitler’s bunker is brilliantly conveyed. The role of Hitler was given to Swiss actor Bruno Ganz, after it was reputedly shunned by German actors. A role like this must be a dream for many actors, and Ganz walks away with it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a faultless portrayal of the Fuhrer (Robert Carlyle’s version in the TV film Hitler: The Rise Of Evil is the only other one that comes close). Ganz brings out the full sickness and insanity of Hitler’s last days. I also want to mention Corinna Harfouch as Magda Goebbels, who has an immensely difficult part in trying to portray as human a woman who would kill her six children, because she didn’t want them to live in a world “without National Socialism”. THAT scene (as I always think of it) when she administers lethal drugs to the sleeping infants is done with a cool briskness that lingers in the memory. I’m also fascinated by Eva Braun (Julianne Kohler). Here she is portrayed as a sort of Kathryn Howard figure, giddily obsessed with clothes, fame and being the Fuhrer’s wife, even if she has to pay for it with her life. Downfall is one of those films that seems to have entered the language. These days, when we see a politician who is getting too big for their boots, or becoming fanatical, Downfall is often cited.
Dir: Tod Browning
Hugely regarded 1931 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s classic novel, and starring the splendid Bela Lugosi. It has to be said that it hasn’t aged well though. It can feel stagey, and the acting at times is painfully ponderous. Yet it is worth watching for Lugosi’s performance, and for the opening 20 minutes, largely set at the Count’s castle. The scene where the predatory Brides creep towards Harker through a doorway is sheer gothic poetry. I can recommend it just for that bit alone.
Dir: Terence Fisher
The first of the classic Hammer Horror films, and an elegant little number it is too. It’s perhaps hard now to see the huge impact this film had at the time it was released in 1958, but it effectively launched Hammer onto it’s successful career in the horror market, and rejuvenated British cinema. Compared to other Hammer variants it sticks fairly close to Bram Stoker’s novel, although here Jonathan Harker (Michael Gough) isn’t the innocent – the lamb to the slaughter – of the original story, but fully aware of the Count’s crimes. Christopher Lee gives a memorable performance as Drac. Watching it again recently I was struck by how brisk his interpretation of the character is. Almost businesslike. Whereas Bela Lugosi had drawled sensuously over his introduction (‘I am Drac-u-la”), Lee introduces himself in a no-nonsense way, stepping briskly down the castle steps, as though he’s a busy man and hasn’t time to waste (which I suppose is true!). I love the sets too, showcasing Hammer’s meticulous attention to detail. This is an elegantly-crafted film with its share of creepy moments.
TV adaptation from 1967, starring Denholm Elliott in the title role. It was part of the Thames TV Mysteries And Imagination series. Shot in black-and-white, and hampered slightly by being studio-bound (particularly the outside shots), and yet it’s a creditable effort. It dispenses with the early Transylvanian scenes, and combines the characters of Harker and Renfield, so that it is Harker who is banged up in a straitjacket, gibbering about his “master”. We get a flashback as to how he ended up in this state, and the Brides make an appearance. I didn’t find them very scary (unlike the Bela Lugosi version, see above), as you could sort of see the acting strings, as it were. Nevertheless, Elliott makes a good Prince of Darkness. What a fine actor he was. I’ve never seen him in anything where he didn’t give a committed performance. Susan George is the flighty Lucy, and the scene where she rises from the dead, and menaces Mina in the cemetery has a dark dreamlike quality. Worth seeking out for Dracula completists.
DRACULA AD 1972 (1972)
Dir: Alan Gibson
Hey man, let’s get down and groovy with those cool cats of 1972 … no, I can’t keep that up. Misguided attempt by Hammer to bring the Dracula legend into the (then) present day. Unfortunately, the opening scene, which is classic Hammer gothic, with carriage thundering through gloomy parkland, jars badly with the sudden switch to a modern setting. It instantly makes you feel like you’ve been short-changed. The party scenes with those “wild” youngsters (actually, they just seem boorish and rude) don’t even carry a nostalgic feel. Peter Cushing adds some class in his old role as van Helsing, but it’s all a lot of nonsense really. I wanted to watch it because I heard it influenced the whole Highgate Vampire outbreak in the early 70s, but I can’t think of any other reason to bother with it.
DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966)
Dir: Terence Fisher
Two British couples, one called Alan and Helen, and the other (rather unfortunately) called Charles and Diana, are on holiday in Transylvania. Whilst having a few bevvies at a village inn, they meet an eccentric gun-toting monk, Father Sandor (Andrew Kerr) who warns them to stay away from the castle. Good advice, but the next think you know the foursome are stopping for a bite to eat the at the aforementioned castle, and being served by a lugubrious old retainer called Klove (Philip Latham). One of the guests goes off for a wander round the castle in the middle of the night, and ends up being used by Klove as a ritual sacrifice, in order to resurrect his master, the legendary Count Dracula. This third outing in the Hammer stable of Dracula films tends to divide people. Some feel it is lacklustre, and hampered by Christopher Lee not being given any lines to say (from what I heard once Lee saw the script and flatly refused to come out with the hackneyed lines he was given, so they simply cut them all out). Others find it an entertaining little vampire romp, with an imaginative ending on the iced-over moat outside the castle. I did once see the film included in Channel 4’s list of 100 Most Scary Moments. I’ve quite liked it over the years. The castle has a good aura of brooding menace, and any film starring Barbara Shelley is always worth a watch.
DR JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE (1971)
Dir: Roy Ward Baker
A thoroughly entertaining re-working of the Jekyll and Hyde idea, this time by having Jekyll turn .. not into a hairy, boorish lout, but a sexy woman. Ralph Bates (Ah!!) is the doctor who, on imbibing some of his own potions, turns into Martine Beswick. Apparently the casting of Martine was quite by chance, but she does actually look like a female version of Bates. You can easily imagine them as twin brother and sister. I don’t know who came up with the idea for this, but full marks for ingenuity to them.
DR NO (1962)
Dir: Terence Young
The film that started the massively successful Bond franchise. Sean Connery looks and is absolutely wonderful as the suave spy sent to investigate odd happenings on a Caribbean island. Unlike many of the later Bonds, this one stays very faithful to Ian Fleming’s original novel, the main difference being that a spider is substituted for a poison caterpillar, can only assume this is because the spider is much more terrifying visually than a caterpillar would be. Ursula Andress is heavenly as Honey. The scene where she emerges from the waves in her white bikini was once voted the most erotic scene in cinema in a Channel 4 poll. What I was struck by, watching this again recently, is how very like an old 1930s adventure thriller it is, from Bond and Honey hiding under the water, to the Basil Rathbone-style villain. A classy film, and fascinating to see where the whole Bond cinema legend started.
DR PHIBES RISES AGAIN (1972)
Dir: Robert Fuest
Ah that old devil called Phibes is on the move again. Enjoyable follow-up to the original. I was surprised to see it had such a low rating on Rotten Tomatoes, as it was better than I remembered it. I love the Art Deco 1920s style, and the exotic Egyptian setting. It’s true you don’t have the 7 Plagues-style murders, and I’ve seen it argued that Phibes doesn’t conjure up the sympathy from the audience that he did in the first. But it’s stylish (Victoria’s glass coffin!), it’s very funny in parts, as well as squeamish, and the ending, where Phibes glides off, singing Somewhere Over The Rainbow, is a worthy finale to a great couple of films.
DR TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1965)
Dir: Freddie Francis
The first portmanteau horror film from Amicus in 1965, and one of the best. Five men, complete strangers, board a night-time train. In their midst is a strange old man (Peter Cushing) armed with a pack of Tarot cards. To wile away the journey, he proceeds to read their fortune. Some great stories in this collection, provided you don’t take too snooty an attitude. The first story, the werewolf one, I found to be the weakest. I’ve read some criticism of Roy Castle in the voodoo story, but I find him affable enough, and I love that old 60s jazz music. An impossibly handsome Christopher Lee puts in a superbly sneering performance as a haughty art critic. Also worth seeing for Alan Freeman getting attacked by a man-eating plant!
DRY ROT (1956)
Dir: Maurice Elvey
I normally have a weakness for old black-and-white British comedy, but this one tries the patience, and from what I can gather on Wikipedia it didn’t go down a bundle when it was first released in 1956 either. Based on a Whitehall farce, the story revolves around three bent bookies hiding a racehorse at a country house. When farce works well it can have you crying with laughter (Fawlty Towers at it’s most manic for instance), but when it doesn’t work it’s a sore trial to one and all. And a slow-moving farce is the worst of the lot. I once read that the best comic advice to any actor appearing in farce is to play it dead straight, a piece of advice that was lost on the cast in this. Joan Sims plays a gormless bumpkin maid, whose accent seems to belong to no known race on Earth. She’s so yokel she belongs more in 1756 than 1956. Brian Rix is the simple lad who falls for her. Unfortunately he’s so thick that you end up dreading his one-braincell routine. Even the magnificent Peggy Mount can’t save this one. She certainly livens things up, bellowing orders as an invincible policewoman, but her usual deft touch at playing dragons deserts her here. There isn’t the comic genius she brought to her role in Sailor Beware for instance, or Inn For Trouble. The biggest problem for me though was Ronald Shiner as the lead role. I simply just couldn’t warm to him. This is the kind of role that is crying out for the bumbleness of Will Hay. Only he could’ve saved this film, but he was no longer with us by this point.
Dir: Steven Spielberg
I have never come across anyone who didn’t like this film. It never fails to impress, and I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve seen it over the years. The wonderful Dennis Weaver is a travelling salesman, who finds himself locked in a battle of wits with the driver of a smelly old gas-truck on the remote desert roads of the USA. Made in 1971, based on a story by Richard Matheson, it was Steven Spielburg’s first outing as a director, and was made for television. The film works, partly because it taps directly into Every Driver’s Worst Nightmare, and partly because we never find out who the bullying truck-driver is. We never see him, apart from a hand on the steering-wheel, an arm sticking out of the window, and his feet when he plants them on the ground. This gives him a supernatural quality, and has led some viewers to speculate that he’s really the Devil. Weaver is a sort of Everyman figure, (he’s even called David Mann), a mild-mannered ordinary modern man, forced into a primitive battle for survival. The characters who appear briefly are also well-crafted, particularly the old lady who runs a gas-station, with her own little menagerie. It all has a Hitchcockian film, in that ordinary locations and people are given a sinister, off-kilter feel. If you’ve never seen this, then track down a copy. I found a poor-quality version on YouTube, but a DVD would be better.
DURING BARTY’S PARTY (1976)
Another from the Nigel Kneale Beasts series, and one of the oddest TV plays I’ve ever seen. It was made in 1976, not long after James Herbert had scored a massive hit with his debut novel The Rats. I don’t know if Kneale was inspired by that, but it’s hard not to be reminded of it. Anthony Bate and Elizabeth Sellars are a middle-aged couple, who start to hear stories on the radio that large packs of king-sized rats have been seen about the countryside. They find themselves besieged in their home by the dratted critters. You never see the rats, you only hear them gnawing through the floorboards, which makes this drama even more effective. A very strange and effective piece of 1970s television.
DYLAN THOMAS A POET IN NEW YORK (2014)
Dir: Aisling Walsh
Sad but excellent biopic charting the Welsh poet’s final few days of his life in the autumn of 1953. Thomas was on a lecture tour of the United States when he went on a catastrophic bender, which involved him downing 18 whiskies on the trot. It was a bender too far for his tortured body. Tom Hollander is superb as the archetypal tortured genius. He succeeds in you never losing sympathy for Thomas, even when he was being at his most exasperating. A strange, funny little man, who, with his curly hair, can seem quite clownish at times, in the most pathos way of clowns that is. Essie Davis puts in a frankly scary turn as his fiery wife Caitlin. A nicely understated little masterpiece.
THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING (1965)
Dir: Terence Fisher
Surprisingly effective low-budget sci-fi horror from the early 1960s. It can probably be counted as a vintage British zombie film. An atomic gas attack has killed the people of Blighty, leaving only a handful of survivors, who naturally (being Brits) head to the nearest pub for sanctuary. As if they haven’t got enough on their plate, they also find sinister robots patrolling the streets, and the dead are coming back to life. It would be easy to mock the plodding robots and zombies, but I found them surprisingly creepy, particularly the zombies with their eyeless faces. The film is a little bit too talky at times, but I did find it very absorbing, and it made me jump in a couple of places, which is more than can be said for a lot of modern big-budget horrors these days. It feels like an old Doctor Who story, or The Avengers, but without the humour. Running at just over an hour long, it certainly doesn’t out-stay it’s welcome either.
EARTH’S FINAL HOURS (2011)
Dir: W D Hogan
Tired and uninspired disaster flick, in which dense matter hits Planet Earth, and stops us spinning, removing our protective shield. If Something Isn’t Done Soon then half the planet will be plunged into permanent icy darkness, and the other half will fry. This is the sort of plot which would have been done with great verve in the 1950s, but here is just cack-handed and dull. I’m not going to comment on the scientific aspects of the plot, as I don’t feel qualified, although I suspect plenty of scientists could have a field day with it. I will just say that I didn’t find it at all involving. I felt very early on that everything was going to turn out just fine and dandy in the end, so there was no tension. There is also a tedious sub-plot about a scientist who could save the day, only he’s locked up in a CIA-run lunatic asylum. For a disaster movie to work, you desperately need that unpredictability factor, and this film doesn’t have any. Any at all.
EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS (1956)
Dir: Fred F Sears
The ultimate in cheesy 1950s flying saucer B-movies, and said to have been the inspiration for the spoof Mars Attacks!. An American space research centre (sorry center) comes under attack by flying saucers. They abduct a general and basically suck out his brain, reducing him to a zombified state. The pesky aliens then abduct a few more, and show their prowess in blowing up military ships, and hovering over famous world landmarks, such as the Eiffel Tower, and the British Houses of Parliament (oh they can have that one if they like). This has everything: pipe-smoking scientists, a forbidding voice-over who sounds like he should be narrating a Biblical epic, and aliens who are oddly effective in their cheap faceless suits.
EAT PRAY LOVE (2010)
Dir: Ryan Murphy
This really is a Marmite film. You’ll either love it, find it life-affirming and inspiring (and all that jazz), or want to smash up the furniture and bewail the state of the world, and how the human race is now being driven over the cliff-edge of extinction by plastic self-obsessed eejits. I’m of the latter camp. Based on Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling book, Eat Pray Love follows Liz (Julia Roberts), who has all that modern life can bestow, and yet when the poor lamb is feeling lost and confused after her divorce – from her equally juvenile and irritating husband – she decides to go off travelling and find herself. She chooses three countries, all beginning with I, hence she can go to Italy for the grub, India for spirituality and Finding Herself, and Indonesia for a bit of hows-yer-father. It’s a long film (140 minutes), and it seems to take an absolute age to get to the point, but I have to say it does pick up a smidgeon when Liz finally does set off on her travels. But this is very much a Hollywoodised, airbrushed view of the world. Italy is all about food and drinking coffee, whilst being looked at in confusion by caring Italian Mamma’s (and skinny American women bemoaning that they’re putting on weight), and India is full of beautiful people getting married in temples, and Americans giving each other sharp talking-to’s about how loved they are, and to stop worrying … and nothing about extreme poverty, appalling sanitation and horrendous traffic-jams. I couldn’t tell you what Indonesia was like because I never made it that far. By this time it was long gone midnight, and somehow I had a shrewd suspicion that everything was going to turn out just hunky-dory for our Liz. For me this film is Twitter Inspirational Quotes in movie format. Characters don’t talk to each other, so much as give tedious little homilies. It’s impossible to care about Liz. She comes across as a cold character, filling up an empty inner core with the sort of dreary, meaningless platitudes we have coming out of our ears in the 21st century. If you want a romanticised travelogue with insufferably irritating, banal dialogue, then go for it.
THE EIGER SANCTION (1975)
Dir: Clint Eastwood
In this film Eastwood plays a character called Dr Hemlock, who sounds like a villain from a kid’s cartoon, and that seems to be the problem with this film. It can’t decide if it’s a gritty thriller, or a spoof. Dr Hemlock is a art teacher, and keen mountain climber, who on the side does a little professional hitman work. It was based on a novel by Trevanion (a pseudonym of Rodney Whittaker), who had intended it as a James Bond spoof. And there are touches of that with Hemlock’s pantomime-ish boss, Mr Dragon (Thayer David), and Hemlock receiving training from an attractive young woman called George (Brenda Venus). Unfortunately no one seems to have told Eastwood, who plays the whole thing deadly straight. In the end it comes across more like a limp imitation of Bond, than a send-up of it. It’s not helped by parts of the script which very much belong in the 1970s, and which make you wince now. Some assorted racist remarks, and “jokey” comments like “I thought I’d given up rape”. At the time of it’s release the film bombed at the box-office, with Eastwood blaming the production company. Even though with him directing it, and starring in it, the bulk of the blame must surely lie with him. Having said all that, it’s still worth a watch if you want some undemanding late-night entertainment. TRIVIA CORNER: Trevanion wrote a follow-up to The Eiger Sanction, somewhat bizarrely titled The Loo Sanction.
ELIZABETH – THE GOLDEN AGE (2007)
Dir: Shekhar Kapur
Cate Blanchett dons the red wig and the starched ruff once again to play Good Queen Bess, in the sequel to Elizabeth. The first film, although highly-acclaimed, was a bit of a Marmite film, in that you either loved it or hated it. This one though is just a bit of a drag. Blanchett blusters and hollers a lot as the Queen, to show us snippets of the Tudor temper, but she doesn’t really have any presence. In fact, most of the time she reminded me more of Princess Anne than Gloriana. What I can’t get over though is how the film has taken two fascinating episodes in the Queen’s life, namely the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, and the Spanish Armada, and made it a crashing bore. We don’t even get the “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman speech” at Tillbury. We get Cate, head in foot in armour, (Bess only wore a breastplate), on a restless horse, blithering on in a lacklustre fashion. It’s rubbish.
EMPIRE OF THE ANTS (1977)
Dir: Bert I Gordon
Most famous these days for being Joan Collins’s most hated film … and by that I mean most hated by Joan Collins. She plays Marilyn, a corrupt property developer who is trying to sell swampland to a bunch of mugs, unaware that it’s been taken over by giant ants hell-bent on conquest of the planet using mind control. It may interest Joan to know that this film does have it’s admirers (a few anyway), and not just because of her undoubted charms. In fact, as a low-budget creature feature there are worse ones out there. It’s not brilliant by any means, but it’s not unbearable either. Part of Joan’s intense dislike of it – going by what she wrote in her autobiography Past Imperfect – is that she had a very uncomfortable time making it. There’s an awful lot of clambering in and out of swamps, and she reported that the big ant props scratched any actors who got close to them. Ms Collins may regard it as the nadir of her career, but if you want something undemanding to watch though, it has it’s place.
ENCHANTED APRIL (1992)
Dir: Mike Newell
I know the book of this – by Elizabeth von Arnim – is very highly regarded. In fact, to some people you only have to mention it for them to go quite sentimental on you. I’ve never read it. Whether that is an advantage or disadvantage when rating this film I honestly don’t know. Two friends decide to escape the wet misery of an English spring by renting a house in the Italian countryside. Because they can’t afford a month on their own, they have to pool resources with a couple of strangers, a curmudgeonly and very grand old lady (Joan Plowright), and a languid young aristocrat (Polly Walker). It’s a nostalgic piece of escapism, although a tad too sentimental for my tastes (“this house is a great big tub of love”, that sort of thing. But if you want something uplifting then it works just fine.
THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN (1964)
Dir: Freddie Francis
Watch out, the Baron’s on the loose again. The graceful Peter Cushing once again steps up to the plate to reprise his role as Baron Frankenstein. He returns to the old ancestral home, only to find the villagers have wrecked it. This doesn’t deter him, although he does let out a little moan of “why can’t they leave me alone?” Soon he’s back at work though, creating monsters. The result is a distinctly sub-standard specimen, looking like Boris Karloff knocked up out of papier-mache by some kids at playgroup. The creature escapes and starts to lay waste to the livestock in the neighbourhood. Thinking that his creation has been destroyed, the Baron goes on the run, and we get weird scenes with the Baron and his sidekick (Sandor Eles) both donning carnival masks, and causing a stir in a bar and then in a hypnotist’s tent. If, like me, you are a Hammer fan, then you will find this film entertaining enough, although I wouldn’t say it was the best from them. It was made in 1964, and seems to have been shot on the same sets as The Gorgon (see below). There is a scenic shot of a hut by the river which is identical to the one used in that film. Worth watching just for the electric storm scene at the beginning.
EVIL UNDER THE SUN (1982)
Dir: Guy Hamilton
I always thought that was a great title for a book, but then Dame Agatha Christie was good at those. This is one of those 1970s blockbuster Christie adaptations with an all-star cast. These days it is of interesting for its escapist setting, the Spot The Famous Face Before They Get Bumped Off game (a bit like The Towering Inferno in that respect), and Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot. To be honest, I preferred the later TV adaptation starring David Suchet, and which was set on Devon’s Burgh Island. But this is an enjoyable way to pass a couple of hours nonetheless.
THE EXORCISM (1972)
One of a series of ghosts stories aired on the BBC in the winter of 1972, under the collective title Dead Of Night (nothing to do with the 1945 film of the same name). The Exorcism is about two couples who meet up to spend Christmas at a country cottage. As they are tucking into their Christmas dinner though, the power goes off. This is only the start of their troubles, as the food and wine becomes inedible, and they are encroached upon by an unearthly darkness. The first half of the film is genuinely unsettling, and you wonder where on earth this is going. Too much of the second half though is giving over to a long monologue. Whilst this is absorbing, and quite powerful, it does all become a bit preachy. Yes, it’s obscene that some people have more than they need, and others starve. It’s always been unfair. Life’s a bitch. We get it. The moralising is laid on with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. It’s interesting to see the references to the time it was made. The early 70s was a time of huge unrest here in Blighty, with power-cuts, strikes, and a State Of Emergency. And the comment that society is defined by technology is even more relevant now than it was then. One flick of the switch and we’d all be plunged backwards. Worth watching, particularly for Clive Swift, a seriously under-rated actor, one of those I could watch in anything. An interesting, very dark piece, with some profound comments, but please, there’s only so much preaching I can take.
EYES WITHOUT A FACE (1960)
Dir: Georges Franju
Superbly atmospheric 1950s French horror about a young woman, chronically disfigured in a road accident, who lives a twilight existence at the top of her father’s country house. Unbeknown to her, her father, who is a top surgeon, has been abducting young women and surgically removing their faces, so that he can try and achieve the first face transplant. The experiments go horribly wrong, and the victims are slain and dumped, usually by the doctor’s sinister female assistant, played by Valli (of The Third Man fame). The whole film has a Grimms fairy tale feel to it. The scenes set in and around the doctor’s house are hugely atmospheric, with the constant sound of birdsong in the background, and poor Christiane, drifting ghost-like through the house in her mask. The face-transplant scene isn’t for the faint-hearted. I remember somebody once saying “surely they won’t show the whole thing?” They do. The most terrifying part is when one of the victims wakes up on the operating-table and glimpses Christiane (sans mask) leaning over her. The portrayal of the doctor is also sympathetically done. He’s not an evil man, but by obsessively trying to do good for his daughter he has become one. Sad-eyed Edith Scob wrings the old heart-strings as the tragic Christiane. Although I saw in one interview with her that she said “under the mask I was smiling all the time, but nobody could see it”.
THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER (1960)
Dir: Roger Corman
You want Gothic? This is the daddy of them all. The ultimate old dark house film in many ways. Based on a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, directed by Roger Corman, with screenplay by Richard Matheson, and starring Vincent Price. That’s some pretty good credentials there. Watching this again recently after a gap of many years, I was struck by what a visual feast this film is. The house is the absolute epitome of what a haunted house should be. It’s cobwebby, crumbling to pieces (literally), full of dark wood and red velvet furnishings, and stuck permanently in a swirling dank fog. Mark Damon plays an upright young Bostonian, who travels to the decaying pile to see his fiancee, the raven-haired Madeline (Myrna Fahey). Once there, he becomes convinced that she is being kept under house-arrest by her brother Roderick (Vincent Price), a thin, lugubrious aristocrat, who is prone to hyper-sensitivity. Of course things aren’t as simple as that. Is Madeline being kept there by her evil sibling, or is she being kept confined for her own good because she has inherited the Usher curse of insanity? One of the highlights of the film for me was the part where Roderick gives Philip a tour of the family portraits. These are strange works of art indeed, curious abstract pieces depicting the characters almost as inhuman aliens. If they had just used ordinary portraits for this segment I think it wouldn’t have worked. Instead you look at these with fascinated horror. In the dream sequence, the ancestors are brought to life, and it’s interesting that this doesn’t work nearly as well, with the characters seeming more comic than frightening. Plus a word must be said about Matheson’s screenplay. Beautifully written, and I can see where he was heading with The Legend Of Hell House a few years later (see below). The isolated, gloomy house, the small cast of characters, the young woman who is being torn apart by the house she can’t leave. In fact, the Usher house and Hell House bear some very striking similarities with one another. Both, to me, are the archetypal haunted house.
THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE (1964)
Dir: Anthony Mann
“An empire can only be destroyed from without when it has destroyed itself from within”. Cinematic epics don’t come much bigger than this. Running at 3 hours long, packed with an all-star cast, and visually stunning, this is a true colossus amongst films. Plot-wise it does exactly what it says on the tin. Rome is facing threats from the Germanic hordes on it’s borders, whilst at the same time the Roman elite are enduring the usual in-fighting. The script is intelligent, the acting as fine as you would expect from the likes of Alec Guinness, Sophia Loren and James Mason. But for me it’s the visual impact. This is one of those films that feels like a work of art to look at (and not a trace of CGI in sight). If you’ve got a spare afternoon, and you want to lose yourself in another era, then this does the job absolutely splendidly.
THE FAST LADY (1963)
Dir: Ken Annakin
A sort of prequel to Father Came Too! (see below), in which Stanley Baxter, rejoicing in the name of Murdoch Troon plays a keen cyclist who comes up against cantankerous old motorist, James Robertson Justice. A very funny slapstick comedy ensues, with Leslie Phillips popping up in his usual suave womanising role (“hell-lo!”), and Julie Christie, in one of her first screen roles, as Baxter’s love interest. Great fun.
FATHER CAME TOO! (1963)
Dir: Peter Graham Scott
Enjoyable, undemanding Brit comedy, about the likeable Stanley Baxter as a newly-wed setting up home for the first time, and having to contend not just with a dilapidated old house, but a larger-than-life (in all senses of the word) father-in-law in the shape of James Robertson Justice. Cue lots of vintage fun slapstick which Laurel and Hardy would have felt quite at home with. The suave Leslie Phillips adds to the hilarity as a smooth-talking estate-agent who has aspirations to be a great actor, and Ronnie Barker as a laid-back builder, who would rather be jamming with his skiffle group than sorting the roof out. James Robertson Justice hams it up wonderfully, and Baxter is a great sidekick as his permanently long-suffering son-in-law. A nice, easy way to spend 90 minutes.
FEAR IN THE NIGHT (1972)
Dir: Jimmy Sangster
Peter Cushing and Joan Collins make perhaps one of the most unlikely married couples you can imagine, but that’s what we get in this low-key Hammer thriller from 1972. Ralph Bates is a teacher at a boys’ prep school. He returns to work, bringing his new young bride (Judy Geeson) with him. The school is a bit odd though. Boys voices are heard in empty classrooms, but other than that there seem to be no pupils. What’s going on? This is one of those thrillers which I enjoy more when I know what the twist is, but perhaps that’s just me. Cushing is excellent as always, as the strange headmaster, sorry to sound repetitive, but he’s always good. Joan Collins is on top bitch-form as his hard-as-nails wife, proving to be more terrifying in this than she was even as Alexis Carrington. It’s a sombre little chiller. Certainly worth a look, but nothing to rave about.
Dir: Billy Wilder
The penultimate film from Billy Wilder, who revisits Sunset Boulevard territory in this story of a reclusive film star with a strange secret. Unlike Norma Desmond though, Fedora (Marthe Keller) seems to have discovered the secret of everlasting youth. William Holden is a Hollywood producer who arrives on the island of Corfu, determined to find out what’s happened to her. He finds her living with a cranky old Countess (Hildegard Knef), who seems to have some inexplicable hold over her. As a mystery story it’s a pretty decent affair. It’s intriguing to piece together Fedora’s real story. It’s let down by the cast. Marthe Keller is quirky, but she’s meant to be a Garbo-esque star, and there’s really nothing here to suggest she was the legend of the silver screen she’s clearly meant to be. Plus I found Knef’s Countess utterly over-the-top and completely ridiculous. Worth seeing once.
THE FERRYMAN (1974)
One of a pair of ghost stories (the other being Poor Girl, see below), which were aired by Granada TV over Christmas 1974, and which are now available on DVD. In this one, from a story by Kingsley Amis, the impossibly handsome Jeremy Brett plays Sheridan Owen, a novelist. Sheridan’s written a book called The Ferryman’s Rest about a pub haunted by the ghost of a disreputable ferryman. One day, whilst driving out in the rain with his wife, they seek refuge at a hotel … which turns out to be called The Ferryman. Not only that, but the staff have similar names to the characters in his book. This well-made little drama wasn’t quite as scary as I’d hoped, but Jeremy is always immensely watcheable, and if you like under-stated ghost stories, without the ridiculous histrionics we get these days, then it’s certainly well worth a look.
FIEND WITHOUT A FACE! (1958)
Dir: Arthur Crabtree
Dig that for a title! Actually, the makers of this enjoyable 1950s B-movie have to be given credit for resourcefulness. Shooting on a small budget, they solved one problem by making the monsters completely invisible for the majority of the film, and when they do appear they’re like balloons disguised as snails. Something awful is stalking the backwoods of Canada. It sneaks up on people and sucks out their brains. Naturally everybody blames it on the nearby atomic power plant, and the way to solve these terrifying murders is by blowing it up! It’s a pacey bit of hokum. The acting might be decidedly ropey, but it’s still a fun relic of its time, when people were ready to blame just about anything on atomic power. This has it all, old professor in a tweed jacket, token girl with impressive jacked-up bosom, and a monster which, for most of the film, only manifests as rustling leaves, footsteps stamping through hay, and someone off-screen making a sound like a bath emptying.
FIFTY SHADES OF GREY (2015)
Dir: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Boy meets Girl. Boy and Girl are attracted to one another. Boy issues Girl with lengthy legal document telling her exactly what’s expected of her. Welcome to romance in the 21st century, ladies and gentlemen. I quite enjoyed the furore the book caused when it came out. There was something very entertaining about seeing so many people – who take themselves far too seriously – getting their collective knickers in a twist about it. I began reading the book, and although it started off OK, I eventually got bored with it. I had the same problem with the film. In case, by some miracle, you don’t know the story, here goes: Miss Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), an English student and shop assistant at a hardware store, is one of the few very chaste virgins left in the Western world. She is sent to interview corporate CEO Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), and they have an incredibly boring interview together. Anyway, he then starts popping up in her hardware store, buying job lots of masking tape and rope, nagging her on the phone about going out drinking, and getting jealous of a male friend of her’s. Oh boy, does this man sound tedious, and he is! She goes to his swish penthouse apartment. They spend the night together, only to be interrupted by his tiresome old bag of a mother the next morning, which somewhat kills the Charismatic Romantic Hero image. Romantic Heroes should NOT have mothers turning up at inconvenient moments. That should be a hard and fast rule of romantic fiction, in my opinion. Christian draws up a very long legal document (they shouldn’t be in romantic fiction either), laying down all the guidelines of their relationship, which seems to revolve around her calling him “sir”, never touching him unless she’s asked to, never going out anywhere, and giving up alcohol, fags and drugs. I watched an hour of this, and it was at this part when I ejected the DVD from the player, for the only reason that I couldn’t take any more of this dull, dreary pair, and I didn’t give a damn what happened to them. Dakota Johnson is well-cast as Ana, but I hit a major snag with Jamie Dornan, in that he reminded me of Norman Bates! Except Norman Bates with a swish office and a penthouse apartment. (Still got the blasted Mother complex though). Christian is completely devoid of a sense of humour, and creeps around, staring at Ana intensely as though he’s about to sharpen his Black&Decker chainsaw, and put polythene sheets down in the bathroom. ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ is a good title for this film, as the whole thing has an overwhelming aura of Greyness. The characters are grey, their lives are grey, Seattle is grey etc etc. There have been plenty of times in the past few years when I’ve defended the book, mainly because I don’t like people who threaten to burn books they don’t approve of. I wish I hadn’t bothered now.
FIRST MEN IN THE MOON (1964)
Dir: Nathan H Juran
Enjoyable caper based on H G Wells’ novel, but considerably packing more warmth and fun than that rather cold-blooded affair. Lionel Jeffries doing the kind of thing he did best, playing the loveable eccentric uncle-type, who is building a rocket to the Moon in Edwardian England. Anyone looking for scientific realism had better look elsewhere, as this is distinctly aimed at entertaining children, and the young-at-heart. Our intrepid trio of astronauts blast off taking a hutch of chickens with them, plus an elephant gun (well you never know what you might meet), and gin-and-bitters. It has a Python-ish air at times, but also packs plenty of excitement, and those creepy little Selenites manage to be fairly formidable. Full marks to Martha Hyer for going to the Moon and back in a long, trailing skirt and full frothy Edwardian blouse.
Dir: Arch Oboler
Rarely seen post-apocalyptic movie from 1951, about a small group of survivors travelling across America in the aftermath of a nuclear war. I only saw this once many years ago, but the scenes where they arrive in the devastated city stood out as highly disturbing. TRIVIA CORNER: clips of the film can be seen in the Jerry Lee Lewis biopic Great Balls Of Fire.
FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC (2014)
Dir: Deborah Chow
Virginia Andrews’ novel Flowers In The Attic was one of the oddest bestselling books of the 1980s (it was first released in 1979, but I remember so many of us reading it in the early 80s). With it’s themes of imprisoned children, and sibling incest it was always going to be a tricky one to adapt. The previous version in 1987 I felt was let down by a hsyterically overblown ending (“eat the cookie, Mommy!”). This is an admirably more restrained version. Heather Graham plays Corinne Dollenganger, a young widow, who takes her four children to live with their rich grand-parents. Unfortunately the grandmother (Ellen Burstyn) is a religious fanatic, who insists the children, whom she regards as the result of Corinne’s sinful life, have to be hidden away, so that their invalid grandfather doesn’t find out about them. The children are incarcerated in the attic. Completely removed from the world, they form their own little family unit, with Cathy and Christopher as the two older children becoming surrogate parents to the younger ones. As they go through their teen years, Cathy and Christopher begin to develop incestuous feelings for one another. It’s not brilliant by any means, but it’s not bad either. Ellen Burstyn makes the film, and it comes alive when she’s on screen. There is a dark, brooding gothic feel to it all, perfectly in keeping with the original novel.
FOOTSTEPS IN THE FOG (1955)
Dir: Arthur Lubin
High melodrama in the Victorian vein, all gaslights, swirling fog, sweet sherry and corsets. The stunning Jean Simmons plays a ruthlessly ambitious maidservant who gets a job at the troubled home of Stewart Grainger, who is anchored to an unwanted wife. Needless to say perhaps, the wife doesn’t get to stay in the film for long, and before you know it Jean (the hussy!) is wearing her jewellery, sacking the other servants, and swanning around in a new black silk uniform. It’s an engaging little thriller, with a few plot twists to keep you watching. Perfect viewing for a gloomy afternoon.
FOR YOUR EYES ONLY (1981)
Dir: John Glen
After the exuberant buffoonery of Moonraker the Bond genre took a turn back to basics with ‘For Your Eyes Only’. This is more old-school Bond, more familiar to fans of Ian Fleming’s original novels than the clownish excesses of its predecessor, although having said that it does have it’s share of 80s disco-y exuberances. There’s not much to say really other than it’s a competent thriller with enough thrills to keep you watching, particularly a human sharkbait sequence which was used originally in Fleming’s book version of Live And Let Die. There is also a fairly thrilling rock-climbing sequence. The kooky young ice-skater feels uncomfortable to watch now though, with a childish girl coming on strongly to a middle-aged Roger Moore. “Get dressed and I’ll buy you an ice-cream”. Hmm. Likewise the dismally unfunny Margaret Thatcher cameo at the end (played by impersonator Janet Brown) jars a bit. Someone on Twitter described this film as being like “a cross between the Pink Panther and Noel Streatfield’s White Boots“.
FOUR CHRISTMASES (2008)
Dir: Seth Gordon
Vince Vaughn and Reece Witherspoon are a couple desperate to get away from it all for the festive season. Unfortunately bad weather hampers their plans and they are forced to spend the holidays with their families. A simple, undemanding festive comedy (you might think), let down entirely by two cold, utterly unappealing leads, who simply fail to elicit any sympathy or affection from this viewer. There’s nothing wrong with dragging out all the hoary old Chrimbo family cliches yet again – such as stubborn old git fathers, families revealing all your embarrassing childhood secrets, babies doing messy things that babies do – but this is all executed with a total lack of any kind of warmth. It’s the sort of comedy that Steve Martin could have really done something with in his heyday, but this just feels like it’s going through the How To Make An American Christmas Comedy rulebook, and ticking them off as it briskly goes along. And that Nativity play bit was about as repellent as you can get, with Vaughn aggressively trying to bludgeon the long-suffering viewer into laughing. According to Wikipedia, ‘The Hollywood Reporter’ described it as “one of the most joyless Christmas movies ever”. Yes, I think that’s fair to say.
THE FRANCHISE AFFAIR (1951)
Dir: Lawrence Huntington
Odd little British thriller from the early 1950s, based on a novel by Josephine Tey. A young girl arrives home late one night, drenched to the skin, claiming that two women, living in a remote gloomy house, have been holding her prisoner in an attic room. Her story is that they beat and stripped her, and tried to make her work as their servant. When I first saw this many years ago I thought such an idea felt too far-fetched, but in these days of growing concern about slavery in the UK, perhaps not so much now. Needless to say all is not what it seems. It’s intriguing, and a very good example of what can happen when you’re caught up in a ’cause celebre’, and your neighbourhood turns against you. If you think people couldn’t be so petty and vicious now, try being on Twitter next time the pitchfork mob are out in full force! Nothing much has changed.
Dir: J Searle Dawley
The first movie version of Mary Shelley’s novel clocks in at just over 12 minutes long. Filmed in 1910, we get the whole story compressed into that short time, and watching it on YouTube, I couldn’t help wishing how some more ponderous modern versions would just crack on with the same economy and minimum of fuss! The scene where the monster appears for the first time is still highly effective (particularly as you tend to be distracted by the skeleton sitting on the chair in front). When he does appear he looks a bit like Russell Brand in torn clothes. It would be easy to sneer at this very early slice of horror cinema, but at only a few minutes long, you’re really not being asked to give up much of your time to view it (so none of that “that’s 12 minutes of my life I won’t get back” nonsense, because you’ll just sound silly), and as one YouTube viewer put it, you can’t really call yourself a horror buff until you’ve viewed this one.
FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL (1974)
Dir: Terence Fisher
The final outing in Hammer’s hugely successful series of Frankenstein films. It’s a downbeat, (not to say gloomy) ending, but I still have a fondness for it, and it’s still worth watching. The Baron (Peter Cushing) is now working as a doctor in a lunatic asylum. When a young man (an elfin-looking Shane Briant) is incarcerated there for copying him, the Baron seizes his chance to enlist his help in having a final go at trying to create a human being from a few old bits and bobs lying about. Madeleine Smith plays a beautiful mute girl, who acts as their unlikely assistant. As I said, a low-key ending for the series, but it still has it’s share of splendid gothic moments, and there are some interesting comments on just how ethical is it for medical science to go messing with people’s brains (literally so in this case).
FRANKENSTEIN – THE TRUE STORY (1973)
Dir: Jack Smight
This is a colourful, exuberantly gothic affair. Some stand-out moments: David McCallum as the Baron’s mentor, renting a gloomy, dilapidated pile for his research (“the locals think it’s haunted, still it keeps them away”), the My Fair Lady-ish segment when the Baron takes his handsome creation off to the opera to show him off, and loves it when they think he’s a foreign prince, Jane Seymour as the Bride, singing “I love little kitten, her coat is so warm”, before trying to throttle a cat, and the final part of the film set on a ship in the Arctic, with Tom Baker as the Captain. There are several decidedly gruesome parts, such as the scene where the monster gatecrashes a party and rips off the head of his bride, and the part where the monster gets revenge on Polidori (James Mason) by stringing him up on the mast of the ship and leaving him to be struck by lightning, still freaks me out, even now. Refreshingly unpretentious, and in the full spirit of gothic horror.
Dir: Tod Browning
I remember seeing this film for the first time several years ago, when it was part of Channel 4’s What The Censor Saw season. Freaks had been banned in Britain for decades, and was only released from purdah in the 1980s. It still remains one of the most controversial films ever made. In 1932 director Tod Browning was ordered to go and “out-horror Frankenstein”, which had been a massive hit for a rival studio. Browning certainly achieved that, all too well for audiences of the time. He had gone back to the sideshows and travelling circuses of his youth for inspiration, and this is where the controversy comes in. The “freaks” of the title aren’t actors in full make-up, but the Real McCoy. When the film was first aired in the States, there were tales of women running screaming from the theatres, and the film was removed from public view. It’s a shame, as it has a great story, is genuinely unnerving, and the performers are shown sympathetically, having their own tightnit little community within a community. The plot: an unscrupulous trapeze artist called Cleopatra – the statuesque Olga Baclanova – is determined to get her greedy hands on the fortune of pint-sized Hans, and will marry him to do so. One of the most stunning scenes in the film is when the freaks arrange a wedding feast for Hans and Cleopatra, and chant the song “one of us, one of us, we will make her one of us”. They mean it as a compliment, that they have accepted her in their midst, but Cleopatra loses it and tells them all what she thinks of them. Unfortunately, when Hans’s friends find out about her dastardly intentions, they decide to bring the song literally to life. The ending is truly shocking. When I first saw this film back in the 80s, everyone was writing off this kind of freak show as something which now belonged firmly in the distant past, and we will never see its like again … and yet, it seems to be making a curious kind of a comeback. Hopefully done with more sympathy from the general public, but on the whole I think this is a good thing.
Dir: Alfred Hitchcock
Hitchcock’s final film, released in 1972. A serial-killer is on the loose in the East End of London, strangling women with neck-ties. Supposedly based on the unsolved real-life Jack The Stripper/Hammersmith Nudes case from the early 1960s, this is a dark, gritty thriller. A far cry from the more polished, elegant Hollywood Hitches from the 1950s and 60s, London of the early 70s looks suitably repulsive. The darkness of this film would be almost unbearable at times if Hitch didn’t leaven it with some comic pieces, such as the police inspector’s wife’s attempts at gourmet cooking. There are also some classic Hitch moments, such as the camera pulling back silently down the stairs and out into the busy street, whilst the killer is showing his latest victim into his flat, and the taut (not to say wince-making) scene on the potato truck. I think some have been disappointed that this is such a downbeat, low-key end to a glorious film career, but I see it as Hitch going back to his roots. ‘Frenzy’ is more akin to the British thrillers he made in the 1930s – particularly with it’s Wrong Man Convicted Of Murder sub-plot – than to the colourful extravaganzas such as Vertigo and North by Northwest. When you look at it in that light, then it’s Hitch completing the circle.
FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE (1974)
Dir: Kevin Connor
British portmanteau horror from 1974, starring Peter Cushing in one of his sinister Old Man Bringing Death roles, and featuring stories by R Chetwynd Hayes. A host of familiar faces crop up, including Donald Pleasance (and his daughter, Angela), David Warner, and Ian Carmichael. I remember the first story, featuring a haunted mirror which demands human sacrifices, scaring me when I was younger, and it still packs an atmospheric punch now. Scariest of the lot though is Diana Dors as a shrewish wife.
FROM HELL (2001)
Dir: Albert Hughes, Allen Hughes
One day somebody will make a good film about the Whitechapel killings, quite why that’s eluding everyone I don’t know. This one almost staggers and dies under it’s urge to be taken seriously, and once again – as in the Michael Caine version from the late 1980s – it fills us with a lot of tedious tosh about complicated reasons behind the murders, instead of it just possibly being a psychopathic killer on the loose. Johnny Depp works hard as a Cockney accent as Inspector Abbeline, presenting us with a flawed, drug-addicted cop. (The real-life Inspector Abbeline was apparently a fairly clean-living down-to-earth copper, I do wish somebody would have the balls to present him as such for once). Then we have a lot of romantic nonsense about the Ripper’s last victim, Mary Jane Kelly (Heather Graham), and … oh the whole thing is just tedious beyond belief. According to Wikipedia the original author of the story was so disgusted, particularly by the changes to Abbeline’s character, that he disowned it. I don’t blame him at all.
FROM HELL IT CAME (1957)
Dir: Dan Milner
And in the immortal words of one critic at the time it was released: “and to Hell it can return!” Often included on lists of the worst movies ever made, From Hell It Came has secured it’s own place in cinema history. On a South Sea island a prince is staked out in the sand, and executed by stabbing. He is buried inside a tree, and then nuclear radiation causes him to resurrect … as a walking tree trunk. Not only that, but one with a spectacularly grumpy face to boot. In fact, the monster seems to lumber around, as if thinking “could somebody get this damn tree trunk off me!” I would dearly love to have been at the brainstorming meeting when the plot for this film was thrashed out. It contains some classic lines, such as “he came back as a tree monster”, “be a woman first, and a doctor second”, “you’ve stolen my man, now you must die”, “It looked like a tree, except it had eyes and hands!”. Then we have the character of Mrs Kilgrore (Linda Watkins) who has one of the most mangled British accents I’ve ever heard on film, and goes around calling everyone “dearie” and “ducky”. Would love to be able to recommend this film, but you are left wondering what on earth possessed them to make it.
FUNERAL IN BERLIN (1966)
Dir: Guy Hamilton
The second in the Harry Palmer trilogy, and this time our hero (Michael Caine), or the alternative to James Bond as some of us like to think of him, is sent to Germany to bring back a Communist defector. I can’t think of any other film that so brilliantly encapsulates Europe in the Cold War era, both it’s dreariness and at the same time it’s decadence. In some ways it reminds me of Patricia Highsmith’s The Boy Who Followed Ripley, in that we get plenty of drag queens and sleazy Berlin nightclubs. Caine is on top form, wise-cracking and yet being self-deprecating at the same time. The scene where he goes back to Eva Renzi’s flat is a marvellous antidote to Bond. The flat is a mess for one thing, and Eva, although undoubtedly beautiful, is scarcely stepping out of the shower and instantly oozing “ooh Commander!” It’s all so wonderfully down-to-earth and realistic, a scene between two grown-up people (it’s astonishing how little that seems to happen in films sometimes). Like Bond though, the Palmer films were to degenerate into outrageous buffoonery with Billion Dollar Brain, although still fun.
FUNNY BONES (1995)
Dir: Peter Chelsom
Something doesn’t quite work with this film for me, and it’s very hard to pinpoint what it is. I like the whole idea of it: that some people are born naturally with “funny bones”, whilst others have to work hard at it. I think it was the American critic Roger Ebert who seemed to disagree with this, saying that it was the material that was funny, not the performer or the actor. I disagree. After all, if that was the case all anyone would need would be good gag-writers, and as anyone who’s ever sat through a politician murdering jokes left, right and centre will know, that is simply not the case. Whereas some people can make any banal old line hysterically funny. Well anyway the plot of the film is thus: Oliver Platt plays the son of a famous stand-up comedian, but when he tries it himself he bombs big-time. He simply doesn’t have Funny Bones. In a bid to learn his craft, he goes to Blackpool, and decides to learn how to be funny from some old troopers of the entertainment trade. Once in Blackpool he hears about Lee Evans, who is naturally gifted, but with a barrel-load of mental health issues. I loved the auditions sequence, where the strangest acts in Blackpool came to perform under Oliver Platt’s bemused gaze. Blackpool has never been more surreal. And that’s saying something.
FUTTOCK’S END (1970)
Dir: Bob Kellett
Was delighted to find this on YouTube, as I hadn’t seen it in many years. One of a series of short films made by Ronnie Barker in the 1970s, which are a sort of homage to the slapsticks of the Silent Era. Futtock’s End is the country home of General Futtock (Barker), and it centres round a weekend of visitors. This is English humour very much in the Benny Hill mode. I was a bit disappointed that it wasn’t quite as funny as I remembered it. Perhaps Michael Hordern’s pervy butler doesn’t seem quite as funny as it did back then, but I also think Ronnie Corbett is much-missed. He would appear in the follow-up films, The Picnic and At The Sea, which I did find much funnier, and wonderful escapism. It does star Julian Orchard though, a British comedy actor possessed of a simply marvellous face.
GANGSTER NO.1 (2000)
Dir: Paul McGuigan
Very impressive gangster flick. Stylishly directed, it shows one man’s determination to become the top dog in the underworld. This guy is a total psychopath. He doesn’t even appear to be human at times. He has no name, no family, and seems in fact to have no private life at all. It comes as quite a surprise to find that he’s actually got a flat to live in. He exists solely to wreck brutality, murder and mayhem. Paul Bettany is superb (although it has to be said the “look into my fucking eyes” bit becomes a bit panto at times), as is Malcolm McDowell who plays Gangster in old age. David Thewlis has a good go at playing Freddy Mays, the so-called butcher of Mayfair, but he’s hampered by the fact that he looks like an affable horse. One sequence stands out particularly. The one where Gangster literally butchers a rival gangland leader (“you’d better do a good job of this boy!”), and then takes a shower with his weapons afterwards.
Dir: Thorold Dickinson
There always seems to be some argy-bargy about which is the better version of Patrick Hamilton’s play, this one, or the Hollywood adaptation starring Ingrid Bergman. It’s simple, both are good. The Hollywood version was slicker and more polished, and had the lovely Ingrid, plus Angela Lansbury as her saucy maid, but this one feels a bit more real somehow. Diana Wynyard plays Bella, a woman at the mercy of her psychopathic husband, Paul (Anton Walbrook), who has moved them into a posh London town-house, where he had previously murdered an old lady for her jewels, only to be unable to find them. The plot hinges largely around Paul trying to convince Bella she’s insane, and this can be an uncomfortable and upsetting watch for anyone who has ever been in a relationship like that. In fact, the term “gas lighting” has now entered the language, to describe a relationship, whereby a sociopath subjects their victim to psychological abuse. This version was so good in fact that Hollywood demanded all copies of it be destroyed, so that it wouldn’t harm their remake. Which also sounds like psychopathic behaviour.
GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (1953)
Dir: Howard Hawks
I’m not a huge fan of musicals, it has to be said, but there are notable exceptions, and this is one of them. The ultimate chick flick. Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell are two little girls from Little Rock taking a trip to Europe, in the hope of snaring a rich husband. Both ladies are superb. Jane as the athletic wise-cracking brunette, and Marilyn as the ditzy diamond-loving blonde. Funny, glamorous, with some great numbers. The girls were great friends in real life, and it shows, as there’s no attempt to try upstage the other. Marilyn’s showstopping performance of Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend is still one of the most beautiful musical production numbers I’ve ever seen on film. All that gorgeous, glorious sugary pink! Heaven.
GET HIM TO THE GREEK (2010)
Dir: Nicholas Stoller
Russell Brand plays a rock star who releases an unbelievably pretentious record, ‘African Child’, which promptly bombs and sends him hurtling off the wagon. His record company send poor old down-trodden Jonah Hill over to London to escort him to Los Angeles for something-or-other. It’s a likeable enough film, with some undemanding slapstick, usually revolving around drugs. Jonah Hill is very likeable in his podgy underdog role, and Brand always gives plenty of (slightly seedy) charisma. If you want an undemanding late-night watch which will bring a smile to your face, you could do a lot worse than this.
GHOST SHIP (1952)
Dir: Vernon Sewell
No, not the more recent big-budget movie of the same name, but a rather tedious piece of cheap horror (if you can call it that) from many a year ago. A couple buy a boat which is haunted, so they decide to hold a seance there and find out what’s going on. That’s it. That’s your lot. It’s not frightening in the slightest, the acting is wooden (very much of the stilted, English 1950s style), and there is some absolutely tedious stuff about mediums and psychic investigation.
THE GHOSTS OF HANLEY HOUSE (1968)
Dir: Louise Sherrill
Little-known low-budget horror from 1968. It’s absolutely atrocious. I can only assume everyone involved – cast, director, scriptwriter – were all on drugs, as it’s the only thing that makes sense, considering how badly it’s acted, and the tortuously languid pace. Now normally I would think that if any genre lends itself to the low-budget black-and-white effort, then it’s the haunted house one, but this one doesn’t seem to have a clue what it’s doing. Anyway, the plot: admittedly the film gets off to a reasonably good start. We have a thunderstorm, a woman screaming (incessantly) from inside a fairly harmless-looking house, a clock going backwards, even a bit of organ music. OK movie, I’m up for it. But then it’s downhill all the way from there. A man totally devoid of any spark whatsoever is having a beer with a pal in a bar. His pal moans he can’t sell his house, because the ghosts are putting off any buyers, and he bets him that if he can spend the entire night in the house he’ll give him a flash sports-car. Well there’s an offer you can’t refuse. Anyway, to cut a slow story short, he does of course wind up at the haunted house, with a bunch of people who are all as languid and dopey as him, plus – to add insult to injury – a black maid who seems to have strayed in from Gone With The Wind (“yassir!”). From that moment on sod all happens, quite frankly. We have a few spooky sound-effects, but instead of being frightening, they just made me think Father Dougal was in another room with one of his BBC Sound Effects albums. Even the house is a bleedin’ disappointment. I will forgive a film a lot of shortcomings if it has a genuinely spooky house in it. But this one looks totally harmless. Even the low-rent black-and-white photography can’t imbue it with any Atmosphere, and I didn’t think that was possible. Some of the ghostly effects, such as the picture falling off the wall, were done with more verve in The Haunted House (see below), and that was made in 1908 for crissakes!! I do want to find something good to say about it, and I will admit I liked the eerie music, which is very much of its era, and reminded me of Night Of The Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Other than that, pfft! I simply do not understand why somebody would go to all the trouble of making such a lacklustre film. It defies all sense. And yet it happens, time and time again.
GHOST STORY (1974)
Dir: Stephen Weeks
Not the American 1981 film based on the Peter Straub book, but a low-budget British supernatural thriller from 1974. Set in the 1920s, the story concerns three university friends (although they don’t seem to like each other very much) who hire a huge country house for a short holiday. Leigh Lawson plays Talbot, a painfully earnest bespectacled type, who finds himself being treated with contempt by his two snooty pals. Murray Melvin, one of the quirkiest British actors ever, plays McFadyen, a fop in a white suit. Vivian MacKerrell is Dullers, a cold-blooded sneering sort. Talbot starts to be spooked by a sinister china doll, and begins to see the previous occupants of the house, played by Penelope Keith and Marianne Faithfull. It’s a very odd film this, which effortlessly piles on the Atmosphere, helped enormously by the decaying old house. The bullying of poor old Talbot is not a comfortable watch, and you can’t help wandering why he doesn’t just leave the two snooty idiots to their tinned sardines. Although set in England, a lot of it was filmed in India. Very rarely shown on TV these days, I had to hunt it down on YouTube. Although possibly a bit slow at times, if you like spooky low-budget films it’s worth a watch. TRIVIA CORNER: Apparently Vivian MacKerrell, who made very few films, was the inspiration for the character of Withnail in Withnail And I.
Dir: Lesley Manning
Halloween 1992, and the BBC decided to emulate Orson Welles’ The War Of The Worlds broadcast, by showing a play that was so frightening that unfortunately some viewers thought it was real. Tragically, it resulted in one young man committing suicide, and from then on the film has never been shown on mainstream British television. You can still find it though, and it has aged well, even though in the intervening years we’ve had the likes of Most Haunted and its numerous copycat shows, which have led to ghost-hunting on TV becoming something of a joke. Ghostwatch was based on the real life case of the Enfield Poltergeist, which occurred in the late 1970s, and which centred on a teenage girl who became possessed by the spirit of a previous resident of the house, a nasty old man. In Ghostwatch the film centres on a mother and her two daughters, who have been plagued by strange noises in their central heating (leading them to nickname the ghost ‘Pipes’), and the eldest daughter speaking in a growly, masculine voice. The BBC decide to host a Halloween night ghost-hunt from the house, with links back to the studio, where Sir Michael Parkinson, the venerable elder statesman of chat-shows, is leading the proceedings. Real-life married couple, Mike Smith and Sarah Greene, play the back-up team, with comedian and ‘Red Dwarf’ actor, Craig Charles, doing all the vox pops out in the street. It is the professionalism of these guys which helps to make Ghostwatch so convincing. They play this completely straight, as if it really is a live TV broadcast. There are no knowing asides or smug looks. I’ve read some criticism of the acting of the family in this, but I’ve never found it a problem, and to be honest, a lot of people in real life who are unused to appearing on television can sound stilted. The story is a corker, as we gradually find out just what a repulsive character Pipes had been when he was alive. There has also been criticism that the details of his final days was simply too horrible and graphic for prime time viewing, but if they had watered this down then the true horror would have been an almighty let-down. This was 1992 for heaven’s sake, post-Psycho, post-Exorcist, post-video nasties era etc etc. No one would have been satisfied with a soft, sentimental Victorian tale of someone dying through unrequited love or racked with guilt, or some such nonsense like that. No, Pipes has to be a truly revolting character, and this is what makes the brief glimpse we have of him standing near the bedroom curtains so utterly terrifying. The setting was also highly effective. This is no gothic mansion, this is a common-or-garden suburban semi. It’s the very ordinariness of it which has such a great impact. It removes any fantasy element from the show. It is unlikely in the extreme that the BBC would ever try anything like this again, so it should be treasured as one of those moments when television really delivered the goods. Even in more recent years, when I hear someone like Yvette Fielding threatening to hold a seance on TV, I get a mild niggle of unease. Altogether now … “round and round the garden, like a teddy-bear …” ADDENDUM: Mike Smith died in August 2014. RIP to one of the nicest, most professional TV presenters to come out of the Beeb. I was glad to see Ghostwatch showing up some prominently in the tributes to him.
THE GHOUL (1975)
Dir: Freddie Francis
Some Bright Young Things are whooping it up in 1920s Britain, when they decide to race each other in their vintage automobiles to Lands End. One couple run out of petrol on a fog-bound country road. The man goes off to look for supplies. The woman (Veronica Carlson) has a nice little kip, and then, wearing a very fetching fur coat, goes off to find him. Escaping from the clutches of a lascivious village idiot (John Hurt, in his first film role I think), she stumbles upon a remote country house, where she meets the splendid Peter Cushing, and his Indian housekeeper (Gwen Watford). Naturally, there is also something unspeakable lurking in the attic … and it wears flip-flops. This is another of those low-key British gothic horrors from the early 1970s, which usually has professional film critics curling their lips in disdain … and yet the rest of us seem to love it. The story reminded me of the sort you would get in the old Pan Horror paperbacks I used to read in my long-lost youth. Viewers on YouTube have also compared it to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It is nowhere near as gruesome as that film, but I guess there are similarities. Remote country area, family with dark secrets preying on lost travellers. Watching it again after a gap of many years, I thoroughly enjoyed it. The pacing might be a bit on the leisurely side, but the house – permanently surrounded by swirling fog – is great, and Cushing gives another committed performance as an ex-missionary haunted by a disturbing family secret. I would dearly love to know how his Indian housekeeper managed to do a nifty bit of human dismemberment in her kitchen, without spoiling her spotless white sari, and the “monster” when we do finally see him is a bit of a letdown (well it’s only dear old Don Henderson, whom older UK viewers may recognise from all sorts of TV programmes), BUT it’s still a credible effort from the Tyburn film studios.
Dir: Martin Campbell
When I first started putting these reviews together, I thought Licence To Kill was my least favourite Bond movie, but I’ve changed my mind. At least that one had Timothy Dalton in it. I’ve never warmed to Pierce Brosnan’s version of Bond. I don’t know why, and I accept I’m in a minority there. And there seems to be something particularly charmless about Goldeneye. Judi Dench adds some class as M (I think she has one of the best voices ever to grace an actor, I could listen to her reading out the telephone directory). But we also have Robbie Coltraine and Alan Cummings hamming it up all over the place. Cummings is particularly irritating. I’ll watch any Bond film frankly, at any time, but this one would never be near the top of the list.
Dir: Guy Hamilton
Hugely fun vintage Bond pic, which is notable for co-starring Honor Blackman as Pussy Galore, one of the coolest Bond girls ever (though the idea that she can be “cured” of her lesbianism by one session with Bond is every bit as much a male fantasy as Q’s customised Aston Martin). Watching it again I was struck by how the entire US gold reserve in this film is valued at only 15 billion dollars, that would probably be small change to the likes of Bill Gates these days! Sean Connery is as watcheable as ever, giving a smirking impish-ness to offset the macabre jests (“shocking”, he remarks as he electrocutes someone in the bath).
GONE TO EARTH (1950)
Dirs: Powell & Pressburger
Back in the early years of the 20th century Mary Webb wrote a number of novels centring around English rustic life, which must have begun to seem dated even back them. They are largely famous nowadays for being spoofed mercilessly by Stella Gibbons in ‘Cold Comfort Farm’. One of them was Gone To Earth, about a spirited young gypsy girl and her love of animals, particularly her pet fox. Powell and Pressburger adapted it for the big screen in 1950. Jennifer Jones, with her wild, dark beauty, was well-cast, and the film has a certain lost world charm, but it’s not really my cup of tea. I found myself being distracted too much by Jennifer’s wavering accent, which is broad rustic one minute, and Hollywood American the next.
GONE WITH THE WIND (1939)
Dir: Victor Fleming
There is no denying that this film is truly Epic, with a capital E, and every film lover should make the time to watch it at least once. I can admire it’s splendid qualities, but without having any great love for it. Many of the lines have earned legend status (“frankly my dear I don’t give a damn”, “tomorrow is another day” etc), all the acting is superb, the music is stirring, and many scenes truly memorable, such as Scarlett dancing in her widow’s weeds, Scarlett digging through the earth with her fingers to try and find something to eat, Rhett carrying Scarlett upstairs. I can admire Vivian Leigh’s feisty beauty, the dashing Clark Gable, the witty Hattie McDaniel, and Olivia de Havilland does a splendid job of making a saintly milksop like Melanie very likeable. And yet, as I said, it’s not a film I view with great affection. This isn’t necessarily because it breaks just about every rule of political correctness (slavery was great doncha know, those plantation owners were so caring really, and all shrewish wives just need to be subjected to marital rape to be brought into line), as I normally rebel at the whole idea that history should be re-written from some modern PC viewpoint. I think, for me, it just feels like a very epic soap opera. The first part of the film, with an old way of life being swept away by the horrors of war, is good story-telling, but then we descend into the interminable Rhett-Scarlett-Ashley triangle, and it all gets a bit too soapy for comfort. Also Scarlett never progresses as a character. She goes through the wringer, and comes out the other side exactly the same as she went in. She never learns anything. She’s still a delusional, shallow brat. No wonder Rhett packed his bags and left her. He knew she’d never change. Scarlett though ends the film still convinced he’ll put up with all her selfish nonsense forevermore. Katy-Scarlett O’Hara-Kennedy-Butler spends the entire film constantly shafting her loyal cousin Melanie Wilkes, who refuses to see anything but good in her, and we’re meant to be regard this woman as some sort of heroine! As I said, it’s an undoubted piece of cinematic history, but probably not a film I’d take to a desert island with me.
THE GORGON (1964)
Dir: Terence Fisher
An interesting departure from Hammer’s usual Dracula/Frankenstein stable of ideas. This time they delve back into Greek mythology, and resurrect the legend of the gorgon, a snake-haired woman who could turn people to stone if they so much as looked at her face (also known as the scariest part of the original Clash Of The Titans). For some reason she has returned to haunt a small German village at the turn of the 20th century. This is quite an effective little chiller. The idea is quite scary anyway. A monster who can kill simply by looking at you is a fairly formidable one to say the least! Like so many of Hammer’s more unusual efforts this works best as an adult fairy-tale, and there are some nicely atmospheric touches. My favourite is the scene were one man, hearing the gorgon’s eerie singing on a moonlit night, sets off through the forest to find her. The ruined castle which Megaera inhabits has some genuinely edgy moments, as you don’t know just when she will appear or where she’s lurking. Peter Cushing gives a flawless performance as the painfully intense head doctor of the local hospital, who has an unrequited crush on his assistant, the beautiful Barbara Shelley. Christopher Lee pops up to help hunt for the gorgon, but for once his blustering performance seems out of tune with the sombre, ethereal atmosphere of the rest of the film. Some male critics have lambasted the male characters, moaning how many men it takes to track and kill what is effectively one woman (which is somewhat missing the point). I don’t care. One of my favourites this one.
GOSFORD PARK (2001)
Dir: Robert Altman
I’ve watched this film a couple of times now, and each time I struggle with it. This both surprises and disappoints me, because normally I love anything that has a big country house as a setting, and being set in the inter-war years makes it even better. But I can’t warm to it. It’s packed full of top-quality actors, and the attention to period detail is great, but I’m left cold by it. It’s crammed so full of people that it just feels chaotic and confusing. Added to that there are a times when the plot moves at such a sluggish pace that I feel I’m stuck in a dull weekend too. Now this might well be the director’s intention, but this is not what I look for in entertainment. The bridge party scene, with poor old Ivor Novello having to play endless songs on the piano, whilst Dame Maggie Smith makes catty remarks over the playing-cards, feels interminable. The below-stairs action may be very authentic, but the social injustice of the haves-versus-the-have-nots feels laid on with a trowel, and perhaps that’s the entire problem I have with the film. It’s wearing its chip-on-the-shoulder so blatantly that it becomes tedious. And then the whole thing is then kiboshed completely by Stephen Fry turning up as a police inspector and over-acting HORRIBLY.
Dir: Ken Russell
A great idea (to make a film based on the memorable brainstorming holiday enjoyed by Lord Byron, Mary and Percy Shelley on the shore of Lake Geneva), and a great cast (Julian Sands, Natasha Richardson, Timothy Spall, Gabriel Byrne), let down by Ken Russell’s over-the-top direction. This is such a crying shame, as the actors, the costumes and the setting look terrific, but the relentless emotional hyperventilating gets very wearying very quickly. To be fair, when I first saw it many years ago, I enjoyed it much more, and I liked the stormy atmosphere, and the characters running around a big house, but in my increasing dotage I find myself just getting impatient with this kind of pretentious twaddle. It seems like such a waste of a good story. It does have the sight of Julian Sands standing butt-naked on a rooftop in a downpour, shouting about lightning being a fundamental force of the Universe. It’s that kind of film I guess.
GRACE KELLY (1983)
Glossy, heavily airbrushed made-for-TV film of one of the most beautiful women of the 20th century. It covers Grace’s Hollywood years, up until her wedding to Prince Rainier of Monaco. It’s not exactly a warts-and-all story, but it’s an undemanding, elegant way to spend a couple of hours. And Cheryl Ladd is very charming as the princess-in-waiting.
GRACE OF MONACO (2014)
Dir: Olivier Dahan
I honestly came to this with an open mind, expecting to be pleasantly surprised. I remembered all the awful reviews Diana (see above) had had, and how much I had ended up enjoying it, so I was quite prepared for the same thing to happen here. It didn’t. Grace Of Monaco truly is a waste of space, which is astonishing considering how much the initial idea had going for it, and how much money was clearly lavished on it. Grace Kelly was one of the most outstandingly beautiful women of the 20th century. Her story – how she went from Oscar-winning Hollywood actress, but gave it all up to become a European princess – never fails to be fascinating … and yet this film does her a grave disservice, making her story as dull as ditchwater. It’s not the fault of Nicole Kidman, who does a reasonably good turn as Grace. I’m not sure where to begin exactly when it comes to pointing the finger. At the bizarre camera-work, which insists on roaming about all over the place when it’s doing a close-up of Kidman, as though inspecting her face for spots. At the dreary story, which nearly tries to crush the viewer under it’s plodding relentless negativity. At the bits of the plot which simply make no sense, such as Grace being lectured constantly on how a princess should behave, even though by the time the film opens (in 1961) Grace has been royalty for 5 years and must have known by then what was expected of her. Plus Grace had been Hollywood royalty for years, she must have already known how to behave, and how to perform public duties. She was an elegant, sophisticated woman, not some coarse hayseed dragged away from the milking-stool. How it even manages to make Maria Callas dull, and I didn’t think that was humanly possible! At Derek Jacobi giving us an absolutely mind-bogglingly dull history lesson about Monaco some way in. At it’s hideously patronising tone. The way Grace is transformed from a feisty American with a mind of her own to a banal royal going through the motions. OK that might possibly have been the point of the story, but the handling of it was atrocious. Someone on Amazon described this film as being like an extended perfume advert, but I feel this is unfair to perfume adverts, which do at least TRY and entertain you. The only way I can recommend this film to you is if (a) you’re a die-hard fan of Ms Kidman and will watch her in anything or (b) you love 1950s/60s clothes and accessories. In which case, fill your boots. A horribly wasted opportunity.
GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014)
Dir: Wes Anderson
I was utterly intrigued by the trailers for this film when it first appeared. What on earth was it all about? (Which makes a change from those films which tell you all you need to know in the trailer, thus saving you from any grim duty of actually watching it). It is a delightfully quirky comedy, based apparently on the writings of Stefan Zweig (who wrote a brilliantly biography of Marie Antoinette). Ralph Fiennes plays a camp hotel concierge, who has a habit of befriending rich old ladies. When one of them (Tilda Swinton) dies, her greedy and ruthless family are determined to get their hands on a priceless painting which she has left to our hero. Sometimes the relentless eccentricity of the entire film can get a bit wearying, but on the whole this is a well-made, funny, sad, and enjoyably bonkers production. There are surreal, cartoon-ish moments, such as the prison-break sequence, and all the oddball characters, even the ones only seen fleetingly, are captivating. I particularly liked the idea of the Cross Keys group, a Masonic-style organisation of hotel concierges! And not since The Shining, has a big, rambling hotel been showcased quite so brilliantly.
THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963)
Dir: John Sturges
I don’t expect I need to say much about this one, as it’s been a staple ingredient of British Bank Holiday/Christmas telly for as long as I can remember, but that might just be because it’s a damn good film. The plot is very simple, dozens of Allied prisoners plan to escape from a German POW camp during WW2. There’s an all-star cast boasting Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, David McCallum, Gordon Jackson, James Garner, Donald Pleasence and numerous others. There are many great scenes, including possibly the most famous one of Steve McQueen on a motorbike getting caught up in barbed wire. Always well worth a watch. Also boasts one of the most famous theme tunes from any British movie, and one that you often hear whenever England are playing in the World Cup!
THE GREAT RACE (1965)
Dir: Blake Edwards
Spoof of the 1908 New York-Paris car race (as in overland, not driving through the Atlantic Ocean, confusing, yes), which was intended as a homage to the slapstick comedies of the Silent Era. It starts off well, with an enjoyably Wacky Races feel, but – apart from the odd moment – over-stays it’s welcome badly. The main problem with this film is that it’s simply far too long. A 3-hour running time is more suited to a Biblical epic than a cartoon-ish comedy, particularly when you consider that the audience who are most likely to enjoy this are small children. The other problem is the casting. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis must have seemed like an inspired idea at the planning stage, but they fall quite flat here. In the Ruritanian scenes in particular Lemmon just gets on my nerves. Natalie Wood has had a lot of criticism as the token girl, but I think she’s good. She tries her best, she looks marvellous, and she’s the main reason I watch this when it rolls round on TV these days. She hated the film, and didn’t want to do it, and from what I can gather suffered from endless sexual pestering from the two male leads. (This was disputed by Curtis, who said her breasts weren’t big enough for him). She also had to put up with Blake Edwards concentrating on the male stars, and treating her as secondary. The filming of this sounds like a miserable experience, and this somehow translates itself to the film. Some scenes, which should have been rib-ticklingly hilarious, fall horribly flat. The Western bar-room brawl scene for instance, made very little impact on my funny bone, except for a brief guffaw when Natalie kicks bar-room singer Dorothy Provine in the butt! The grand show-stopping finale was meant to be the custard pie fight to end them all. This took 4 days to film, and at the end of each day all the actors had to be photographed, so that they could be smeared with exactly the same gunk when they turned up for work the following day. They must have been utterly sick of it by the end. The pies were real pies, made of rich ingredients, not the usual shaving-foam efforts which clowns use. It’s all gloriously gloopy and messy, but is it funny? AGAIN, something doesn’t seem to quite work. The ultimate gag is that Curtis wanders through the scene, immaculate, only to get socked with a pie at the end, but the timing was all off. (Don’t ask me how, it just was). There’s few things more depressing in comedy than watching all-out slapstick which doesn’t work. According to Wikipedia, when Blake Edwards finally shouted “Cut!” the fed-up cast and crew bombarded him with pies. They should have put that in, (in a sort of Blazing Saddles break-the-fourth-wall way) I suspect it would have been far funnier! The film performed under-whelmingly at the box office on release, suffering from comparisons with Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines. The Great Race is certainly worth a look for fans of vintage comedy, but the whole thing can feel very laboured.
THE GREAT ST TRINIAN’S TRAIN ROBBERY (1966)
Dirs: Sidney Gilliat & Frank Launder
Not exactly on a par with the fondly-remembered Alastair Sim/Joyce Grenfell ones of the 1950s, but still an enjoyable bit of fun, helped enormously by Frankie Howerd, who plays one of a band of crooks planning a bullion theft, only to find that the loot is stored at the notorious girls’ school. Dora Bryan may be no match for the delicious Mr Sim in drag, but she puts in a full and fruity turn as the colourful headmistress who is constantly short of funds.
THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1903)
Dir: Edwin S Porter
No, not Ronnie Biggs and Co, but the film that is usually regarded as the very first Western. Made in 1903, the film is fascinating these days for being made at a time when the Wild West was still in existence. The plot is simple, and does exactly what it says on the tin. A bunch of rogues hold up a train, rob the passengers, and then make off into the woods with their loot. It’s worth watching for the superb ending, when a hard-faced ruffian faces us head-on and fires his gun directly at the camera. All sorts of urban legends surround this scene. It must have been a shocking thing to witness for an audience still new to cinema. Tales abound of people fainting, or fleeing in terror, or even firing back! Some regard it as the inspiration for the pistol-shot opening to the James Bond films.
GRIZZLY MAN (2005)
Dir; Werner Herzog
I brought this largely because of a longstanding fascination with Alaska, but I quickly became engrossed with the story of Timothy Treadwell, an idealistic young American who became obsessed with bears. Werner Herzhog’s film-length documentary is rightly very highly regarded. He doesn’t flinch from showing Treadwell’s flaws as well as his achievements. Treadwell comes across as a very likeable, good-humoured, but impossibly high-minded young man, who simply refused to see things as they really are. Perhaps in some ways it was darkly inevitable that he would come to a doomed ending. He refused to return home at the end of the Summer in Alaska, and instead found himself in the “bear maze”, where he was mauled to death by one of his beloved creatures. To compound the tragedy, his girlfriend Amy also met the same fate. Herzhog wisely doesn’t play us the recording of this, and he advises a close friend of Treadwell’s to never listen to it either. That would have been too much. I’m also fascinated by the character of the enigmatic Amy. Very little is known about her, and Treadwell himself tried to keep her out of film footage and pictures, as he wanted to perpetuate the image of himself as the rugged sole survivor in the wilderness. I’ve read justifiable criticism of Treadwell for not only causing his own death, but hers as well. Yes, I think that’s fair to say, but Treadwell is still an engaging character, even if you do want to give him a good shake at times. There’s not much you can do with sentimental, idealistic people, particularly ones as stubborn as him. This is a beautiful, albeit ultimately tragic film, which thoroughly deserves all the praise it has garnered. ADDENDUM: I recently read a review of Grizzly Man which speculated that Treadwell must have been gay. This is alluding to a bit in the film where a lonely Treadwell speculates that he would have made a good homosexual, but that he preferred the girls. The reviewer seemed to think that Treadwell’s familiarity with men’s loo’s and truck stops as cottaging places gave the game away. Well, to be honest, you don’t have to be a gay man to know about such things these days. The reviewer also points to Treadwell’s general excitability as a sign. Well again, plenty of straight men can get excitable and emotional, so that’s a bit of a simplistic theory. Nevertheless, whatever the truth of the matter, it only confirms what a fascinating, complex character Treadwell was.
GUEST HOUSE PARADISO (1999)
Dir: Adrian Edmondson
This is a bit of a guilty secret this one (or not-so-secret, now it’s here). I’ve seen it rated as The Worst Film Ever Made. There’s probably a good case to argue for that one, but I would rank a truly bad film as one that wild horses wouldn’t make me ever watch again, not unless I was strapped to a chair and had my eyes peeled back, like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, and that isn’t the case with this one. I think it helps if you’re a fan of Rik Mayall and Ade Edmonson. I am, and I loved Bottom, which still makes me laugh over 20 years on. It’s gross, lavatorial humour, which to be honest isn’t usually my thing, but I love these guys so much I don’t care. They are aces at slapstick comedy, and watching some of their antics it’s easy to see how they’ve managed to get themselves put in hospital a few times. Anyway, the plot (as it were): Our heroes are running a guest-house, (situated next to a nuclear reactor), in which a comely French actress takes refuge from her selfish lover (the sexy Vincent Cassels, which is another bonus for me, but it’s probably not a film he wants recorded on his CV). Cue lots of sex-starved jokes about Rik and Eddy finding themselves with a pretty girl on their hands. It’s predictable, it’s not remotely high-brow, and some may find it an offensive waste of time. The final part of the film, which outdoes The Exorcist for its use of projectile vomiting admittedly is too much even for me, but up until then I found it hilarious. The wonderful Fenella Fielding also pops up as one of the boys’ resident guests, a dotty old lady called Mrs Foxfur. I watched the dvd extras where Fenella talks about the film, and she clearly loved doing it. It’s undemanding fun, but it might put you off your dinner. ADDENDUM: Sadly, Rik Mayall died whilst I’ve been putting this blog together. I don’t think there are many celebrities whose passing has affected me quite so much. RIP.