SJH’S FILM REVIEWS Part 5 R-Z
Work-in-progress Part 5 R-Z
RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK (1966)
Dir: Don Sharp
Elegant offering from Hammer, using the same sets and many of the same actors from Dracula Prince Of Darkness. OK it’s not exactly Nicholas And Alexandra (see above), and Tom Baker will always be the definitive Rasputin for me, but this is an enjoyable little number. Christopher Lee gives an exuberant performance as the mad monk, and Barbara Shelley adds some glamour as Sonia, the spoilt aristocrat who becomes obsessed with him. Not a film to watch if you’re after historical accuracy, and the ending feels a bit flat when you consider the utterly weird circumstances in which Rasputin did die, but it’s still a creditable effort from Hammer.
REAR WINDOW (1954)
Dir: Alfred Hitchcock
You can argue until you’re blue in the face that Vertigo or Psycho or The Birds are Hitchcock’s best films, and you’re probably right, but I love Rear Window. The plot: James Stewart is confined to a wheelchair, having broken both his legs on a photography assignment. Bored and confined to his apartment, he is reduced to watching the daily lives of his neighbours. All is not what it seems though. When a fretful bedridden woman suddenly disappears, Jimmy becomes convinced that her great lug of a husband (Raymond Burr) has done away with her. It’s a great idea for a story, but for me it’s the daily lives of the neighbours which are most fascinating. Miss Torso, the high-kicking dancer, Miss Lonely Hearts, who picks up strange men in bars, the feisty old lady with her abstract sculptures, and the songwriter desperately hoping for a big hit. There are some great set pieces here, most particularly the thunderstorm scene. Also stars Grace Kelly at her most elegant and alluring.
Dir: Alfred Hitchcock
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”, one of the most memorable opening lines in English literature, and the start to Daphne du Maurier’s classic novel of a young woman haunted by her husband’s first wife. The story of the filming of ‘Rebecca’ could make a film in its own right. Alfred Hitchcock wanted Cary Grant to play Maxim de Winter. He was busy elsewhere, so Laurence Olivier was hired instead. Olivier wanted his wife Vivien Leigh to play Miss No-Name (we never find out who the narrator is called). Instead Joan Fontaine was hired, and Olivier made no effort to conceal his dislike of her. Poor Joan was also given a hard time by Hitchcock, who bullied her and told her no one liked her. Some argue he did this to coax out her superb performance as this nervy, anxious young woman, although Hitch had a notoriously troubled relationship with his leading ladies. In fact, actors generally he was reputed to have referred to as “cattle”. Then we have Hitch wanting to call Miss No-Name “Daphne” after the author, an idea which was strongly resisted by Du Maurier. Well all that ultimately worked to the good, because over 70 years on this is still rightly regarded as a classic. Some have argued that Joan is too beautiful to play Miss No-Name, but frankly who cares? She is lovely in this. Miss No-Name could so easily have been an irritating ninny, constantly apologising for her own existence, but Joan makes her very endearing. We empathise with her, having to deal with all these uber-confident upper-class people. Judith Anderson plays the definitive Mrs Danvers. I’ve not seen anyone else who comes anywhere close to her here, not even Diana Rigg in the TV version. One critic pointed out that we never seen Mrs D entering or leaving a room, she is always simply THERE, snakelike in her floor-length black dresses. The photography is beautiful, and the house is superbly done. Joan timidly wanders through it, dwarfed by the immensity of its size. I can’t write about the house without thinking of the bit where Joan sees the faithful old dog sleeping on the spooky landing outside Rebecca’s room. A word must also be said about Florence Bates, who appears in the first part of the film as Joan’s employer, the vulgar, plain-speaking Mrs Van Hopper. I know we’re supposed to dislike this dreadful woman with her overbearing nature, but I think she’s brilliant, and a welcome antidote to all the painful, clipped upper-class Englishness of Sir Larry. Dig the scene where she stubs out her cigarette in a pot of cold cream!
THE REBEL (1961)
Dir: Robert Day
Tony Hancock was a much-loved comic icon of TV and radio, and yet his film career didn’t really reach the dizzy heights that perhaps was expected. Both The Rebel and The Punch And Judy Man were generally greeted with indifference and an air of disappointment at the time of their release in the early 1960s. I can only assume that people were expecting a continuation of the popular sitcom Hancock character, the lad from East Cheam, and weren’t ready for big-screen Hancock. And yet I feel time has been kind to The Rebel. Watching it again now after a gap of many years, I found it kept me involved, and was genuinely funny. In this our hero is a bored, unsatisfied 9-to-5er, fed up with his stultifying office job, and longing to be an artistic genius. The only problem is he has absolutely no talent whatsoever, a fact which everyone else is aware of, apart from him! He escapes his humdrum life and flees to Paris, where he falls in with a fellow artist, and finds himself becoming part of the art-fart movement. A case of mistaken identify sees him being hailed as a genius at last … unfortunately it’s not for his own work. For absolutely ripping the piss out of the pretentious arty crowd, this film cannot be faulted, and perhaps we’re more up for that these days, than Hancock’s hardcore fans were in the 1960s. Also today perhaps we understand only too well both Hancock’s desire to escape the rat race, and that anyone can be hailed as a genius just by spouting a few airy-fairy words to the right crowd (usually on social-media). TRIVIA CORNER: Look out for Nanette Newman as a 1960s Goth girl, and Oliver Reed appearing briefly, but giving a committed performance as a young artist.
THE REDHEAD FROM WYOMING (1953)
Dir: Lee Sholem
“I’m getting awfully mad”, yes it’s Maureen O’Hara working herself up into another fine old tizz. She was quite scathing about this film, calling it a “stinkeroo”. It’s really not that bad. It’s a pretty by-the-number colourful old Western, and in that it serves it’s purpose. Maureen plays Cattle Kate, newly back in town, and set up as the local saloon bar hostess. At the same time she finds herself caught up in a cattle-rustling war. But frankly, forget the plot, as the only reason to really watch the film is to look at Maureen, something which is always a pleasure.
THE REMAINS OF THE DAY (1993)
Dir: James Ivory
Well-made and deeply-moving film about a man who sacrifices his entire self in the service of his employer. Anthony Hopkins is superb as a butler who has buried his emotional side so deep he would need a bulldozer to excavate it again. He manages to make this walking automaton both sympathetic and curiously loveable. He is ably supported by a fine cast. Emma Thompson as a Joyce Grenfell-ish housekeeper, Edward Fox as a misguided aristocrat who, in his desperate wish to never see a repeat of World War 1, innocently sucks up to Nazi’s. Peter Vaughan as Butler The Elder, who can’t quit being of service even when he is seriously ill. It’s a beautiful film, and a fascinating insight into the generations of people who put aside their own lives in order to wait upon others who were often far from deserving of such a sacrifice.
THE REPTILE (1966)
Dir: John Gilling
Enjoyable little effort from the Hammer Horror stable. Shot on the same sets as Plague Of The Zombies, The Reptile is set in a small Cornish village, which is being plagued by a series of mysterious deaths. A young married couple arrive to take up residence in a pretty cottage on the moors, and quickly become aware that all is not right with the doctor and his beautiful daughter who live in the big house over the way. Some fine acting in this low-budget horror, particularly from Michael Ripper as the worldly-wise publican, and John Laurie as the wild-eyed village eccentric. The story might be silly (it’s a horror film for god’s sake), but it builds up nicely to an exciting climax.
Dir: Roman Polanski
Outstanding thriller from Roman Polanski. Shot in black-and-white, it stars Catherine Deneuvre as a young French girl living in London. She shares a gloomy flat with her sister, and works at a beauty salon. But all is not well with this dreamy, pretty girl. She’s nervy, anxious, and acutely lonely. When her sister leaves her alone in the flat, her mental state disintegrates completely. There are some stock Polanski favourites here, like the forbidding old apartment block, where you feel alienated from your neighbours. Plus Hitchcockian touches, such as the convent next door, and the girl becoming transfixed by her own reflection in the side of a kettle. It’s not the cheeriest of films, and watching it again after a gap of many years, I found it almost too much, but there’s no denying that this is a work of genius, and it starts quietly, building to a frightening climax.
RETURN FLIGHT (1972)
One of a series of ghost stories aired by the BBC in the winter of 1972, in the Dead Of Night series. In this one Peter Barkworth is an airline pilot who, on flying a commercial plane back to Blighty, sees an unknown craft flying close by. At first I was hoping it’d turn into some kind of UFO tale, but no it’s a ghost story. From then on, he becomes convinced that he is being haunted by his late wife’s first husband, who was a fighter pilot, killed in WW2. I have to say the story didn’t really do it for me. I get a bit tired of this kind of WW2 ghost story to be honest (been done too often), but, if you like a subtle supernatural tale then it may well do it for you. The final segment also has a flight full of extraordinarily well-behaved and amicable football supporters en-route to an England vs Germany game, which feels somewhat improbable. I think though we’re supposed to be taken with how civilised England and Germany are now with each other, compared to the War. Sweet, but not very subtle.
THE RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER (1975)
Dir: Blake Edwards
I suspect most comedy buffs have their favourite Pink Panther film, and whilst many hold out for A Shot In The Dark, I would have to pick this one. Peter Sellers is on splendid form, and performs probably my favourite Clouseau stunt, where he does a Keith Moon and drives his car into a swimming-pool (not once, but twice). How a man who could bring us so much happiness on screen and yet be a monster off it, is one of the great mysteries of the Universe. “Give me ten men like Clouseau and I could destroy the world”.
RING OF SPIES (1964)
Dir: Robert Tronson
Fascinating British thriller about the Portland spy scandal of the early 1960s. Harry Houghton (Bernard Lee), sent back to England after drunkenly disgracing himself at an Embassy party in Warsaw, is – inexplicably – given an office job at the top secret underwater weapons establishment at Portland. Hooking up with Elizabeth Gee (the excellent Margaret Tyzack), he begins passing secret documents to the Russians. Although it starts off a bit ropey, Ring Of Spies turns into a competent little number, giving an intriguing look into the world of Cold War spies and the secret services. Margaret Tyzack, with her strong gaze, and aura of quiet intensity, steals the film for me, as the prim civil servant who gets a taste of the high life, and rather more than she bargained for. A fellow viewer told me that he would have preferred it if things weren’t presented as going quite so smoothly for the spy-catchers. Can understand that, and the bit with the two women disguised as nuns in the car can feel like over-egging it somewhat. Even so, I would rate Ring Of Spies as one of my favourite films on this list. I was delighted to finally track it down on dvd. TRIVIA CORNER: in spite of the fact that her antics with Harry landed her with a 15-year jail sentence (though both were released early in 1970), Ethel (as she was called in real life) actually went on to marry Harry. Love can be a strange old thing.
RIPLEY’S GAME (2002)
Dir: Liliana Cavani
John Malkovich is on suitably reptilian form as the ageing Tom Ripley, and slithers through the film in a cold-bloodedly, villainous way. Yet I don’t rate him. I think in fairness it’s because for me Matt Damon is Tom Ripley, and that’s all there is to it. Ripley comes out of retirement to persuade a man with a serious illness, who is in urgent need of money, to carry out an assassination job for him. It’s not a bad film, I’ve watched it more than once, and found it very engrossing, but Malkovich is just … ugh. I’m sorry, but UGH!! There is a scene where he’s trying to seduce his wife, and crawling all over her like some repulsive old worm (wearing a mac, to add insult to injury). I also found the young trainee assassin’s wife immensely irritating. She seems to spend all her time looking pained, and wincing when she speaks. Much has been made of the garotting scene on the train, and yes, it certainly does have a strong Hitchcockian flavour, but at the same time I kept wondering when someone was going to appear shouting “tickets please!” or pushing a refreshments trolley.
THE RISE OF CATHERINE THE GREAT (1934)
Dir: Paul Czinner
This film suffered the misfortune to be released the same year as The Scarlet Empress (see below), and it seemed the public couldn’t take two lots of Catherine in one year. Which is a pity, as this is a solid production, it’s just that it lacked Marlene Dietrich, and the all-round exuberance and visual splendour of it’s rival. Elisabeth Bergner is a quirkily charming Catherine, more self-assured than Dietrich’s version, and Flora Robson bellows a bit as the Empress Elizabeth. But the revelation for me was Douglas Fairbanks Jnr as mad Peter. Fairbanks was a dashing matinee idol, and although he is far more handsome than by all accounts Peter was, he still gives a stunning portrayal of him, showing Peter’s paranoia, and his descent into insanity. The film plays fast-and-loose with historical accuracy a bit. As far as I know there was precious little affection between Catherine and Peter in real life, and I’m not exactly convinced that Catherine was as wholly innocent in his murder as the film would like us to believe, but if you treat it as a love story which didn’t stand a chance against Peter’s developing madness, then it works just fine. In fact, the scene where they have an intimate supper together, you can’t help wishing history could have turned out just a little differently (I liked the neat touch of having a manservant discreetly creeping behind them to turn the bed down). I was quite swept away by Fairbanks in this. I can quite see how he was the heart-throb of his era.
THE RISE OF THE KRAYS (2015)
Dir: Zackary Adler
Was astonished to see the savaging which this low-budget biopic received on the IMDb site. I thought it was a very competent attempt to strip away all the silly maudlin romanticising that goes on about the thug brothers sometimes. This is the first of a two-parter, which leads up to the Krays at the pinnacle of their power in Swinging Sixties London. It is true that Kevin Leslie doesn’t really seem right as Reggie, (he doesn’t seem to fit the era at all, seeming to be too modern all round), but Simon Cotton’s portrayal of the lunatic Ron is masterly. Some of the graphic violence does feel a bit relentless at times, but I can forgive the film anything for the confrontation between detective Nipper Read (Danny Midwinter) and Ron at the nightclub. At the risk of sounding like I’m going all Pseud’s Corner, it felt like a classic Good vs Evil confrontation. The extent of the British Establishment’s interfering in the original investigation is depressing, and sadly unsurprising. Some have complained that there’s not enough emphasis on the Twins’ mother, but frankly I had a basinful of Violet from Billie Whitelaw in the Kemp bros’ version (The Krays, see above). This isn’t about the daft women who pampered these men, but the violent antics of the Twins themselves. The story concludes in THE FALL OF THE THE KRAYS. I want to mention a couple of criticisms I’ve read of it which I think are valid. One is that the plot is very confusing. I think it does help if you know the story of the Krays when you come to this. If you don’t, then it will just seem like a lot of angry men all stomping around and yelling at each other (and that’s just the police). The other is that a crucial point in the plot is when Ron – who in real life was rather flabby by this point – loses it because he’s called “a fat poof”. The trouble is, Simon Cotton is very gaunt and lean, so that makes a nonsense of it. Again, this will baffle anyone who doesn’t know the real story. Nevertheless I still think he does a fine job as mad Ron. The story revolves around Ron as Reg’s demonic other half. Not quite as simplistic as Bad Twin/Good Twin, but along those lines (although more like Psycho Twin/Pathetic Twin). Ron becomes an almost supernatural creature in this, constantly egging Reg on to commit more evil. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s a valiant attempt to do a non-sympathetic non-glamorous view of the twins.
ROBOT MONSTER (1953)
Dir: Robert Tucker
Sometimes when someone tells you a film is one of the worst ever made, it pays to believe them. Naturally, this film has acquired cult status because it belongs in the so-bad-it’s-almost-good category. If you watch this film drunk, and in the company of fun like-minded people, then it’s probably very entertaining. If you watch it alone and stone-cold sober as I did (that was a silly thing to do), it’s well-nigh unbearable. Seemingly made in someone’s back yard in 1953, probably for about a few dollars, and running at just over an hour in length – and believe me, that’s more than long enough – this film is absolutely atrocious. The only good thing I can think of to say about it is that it does try quite hard to give us an interesting story, but the trouble is it completely ballsed it up in execution. The plot (as far as I can gather) is that it’s set in some post-apocalyptic world, where six people are the sole survivors. They have to live in a back yard barricaded by electric wiring, because there’s some alien/monster/thingy lurking up in the mountains who, given half a chance, will bore them to death. And that’s one of the biggest problems with this film … the monster is absolutely skull-numbingly tedious. I can forgive it being one of the most ridiculous-looking creatures ever seen on film, because I’m up for a laugh as much as the next person. So indeed we get a man in a gorilla suit with a diving helmet on his head, to which a television aerial has been fastened. What I can’t forgive though is just what a crashing bore this creature is. He speaks in a pompous, Yoda-esque way (usually via some 1950s z-movie equivalent of Skype), and when he’s not chuntering on and wagging his finger at people, he’s sort of moseying around the countryside, or fiddling with his silly boxes outside the entrance to his cave. He’s about as frightening as a civil servant lecturing you about office waste, and every bit as tedious. NO ONE is scared of this creature. At one point the older woman in the survivor’s group says “perhaps one of us should go and talk to him”, as though he’s a vaguely irritating neighbour, which completely robs the film of any excitement or tension it might otherwise have had. And the human (sorry hu-MAN) characters are bland, and can’t act for toffee. There is an all-American little boy called Johnny (less said the better), and his sister who walks around clutching a doll and saying “can we play house now?” We have the babe of the group who, naturally, has hysterics and has to end up being tied-up with cable-wire for her own good, and a boring “hunk” who manages to get his t-shirt ripped very artistically. And at the beginning some toy rubber dinosaurs put in an appearance, but I have no idea what that was about at all. I think I’m making this sound a lot more fun than it is. Strictly for connoisseurs of trash, for whom this is obligatory viewing.
A ROYAL NIGHT OUT (2015)
Dir: Julian Jarrold
Fluffy, girly bit of nonsense based on the true story of when the Queen and Princess Margaret were allowed out of Buckingham Palace to mingle with the crowds on VE Night 1945. By all accounts the girls didn’t do much more than have a bit of a dance in the street, and join in the crowds calling for the King at the Palace gates, but I guess that wouldn’t make much of a film. It scarcely seems much point reviewing this film, because I think it really is a matter of personal taste. It’s the kind of thing you’ll either enjoy, or regard as nonsense. Rupert Everett is excellent as the ailing, chain-smoking King, although I found Emily Watson a bit too grim and stuffy as the Queen Mother. TRIVIA CORNER: In the real story, Princess Elizabeth wore her ATS uniform to go out, not her party frock, and was castigated by her chaperone for trying to pull her hat over her eyes, so she wouldn’t be recognised, saying he wouldn’t go out with an officer who was improperly dressed. One of my favourite royal anecdotes.
THE RUNAWAY BUS (1954)
Dir: Val Guest
A vintage Brit comedy oddity this one. Well worth watching for the loveable Frankie Howerd, as a bus driver who has to transport a motley collection of passengers through a thick peasouper fog. Our Francis virtually carries the entire film, although he has sterling support from the magnificent Margaret Rutherford. Unfortunately Dame Maggie’s character here is less sympathetic than normal (I don’t think I can quite take to her as a villain at all!). Also worth watching for the use of Imber, a Wiltshire village which had been evacuated during World War 2, and to this day is left abandoned, only used by the Ministry of Defence.
RYAN’S DAUGHTER (1970)
Dir: David Lean
Well-made epic about the doomed romance between a married Irish woman, Rosy Shaugnessy (Sarah Miles) and a British army major (Christopher Jones) during World War One. When I saw this I was instantly reminded of Madame Bovary, so I wasn’t surprised to read later on that that was writer Robert Bolt’s original idea. David Lean wasn’t happy with it, and suggested that the Bovary story being transported to another time and setting. Sarah Miles is spot-on as the fey, impossibly romantic Rosy, a woman out of kilter with the strict Catholic small-town mentality of her community. She makes her more sympathetic than I often find Bovary clones to be. It’s not perfect though. Robert Mitchum is so hunky, gentle and cute as Rosy’s cuckolded husband that it’s hard to imagine any woman cheating on him, even if he is so strait-laced that he doesn’t feel comfortable drinking tea with his shirt off! And I’m afraid I find John Mills’s village idiot intensely irritating. We get far too much of him. He’s pertinent to a couple of scenes, but there really isn’t any need for him to keep cropping up all the time. Mills famously won an Oscar for playing a character that never speaks, and yet I don’t think it merits all that acclaim. Any old fool could cram a bad set of dentures into their mouth, and give gormless expressions. It’s far too overdone, there’s just no subtlety in his performance. The film as a whole was savaged on release. One reviewer even went so far as to call it “a piece of bullshit”. This saddened Robert Mitchum, who (quite rightly) regarded his portrayal of school-master Charles as one of his best performances, and Christopher Jones became so disillusioned with the whole thing that he retired from acting completely. Time has been much kinder to it. It’s a good story, with some fine performances, immaculate attention to period detail, and the photography is stunning. A flawed masterpiece.
SAILOR BEWARE (1956)
Dir: Gordon Parry
The incomparable Peggy Mount is the Mother-In-Law-From-Hell in this British comedy, about a sailor preparing to marry Shirley Eaton, and having second thoughts when he meets her dragon of a mother. Peggy is the main reason to watch this now, as she is on fine form. She carries the entire film. Gordon Jackson’s penny-pinching Scot routine is a bit wearying, as it seemed no comedy was complete without this at one time. Otherwise, an enjoyable bit of harmless vintage fun.
SALO, OR THE 120 DAYS Of SODOM (1975)
Dir: Pier Paulo Pasolini
Based on the Marquis de Sade’s 100 Days Of Sodom – once described as “the most gruesome book ever written” – Salo was inevitably going to be controversial, and so it was, being banned for many years both in the UK and the United States. But times change, and Salo has since been released into the wild, and has even appeared on British television. Pasolini updated the novel from the 18th century to 1940s Fascist Italy, but the essence of the book remains the same: a bunch of depraved elites kidnap young people and subject them to torture and sexual degradation. It’s not an easy watch by any means, and in these days when we’re constantly hearing about paedophile rings and sex slaves it will strike a particularly unsettling chord. It is of interest to film fans mainly to see a movie which pushes boundaries of taste and sensitivity to the limit and then beyond. It features quite possibly the most grotesque scene I’ve ever witnessed in a film: that of the mock-wedding (I’ll omit the main theme of the mock-wedding for sensitive readers, or anyone with a delicate stomach). The montage of torture scenes at the end is also extremely uncomfortable to watch. TRIVIA CORNER: Pasolini used the music of Carl Orff at the end, as he regarded Orff as the most fascist composer. I can’t hear that sequence even now without thinking of Salo. Eerie.
Dir: William Dieterle
Rita Hayworth dons the seven veils to perform in front of a leering Charles Laughton in this undemanding little Biblical number. In this adaptation Salome is an innocent character, set up by her evil mother Queen Herodias (Judith Anderson), to dance for King Herod (Laughton), so that he can be reduced to a slobbering mess, and the Queen can induce him to cut off the head of John The Baptist (Alan Badel). The highlight of the film is very much Rita Hayworth’s dance, and she is marvellously graceful to look at. Badel’s hysterical over-acting as John The Baptist though almost nudges things into Life Of Brian territory at times.
SAMSON AND DELILAH (1949)
Dir: Cecil B de Mille
What you would expect from a Cecil B de Mille epic really. A hunky Victor Mature plays the man whose hair is blessed by God, and exotic Hedy Lamarr as the sultry woman who will be his nemesis. Although it has it’s share of spectacle, I found it oddly muted. That might be because I came to it very soon after watching Quo Vadis, which swept me away with the scale of it’s spectacle. Samson And Delilah, by comparison, felt too soapy. There were too many long scenes where not much happened, except characters having tortured but fairly dull conversations with one another. It’s also hampered by a very young Russ Tamblyn (an actor I normally love) as Saul, whose accent makes him sound as if he should be in a beach-side coffee-bar in Los Angeles. Olive Deering has to accept the thankless role as the Plain Christian, Miriam. And this particular one really does seem to spend the entire film frowning in disapproval, and adopting an insufferably superior attitude to everything. This is a shame, as going by her picture in Wikipedia, she seems a much more quirky actress than she’s given the chance to be here. Hedy meanwhile has a ballet dancer’s grace, and she gives the role a little something extra. Angela Lansbury puts up a good fight in the glamour department, as her love rival Semadar, but sadly is killed off halfway through. The final sequence, when Samson rips the Temple apart with his bare hands, is everything you’d expect from a Cecil B de Mille film, and Hedy looks glorious in her peacock cloak.
Dir: Michael Caton-Jones
Film based on the Profumo Scandal which rocked Britain in 1963. Joanne Whalley plays good-time girl Christine Keeler, a teenage nightclub dancer, who was taken up by high society osteopath Dr Stephen Ward (a brilliant performance by John Hurt), to seduce both government minister John Profumo, and a top-ranking Russian, Ivanov. This was at the height of the Cold War. The resulting scandal brought down the Tory government of the time. I remember there was a lot of criticism of this film when it came out in 1989. Some were outraged by all the sex on display (the title should have been a bit of a give-away really), meanwhile others were outraged by how lame it was. Joanne Whalley and Bridget Fonda (Mandy Rice-Davis) are well-cast as the girls, and there is stylish use of the music of the era, but it all has a bit of a lightweight feel to it, considering the seriousness of the subject matter. It’s as if it wants to shock … but not too much. Should be about time for a remake surely?
THE SCARLET CLAW (1944)
Dir: Roy William Neill
Enjoyable vintage Sherlock Holmes tale, starring the successful screen partnership of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. I know there are some who haven’t warmed to this big screen adaptation of Holmes and Watson. Purists didn’t like the way Hollywood updated them to modern times, others simply hated Nigel Bruce’s portrayal of Dr Watson as a bumbling buffoon. But watching this again just now I found it hard to be critical. OK Bruce isn’t in the league of Edward Hardwicke or David Burke, but he’s a loveable cove. As I see it Watson is important because he humanises Holmes, who would be too cold, clinical and intellectual otherwise. And in this film Watson doesn’t strike me as buffoonish so much as a bit too meek at times. He lets Holmes get away with being too bossy, and has a tendency to apologise for his existence. But as a partnership it works. By being genial and bumbling, Watson can win over people’s trust and confidence far more than the austere Holmes could. Anyway, the plot: a terrible monster is stalking a small Canadian village, tearing out people’s throats (cripes). After yet another murder Holmes, who is attending an Occult convention in Quebec, is called in. Naturally, Holmes doesn’t believe it’s a monster at all, but a simple case of murder. In some ways the story resembles The Hound Of The Baskervilles, but re-located across the pond to Canada, so we get plenty of stalking about in fog-shrouded countryside, and warnings of a terrible creature on the loose. Holmes’s flag-waving speech right at the end might jar a bit now, but you have to put it into the context of the time it was made. The Sherlock films were meant to be wartime morale-boosters when all’s said and done. A word on Basil Rathbone: you can see why for many he was the definitive Holmes. I have a soft spot for Jeremy Brett, but even he said he was reluctant to take on the role as Rathbone had made the part his own. I’m not going to argue who was the better Holmes, they were both superb, and both should be enjoyed.
THE SCARLET EMPRESS (1934)
Dir: Josef von Sternberg
This isn’t so much a film as a work of art. I remember somebody once saying that you could watch it with the sound off and simply absorb the fantastic sets and costumes. Marlene Dietrich plays Catherine The Great in her younger days. The film charts her time from a frivolous German princess to her blood-soaked accession as the mighty Russian empress. Dietrich is at her most beautiful and captivating. Watch the scene where she waits, wide-eyed and nervous at the altar, her anxious breath causing the candle to flicker on and off. Sam Jaffe is her nutty bridegroom, snarling and bonkers by turn. And the sets! Like a crazy Bosch-like dreamscape. Huge doors which it takes a gaggle of people to push open together. Grotesque statues leering over the backs of the dining-chairs. Louise Dresser may seem more Brooklyn than St Petersburg as Catherine’s formidable mother-in-law, the Empress Elizabeth, but she is fantastic, particularly in the scene where she gets tipsy at the wedding feast, or when she plays hairdresser to Catherine. The final scene where Catherine, neat and dapper in officer’s uniform, organises the Cossack horseback charge up the palace steps is still thrilling all these decades on. Maria Riva, Dietrich’s daughter, crops up in the first scene playing Catherine as a solemn toddler. She would later write a hatchet-job biography of her mother. Dietrich’s legend lives on though. As it should.
THE SCARS OF DRACULA (1970)
Dir: Roy Ward Baker
By this point Hammer’s Dracula cannon had pretty much run its course, and this was to be a distinctly underwhelming swansong to what had been a highly lucrative (and imaginative) series of films. Christopher Lee protested like mad that he didn’t want to be typecast, yet he was still happy to take the shilling and return for one more go, and I guess we should be grateful he did, as without him the film would be pretty pointless. Patrick Troughton and Michael Ripper also work hard to give the film some gravitas. But the problem is we’re lumbered with Dennis Waterman (an actor I’ve always found horribly unappealing, and here he’s saddled with a posh voice to boot), and Jenny Hanley, who gives a good impression of a wooden clothes-peg, as the young lovers. There are occasional flashes of the old Hammer brilliance, such as the slaughter of the church congregation, and some nifty abseiling down the outside of Drac’s castle. But the bit near the beginning where old Benny Hill stalwart, Bob Todd, plays the angry father of a trollopy daughter seems to have strayed from some sub-Carry On tits-and-bum rubbish. The acting from the younger members of the cast is generally dire all round. But, having thoroughly slated it, I still tend to watch it when it rolls round on TV, so it must have done something right.
THE SCREAMING SKULL (1958)
Dir: Alex Nicol
Mid-20th century Hollywood (the low budget end of the spectrum I mean) was a truly weird place at times. It’s well worth digging out these black-and-white numbers which were made on a shoestring, but some of the acting can feel like torture. The Screaming Skull is largely memorable for it’s opening scene, in which we are shown a coffin, and a forbidding voiceover telling us that they will offer free burial to anyone who dies of fright whilst watching it. Sadly that’s about the most memorable thing about it. The story has a Rebecca feel, in that a young bride arrives at her new home, only to believe that it’s haunted by the spirit of her husband’s first wife. This woman (the second wife I mean) is very annoying, having the screaming ab-dabs over a window banging in the night. I was largely defeated by the acting.
SCREAM OF FEAR (1961)
Dir: Seth Holt
Moody little Hammer thriller. Susan Strasberg plays Penny, a young lady confined to a wheelchair after a horse-riding accident, who arrives at her father’s villa in the south of France. Her father is away, and she meets her stepmother (Ann Todd) for the first time. Odd things start happening. Although her father is away, she sees his corpse in the summerhouse, and hears piano music when there’s no one playing. Quite a neat little number this, not well-known these days (apart from to Hammer buffs). Christopher Lee plays a French doctor. I’m so used to Ann Todd in her Madeleine Smith incarnation (see above), that I almost didn’t recognise her with short hair, and wearing modern clothes. Also known as Taste Of Fear.
THE SECRET OF THE LOCH (1934)
Dir: Milton Rosmer
British quota quickie made presumably to cash in on the huge Nessie craze of 1933/34. A sort of early monster flick. Journalists are packed off to the north of Scotland to see if they can get a scoop on the Loch Ness Monster. What starts off as a bit of a comedic farce turns into a very low-budget creature feature, with men dressing up in diving gear and encountering Nessie peering at them underwater. It’s very dated in parts, and the hairy kilt-wearing clansman gets a bit tedious, but it’s quirky, and engaging enough if you’re fascinated by anything to do with Nessie. Some nudge-nudge-wink-wink moments too. A female journalist asking if they can find out what Scotsmen wear under their kilts (the saucy minx!), and a tipsy guy on the telephone uttering a caustic remark about fairies at the bottom of the garden, before cutting to two guys doing a comedy ballet routine on a bar table!
THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943)
Dir: Mark Robson
Highly regarded chiller. Directed by Val Lewton of Cat People fame, and very much with a similar feel. Although I do think this one has aged better. It has a definite air of menace about it. Kim Hunter plays Mary, a young girl who comes to New York to try and trace her missing sister, Jacqueline (Jean Brooks, who bears a startling resemblance to Miranda Richardson). She gradually finds out that Jacqueline has fallen in with a bunch of high society devil-worshippers. This must have been a courageous film to make in it’s time, as it doesn’t fit in with the usual comic book-style horror of that era. Apparently it greatly influenced Alfred Hitchcock (look out for the scene where Mary gets an unwelcome visitation in the shower), and like the Master, the film is brilliant at conveying menace in ordinary places. The dead body on the subway train being a prime example of this. It always makes full use of all it’s characters. Even the ones in secondary roles have definite fully-rounded personalities. The one which always sticks in my mind is Mimi, the sick girl in the room next to Jacqueline. The Satanists themselves are played low-key – we’re not talking Wheatley-esque antics here – which makes them even more disturbing. There is a bit of religious moralising towards the end, which feels hamfisted to modern eyes, but on the whole this is still a remarkable thriller.
Dir: Ken Hughes
I had read so much appalling stuff about this film before seeing it, that I was bracing myself for something truly grotesque. And whilst it’s certainly a jaw-dropping experience, it’s not as gothic and awful as some critics would have you believe. In her final movie, 84-year-old Mae West – the queen of the saucy one-liners – gives us some of her old sparkle, even if it can leave you feeling more sad for what-once-was. Miss West reminds me irresistibly of Miss Piggy in human form (I think I mean that as a compliment), only better-humoured. I can’t imagine Miss West karate-chopping poor old Kermit somehow! In this she’s Marla Manners, a movie queen on her sixth husband. She arrives at a plush London hotel, but her plans to consummate her marriage keep getting interrupted, due to her hectic lifestyle. Some of her legendary one-liners can make you cringe when they come out of the mouth of an elderly woman, and the idea of an 80-plus woman letching over a guy in his 30s can feel a bit “eeuw!” but she did make me chuckle a few times. She was certainly a game old girl! Timothy Dalton probably doesn’t want this film on his c.v, but he’s very charming and endearingly awkward as her naive upper-crust hubby. We’re about a million miles from James Bond here. The film is as camp as it comes, with singing-and-dancing hotel staff, and Mae sashaying around in her sequinned drag queen costumes. The support cast includes Ringo Starr, Keith Moon, Alice Cooper, and Tony Curtis (well that’s certainly quite a cast). It’s no classic by any means, and I wouldn’t recommend you shelling out anything for it if you can possibly help it. I found a free copy on YouTube, where it was bizarrely billed as “a Hollywood romantic drama”. TRIVIA CORNER: rumours abound that Miss West had to wear an ear-piece under her wig, and be fed her lines, Sally Morgan-style. Well it’s age. It comes to us all doncha know.
SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE (2000)
Dir: E Elias Merhige
Max Shreck, the star of the original Nosferatu, really was a vampire. That’s the premise of this film about the making of the Silent Era classic. As a story, it’s a great idea, in practice … um … not so much. There’s no shortage of talent in this film. The cast boasts John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Eddie Izzard (the best thing about it in my opinion), and Catherine McCormack, but the film doesn’t ever seem to be clear what it wants to be. At times it’s funny enough to be a comedy, and yet I have a feeling it wants to be a horror film, except it doesn’t work as one. It is a fascinating insight into the making of a silent film, and yet there is always a problem with these films-about-the-making-of-a-film in that you can simply end up wishing you were watching the original instead. TRIVIA CORNER: the real-life Max Shreck (whose name translated as “terror”) was simply a dedicated actor, both of stage and film, who appeared in a variety of genres (Nosferatu was his only excursion into horror), and who died of a heart-attack in 1936. Apparently he had a quirky sense of humour though, so I hope he’d like this somewhat unorthodox tribute to him!
THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994)
Dir: Frank Darabont
Just in case, by some miracle, you’ve never seen this, the story is about Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), who is sentenced to life imprisonment in the 1940s for the murder of his wife and her lover. In spite of his protestations of innocence he is sent to the brutal Shawshank Penitentiary. The story follows his many years of imprisonment, and culminates in his final clever (a bit TOO clever if you ask me) escape. Often hailed as one of the greatest films ever made, Shawshank has a hallowed status amongst films. When I first saw it several years ago I found it an emotional experience, and I remember watching it with tears pouring down my face. That awe of it stayed with me for a long time, and yet these days familiarity seems to have bred contempt (for me anyway). Watching it again I still find it well-made, and a good story, but it’s also dull, too long, and too far-fetched. Andy is a cardboard character, and (please excuse me, I’m aware that what I’m about to write is outright heresy) I CANNOT STAND MORGAN FREEMAN’S VOICE! There. Said it. Which is unfortunate, as not only does he have leading role in it, but he narrates it too. Every five minutes we seem to have Mr Freeman intoning some tedious detail about poor little Andy’s traumatic existence. “Andy spent a month in the hole”, “Andy’s library was destroyed”. And then poor little Andy manages to hatch some deeply convoluted plan to escape, which all goes incredibly smoothly, and he has his revenge on the prison’s sadistic governor. A happy ending all around (apart from for Mr Nasty, the prison governor of course). POSSIBLE SPOILER (just in case, as I said, by some miracle you haven’t seen it yet): I have watched this film several times, and I still struggle to believe that Andy manages to hack away an enormous hole in his cell wall with a little hammer, over several years, tunnelling his way out, AND NOBODY EVER SUSPECTS ANYTHING. Huh. Some maximum security prison that is.
Dirs: Lancing C Holden, Irving Pichel
I found out about this film when I read a snotty review of it in the Official Razzies Guide. Perversely, it made me want to see it, and I tracked down a beautifully colourised version on YouTube. Based on the classic adventure novel by H Rider Haggard, a small party of explorers heads up into the Arctic to see if they can find the fountain of youth. The team – headed by endearing old buffer Nigel Bruce – find a strange colony, who live in caves in the snowy wastes, ruled over by a despotic queen, She Who Must Be Obeyed. The Razzies really laid into Helen Gahagan as the eponymous queen, claiming that she was so bad in the role that she never worked in cinema again. I don’t know how true that is. I looked her up on Wiki, and found that she actually left showbusiness in the 1940s to pursue a career in politics. Anyway, she’s not that bad. In fact, she brings something quirky and different to the role, than merely presenting her as some kind of Ice Goddess. The film was made to cash in on the success of King Kong (in fact the big gates from Kong appear in this one as the entrance to She’s abode), but was hampered by not having the budget to be released in colour. Since then, I think time has been kinder to it. It’s a first-rate adventure story, and there’s something about She – holed up in her ice palace, ruling her subjects by fear alone, which it is quite compelling. Ignore the Razzies, it’s well worth seeking out.
Dir: Robert Day
Fun adaptation, by Hammer, of H Rider Haggard’s novel. Unlike it’s predecessor from 30 years earlier (see above), it restores the tale to the hot climes of the original story. Peter Cushing, Bernard Cribbins and John Richardson are in Palestine in 1918, having just completed military duty. They hear about a strange kingdom in the wilds of Africa. Venturing forth they find it is ruled by Ayesha, She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, the immortal Queen, who believes Richardson is the reincarnation of her long-lost love. Ursula Andress looks magnificent in a billowing robe as the eponymous She, although I find it hard to believe that she would strike mortal terror into anybody! The film jogs along at a nice pace, and there are plenty of exciting moments. I still find the ending, where Ayesha steps out of the immortal flame, quite spooky.
SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1939)
Dir: Sidney Lanfield
Classy adaptation of the popular story, starring the great screen partnership of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson. What I was pleasantly surprised by with this film is how faithfully it stayed close to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original tale. So much so that some screen-shots look remarkably like the original black-and-white illustrations. Nigel Bruce is much less buffoon-ish in this film. In fact, he’s more the quietly capable, slightly sharp Watson we’ve become used to in later adaptations, which is good because Holmes disappears for a large chunk of the middle of the story, leaving Watson to carry it on his own. Also interesting to see how 1930s Hollywood had to clean up some aspects of Conan Doyle’s story, so in this version Beryl Stapleton (the lovely Wendy Barrie) has to stay as Stapleton’s sister throughout, and not his secret wife. Hilariously, at the very end, Holmes cries “Watson! The needle!” alluding of course to Holmes’s cocaine habit. Naturally, this couldn’t be mentioned in this version, so anyone unfamiliar with the Holmes character might be forgiven for thinking he was about to darn his socks! A must-see for Holmes fans.
SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE SPIDER WOMAN (1944)
Dir: Roy William Neill
Rathbone and Bruce team up once more, this time to take on a mysterious woman, a female Moriarty no less, Adrea Spedding (Gale Sondergaard), who may be responsible for some alleged “suicides”. Holmes fakes his own death to go undercover, and finds out that this dark lady’s modus operandi is to poison them by letting a deadly spider loose in their bedrooms. The deadly spider creeping onto the bed was originally used by Conan Doyle in his story The Speckled Band, but using a snake. The big fat spider used in this film puts the one crawling over Bond in Dr No to shame. It’s not for arachnophobes at all. In spite of that, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable film.
SHERLOCK HOLMES BAFFLED (1900)
Dir: Arthur Marvin
The great man’s very first screen outing, all 30 seconds of it. An unknown actor, complete with Noel Coward-style dressing-gown, and puffing on a cigar, disturbs a thief who is ransacking his living-room. Sherlock attempts to shoot the scoundrel, but the thief seems to have the ability to appear and disappear at will. Sherlock of course would go on to become the most filmed fictional character of all time.
SHERLOCK HOLMES FACES DEATH (1943)
Dir: Roy William Neill
Thoroughly enjoyable entry in the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce canon. This one is loosely adapted from Conan Doyle’s original story ‘The Musgrave Ritual’. Watson is working at a country house which has been converted into a convalescent home for traumatised servicemen. A young woman Sally (Hillary Brooke) stands to inherit the house one day, but someone is determined to prevent her. This is a great old-fashioned mystery, with a splendid house, featuring secret passageways, mysterious basements, and a tiled floor which doubles as a human chessboard. Also Watson gets to do more than simply be Holmes’s bumbling sidekick. At the end Holmes does one of his Wartime morale-boosting speeches, announcing that we are coming into a new era where people aren’t obsessed with “grab and greed”, and people are being more selfless and helpful to one another. It’s the sort of thing that can make you cry bitterly when watching it now.
A SHOT IN THE DARK (1964)
Dir: Blake Edwards
Inspector Clouseau (the incomparable Peter Sellers) is sent to investigate a murder at a chateau. One of the maids (Elke Sommer) stands guilty but, naturally, because she is beautiful, the chivalrous inspector is convinced she is innocent. There are some fine slapstick gags in this, most notably Sellers and Elke getting caught driving nude round Paris, and the repeated hapless attempts at killing Clouseau off are hysterical. On RottenTomatoes it’s rated as the best of the Panther series. It’s based on a stage play which didn’t feature Clouseau at all, and Sellers was originally to play a magistrate. ADDENDUM: Ed Sikov does a very good dissection of this film, and the Clouseau character, in his masterly biography of Sellers ‘Mr Strangelove’. Burt Kwouk is quoted as saying that because Sellers was such a very complex character he still fascinates us many years after his death. “Many actors don’t even fascinate us when they’re still alive”.
SHUTTER ISLAND (2010)
Dir: Martin Scorsese
I’m in two minds with this film. One part of me thinks it is an outstanding thriller, the other thinks well yes, but I wasn’t quite so wrapped up in it as I thought I would be. The film starts off in very 1940s film noir territory, with Leonardo diCaprio as Teddy Daniels, a hard-bitten cop, war veteran and reformed alcoholic, being sent to a forbidding island in Boston Harbour. His task is to find out what has happened to a patient in a top security mental hospital, who has vanished without trace from her cell. Once on this strange island he becomes more and more suspicious about some of the hospital staff whom he believes are up to no good. So far so good. The film is a puzzle, and the puzzle keeps unfolding, twisting, baffling and engaging us at every turn. I was pleased with the twists whilst I was watching it, but afterwards I’m left with a sort of uneasy thought-it-might-have-been-better feel. It sort of has a feel that it could have been something truly great, but doesn’t quite get there. There is too strong a feeling of unreality about it I guess, you can see the actors ACTING as it were (not sure if I’m explaining that very well), but to be fair the whole plot is built around a facade and illusion. I think part of the problem was that the trailers made me feel I was going to be getting something far spookier and more frightening. The ending seems to deeply divide people, from what I’ve seen on movie chat-forums, and some professional critics were repelled by its weirdness. I don’t have any problem with weirdness, so that wasn’t a factor for me. I think I would like to see it again, and see how I feel knowing what the true facts of the story are. I can’t help feeling this movie might work even better – for me anyway – when I know what’s going on. Ben Kingsley is very watcheable as smooth Dr Crawley, and diCaprio proves once again that he is one of the finest actors of the present era.
SILENT RUNNING (1972)
Dir: Douglas Trumbull
Or as I think of it The Floating Greenhouse In Space. I’ve read a lot of earnest, serious stuff about this film, but I’m afraid the only bits of it I really remember with fondness are the dinky little robots, who seem to have more character than the flesh-and-blood actors.
Dir: Seve Schelenz
I made a point of not reading up anything at all on this film before viewing, and I think that helped a lot. If I’d found out more about it, I don’t think I’d have enjoyed it as much. It’s in the found footage style, and starts off very Blair Witch, in that three friends are packing up the car and taking off on a road-trip adventure. One of them seems wedded to his video camera, and insists on filming everything, much to his pals’ annoyance at times (again very Blair Witch). The trio clearly have personal issues with each other, and this is the low point of the film for me, as these issues simply aren’t interesting (neither do they seem very important on the great scale of things). And we get far too many tedious soul-baring (soul-destroying?) conversations, which are so boring and dreary you feel like you’ve stumbled into the American version of ‘EastEnders’. The rest of the plot is fine. The trio find themselves becoming plagued by a rash of bad events. They see a dead dog by the roadside, the desk-clerk at their motel is killed, a bus carrying a load of tourists crashes. Everywhere they go, it seems something bad happens in their wake, as if they’re a party of Jonahs. There are some very effective scenes here, and the film did make me jump on a number of occasions. This is unusual for me these days, so it scores highly on that issue alone. There are some scenes which seem too laboured, and put in for daft shock value (the policeman getting shot), but others are very effective. There’s a scene where a shop-assistant’s face appears blurred and distorted, which is genuinely unsettling. It reminded me of a time once where I saw a woman who appeared to have no face in the street. It took me a little while to work out that it was the angle of the sun blotting out her features. I don’t want to say any more about the film, as I think you should come to it as cold as possible. I will just add that the ending seems to have exasperated plenty of viewers, to the extent that the director went on the IMDb site to try and explain it. I had no problem with it, as the whole film had been like that, but I know it led some to throw their hands up in the air.
Dir: Sam Mendes
Quality Bond film, with the very watcheable Daniel Craig as 007. Javier Bardem almost steals the film though as cyberterrorist Silva, giving a first-class portrayal of a psychopath with no human feelings at all. The grand finale at Bond’s gloomy ancestral home in the Scottish Highlands is unforgettable. This is of course the film where Judi Dench’s tenure as ‘M’ comes to an end, and she goes out in style. Reworking ‘Q’ (Ben Wishaw) as a young spotty computer geek was a masterstroke, and the feisty version of Miss Moneypenny in this one (Naomie Harris) helps to banish the memory of the whining, weepy milksop versions of the Dalton/Brosnan era. Top-notch entertainment. One very small quibble though: how did ‘M’ and Bond drive all the way from London to the Scottish Highlands without (a) stopping at all for petrol, and (b) keeping the Aston Martin in absolutely spotless condition?
THE SNOW CREATURE (1954)
Dir: W Lee Wilder
Boring-as-hell creature feature, about a quest to hunt for the Yeti. It suffers badly from Narrator Who Won’t Shut Up problem. After only a few minutes it felt like I was sitting through a dull lecture.
SOLAR ATTACK (2006)
Dir: Paul Ziller
Low-budget bog-standard Canadian disaster flick about giant CMEs hitting Earth, and threatening to suffocate Mankind. POSSIBLE SPOILERS: This one seems to drag out all the tired old favourites … bickering male and female leads (snore), sworn enemies America and Russia having to work together, nuclear weapons to the rescue (hurrah!), slap-bang happy ending at the last minute with everybody standing around cheering and hugging, bickering male and female leads united at last etc etc. I could just about tolerate all of that, if it didn’t also feature an extremely unappealing lead character. Mark Dacascos plays the sort of humourless, big-headed I’m-always-right-and-I-always-get-proved-right block of wood stick-up-the-arse insufferable tit of a “hero” that we’ve had to suffer far too often in film. By the end of it I absolutely hated the sight of him, and longed for one of those pesky flares to get him. Which isn’t good really. (Sorry Mr Dacascos, I’m sure you’re a lovely guy really). TRIVIA CORNER: in the film New Zealand gets wiped out by a CME. I read a Kiwi taking exception to this on a movie discussion forum. You can’t blame them really.
Dir: Sam Mendes
I think I enjoyed all the hype running up to the release of this film than the film itself! I’m having a bit of a problem reviewing Spectre, because it’s not bad at all … but at the same time it didn’t really wow me either. It’s a very competent entry in the Bond canon, but it’s not one I feel any great affection for, and probably won’t make it onto any My Favourite Bond Films list. It seems to be a classic case of All Style And No Substance. The problem was that it had a hard act to follow with Skyfall, and this felt at times as though it was disappearing up it’s own bum with it’s own self-references. There is certainly plenty of action, but there were times in it’s 2-and-a-half-hour running time that I found myself getting restive and distracted during scenes which should have had me enthralled. There were some deft comic moments, which, considering Daniel Craig can be a bit of a dour old cove, are badly needed. I loved the car chase, where Bond finds out at the last minute the weapons haven’t been loaded onto his slick high-tech car yet. And Ben Whishaw as Q does a splendid job as a young, geeky foil to 007. He needs his own adventure. Lea Seydoux is a tiresome Bond girl, and there’s no real chemistry between her and Craig, who seems too much like her grouchy father for comfort. She’s overshadowed by the superb Monica Bellucci, whose maturity and sophistication makes Seydoux feel like a whingy teenager by comparison. Christoph Waltz makes an underwhelming Blofeld. I’ve read some praising his acting in this, but to be honest, it probably doesn’t require anything very much other than keeping everything on a flat monotone. There are some great moments, but it’s too long, and too slick. Craig all too often feels as if he’s tired and fed-up.
SPENCER’S MOUNTAIN (1963)
Dir: Delmer Daves
The fore-runner to the popular 1970s TV series The Waltons. Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Hara are the parents of a large hillbilly brood. It very much feels like a hangover from the 1950s. Fine if you like this kind of thing, but really only worth watching for the beautiful Maureen, who is as glorious as ever, and for seeing where The Waltons started.
THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1946)
Dir: Rober Siodmak
Eerie little thriller, set in turn-of-the-century America, where all is not as idyllic as it would seem on the surface. A serial-killer is at large in a small town, targeting women with physical deformities. Dorothy McGuire is a young mute girl, Helen, who works as a companion for a feisty bedridden old lady (Ethel Barrymore) at a house in the countryside. The action has a very stage play feel to it. After the initial opening scenes in the town, the film focusses entirely on the big house. All the downstairs rooms have open doorways, so that the characters can move fluidly from one to the other. Whilst one of the longest thunderstorms in film history rages, Helen is stalked through the house by her unknown assailant. The film still has a very creepy feel at times, and I liked the final denouement where the old lady proves her worth. Rhonda Fleming is a very beautiful Blanche, and Elsa Lanchester is also on hand as a tipsy cook. It was remade in the 1970s, to star Jacqueline Bisset, and could in no way match the original. This is a little gem. TRIVIA CORNER: according to the IMDb website, the unsettling close-ups we see of the killer’s eye were that of the director Robert Siodmak.
THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (1977)
Dir: Lewis Gilbert
I’ve seen this described as “the first of the disco Bonds”, and when I first wrote this review of it I seemed to be pretty scathing. Watching this again recently though I think I was being very unfair. It’s very entertaining, and does have the memorable moment when Bond’s underwater car surfaces out of the sea, plus the film does at least have a reasonably intelligent female lead in Barbara Bach (by the usual Bond girl standards anyway). She isn’t in the same class as Ursula Andress or Honor Blackman, but at least she’s well above that offensive Miss Goodnight turn from ‘The Man With The Golden Gun’. She’s beautiful, cool and resourceful. Curt Jurgens does a by-the-numbers Bond villain, but we do get to meet Richard ‘Jaws’ Kiel for the first time. Memorable theme song by Carly Simon. TRIVIA CORNER: according to Wikipedia, at the royal premiere the entire audience, including Prince Charles, rose to their feet at the beginning when Bond parachutes in with a Union Jack parachute.
Dir: John Ford
The film that shot John Wayne to stardom. He appears as The Ringo Kid, who hitches a ride with a motley bunch of travellers who are heading through Injun country. This is an absolutely classic Western, and deserves every bit of the respect that it’s garnered over the years. The characters are all well-drawn, and although they might border on stereotype at times (the tart with the heart of gold, the drunken doctor etc), it really doesn’t matter. Claire Trevor and Louise Platt are interesting and not just there as a foil for Wayne (as so many of his later leading ladies were). They are two ladies from opposite sides of the moral barrier, who end up forming a grudging respect for one another. Cracking good stuff.
THE STALLS OF BARCHESTER (1971)
Dir: Lawrence Gordon Clark
The first of the BBC’s A Ghost Story For Christmas, which was first broadcast on Christmas Eve 1971, and taken from the short story by M R James. Clive Swift (who will be most familiar as Hyacinth Bucket’s downtrodden husband) comes to Barchester Cathedral to catalogue it’s library. Whilst there he uncovers a journal written by an archdeacon in the 1880s. The journal discloses that the archdeacon gained his eminent position by unscrupulous means, and was thereafter tormented by the ghost of his predecessor. Robert Hardy (looking fairly dishy, it must be said) is superb as the fiercely ambitious man of the cloth, and there are some chillingly eerie moments, including a spectral clawed hand! A great start to a great (and much-loved) series.
STATE OF EMERGENCY (2011)
Dir: Turner Clay
If you’ve read my review of 28 Days Later (see below), you’ll know I’m one of those annoying old timers who doesn’t like the Running Zombie. Well it’s growing on me (some of us need time to adjust), and in this low-budget little number it’s used to good effect. The plot: a chemical plant has exploded, releasing noxious fumes into the air, and having a devastating effect on the nearby community. Yes, you’ve guessed it, they’ve turned into zombies. One of the few survivors, Jim (Jay Hayden) takes up refuge with a handful of other young people in an abandoned tobacco warehouse, very much in the vein of the shopping-mall in Dawn Of The Dead. There aren’t any great surprises in State Of Emergency, and the gore is refreshingly minimal. It borrows heavily from all that has gone before. Comparisons have been made with 28 Days Later, but I’m more inclined to Night Of The Living Dead, particularly with the TV news footage. Where I think it should be applauded is in presenting the zombies as more of an eerie thing, than a blood-soaked gore-fest. I admit this might be largely down to budget. After all, if you’re making a cheap film, then zombies are a godsend, because all you need is a few extra’s dressed in ripped clothing, and splattered with red paint. There’s no need for expensive CGI for instance. But there is something very creepy about the zombies in this film standing silently in the fields surrounding the warehouse. It also borrows from the old vampire legend, with a zombie asking to be let in. Although critics have sneered at for being so-so, I liked it. Some of the acting leaves a lot to be desired, but overall it’s a good effort, and worth more than one look. One magazine (according to Wikipedia) described it as “too straightforward”, but I think there’s room occasionally for a straightforward tale, cutting out all the gimmicks we normally get. POSSIBLE SPOILER: I’m also quite pleased with the upbeat ending, at total variance to ‘Night Of The Living Dead’s nihilistic downbeat one. At one point, when Jim is confronted by the armed soldiers, I thought that was what we were going to get. It doesn’t bang on about the awful state of the world, and the terrible future we’re going to face, where we can trust nobody. It just delivers a story.
THE STEPFORD WIVES (1975)
Dir: Bryan Forbes
Hugely famous horror flick, based on a novel by Ira (‘Rosemary’s Baby’) Levin. Beautiful, doe-eyed Katharine Ross is a New York photographer who relocates with her husband and children to the tranquil backwater of Stepford, where – naturally – all is not what it seems. The women are remarkably placid, and wondering around all day in frilly dresses, either cleaning or carrying pots of casserole about. And then there is the sinister Men’s Association, where no women are allowed. Gradually it seems any women new to the area start to undergo a personality change, and develop a lust for cleaning and baking. I’m sure there are all sorts of political undertones to this movie, particularly considering it was made in the early 1970s, at the height of bra-burning women’s liberation. I’m not quite sure what they are though. Is it implying that men would rather prefer to have robotic model home-makers for a wife than anyone with any brain or personality? If so, it’s a pretty depressing thought. Watching this film again now I found the pacing a bit too slow and draggy. It seems to grind to a halt in places. It’s still sinister though, and the ending in the supermarket still packs a powerful punch. I’m sure Brit viewers get some guffaws out of seeing the wife of the director (Bryan Forbes), Nanette Newman, largely famous in the UK for advertising washing-up liquid, as one of the glassy-eyed wives. I saw a remake a short while back which jettisoned all the seriousness of the original and played it for high camp. I’m sure this probably hasn’t gone down well with a lot of people, and yet in some ways I found it reassuring, as if saying that the original just wouldn’t work any more as a serious idea, and now has to be sent up. Perhaps we have made progress after all.
STEPTOE AND SON RIDE AGAIN (1973)
Dir: Peter Sykes
Not exactly a shining example of British cinema, or even as a great tribute to a much-loved sitcom, but frankly I could watch Harry H Corbett at any time. A lovely, talented actor who ended up being trapped in his most famous role of rag-and-bone man’s son Harold Steptoe. The film is redeemed a bit by the black humour of the funeral sequence at the end which is actually quite funny. I must say a word about the splendid Yootha Joyce, who crops up as one of the mourners. Her talent shines through even in a small part in a mediocre film like this. Particularly the bit where she sees Harold and Frank Thornton emerging from the same loo, and sympathetically says “get yourself a nice girl, Harold”. Pure old East End.
THE STONE TAPE (1972)
Dir: Peter Sasdy
This is the film which spawned whole new ideas in psychical research. The idea that a building may be able to trap memories in its very fabric, and replay them, is now referred to as The Stone Tape Theory by psychical investigators. It has dated in parts. It’s set-bound for one thing, which I found quite disappointing when I first saw it. And Jane Asher’s token girl character, Jill, can’t seem to do anything without having a fit of the vapours. Anyway, the story has it that a maid died in tragic circumstances a 100 years before, and somehow she has become “recorded” into the stonework of the building. There are also hints about mysterious happenings to American servicemen stationed there during World War 2, rumours of black magic from long before that, and some intriguing and unsettling suggestions about what might have happened on the site thousands of years ago. Scripted by the superb Nigel Kneale, this is a great piece of thought-provoking spooky drama. If you’re fascinated by ghosts and haunted houses, it is a must-see.
THE STRANGERS (2008)
Dir: Bryan Bertino
I was quite excited about this film when I first saw the trailers for it. It looked genuinely spooky. People in masks are always a bit eerie anyway, and to have a plot where strangers in masks turn up at a remote house sounded tantalising. It simply didn’t hold my attention though, so I can’t really give a fair appraisal of it. All a bit underwhelming, and a bit of a letdown really, particularly after so much promise.
THE STRANGE WORLD OF PLANET X (1958)
Dir: Gilbert Gunn
Absorbing low-budget British sci-fi, which also goes under the name of Cosmic Monsters. Forrest Tucker dons white lab coat and horn-rimmed spectacles to play a scientist involved in controversial work on the Earth’s magnetic field, which, at the beginning of the film, tends to do nothing worse than bugger up the TV down his local pub. But, before we know it, the weather starts acting strange, various nutcases are wandering about the woods, and insects are getting terrifyingly large. This is very much of it’s time, with all the fears about scientists and what they were getting up to in their labs, and where the future was going. It’s actually pretty good, if you ignore the shoestring budget. The storytelling is neatly done, the music is marvellously eerie, and the scenes with the mutant insects are quite effective (particularly if you’re not a fan of creepy-crawlies). Dandy Nichols also crops up, and spends most of her time warding off offers of cups of tea, with the remark “I’ll have a stout” (attagirl).
ST TRINIANS (2007)
Dir: Oliver Parker
I was dubious at the time when I heard there was to be a remake of the much-loved St Trinian’s films from decades ago. I didn’t see how, in this dark, cynical age, we could possibly re-capture the madcap innocence of them … but am delighted to announce that I was wrong. ‘St Trinians’ is a worthy successor to the days of Alastair Sim, Joyce Grenfell and George Cole. This time it’s Rupert Everett going into drag as headmistress Miss Fritton, sporting the first name Camilla, and yes bearing a remarkable resemblance to you-know-who. He does a grand job, (although I have to say I kept wishing it was David Walliams in one of his posh bird roles). His girls are planning a major art-heist, to nick ‘The Girl With The Pearl Earring’ at the same time as taking part in a junior version of University Challenge, chaired by Stephen Fry. Russell Brand takes on the Flash Harry role, and makes me wish, yet again, that he’d stick to doing comedy, and stop trying to be the 21st century’s answer to Che Guevara. Paloma Faith also pops up, completely unrecognisable as a goth schoolgirl. I loved the Pink Panther-style heist. It’s a lot of fun, and cheered me up immensely on a dreary winter’s evening.
THE SUICIDE CLUB (1970)
Based on a story by Robert Louis Stephenson, this was a colour entry from the Thames TV Mystery And Imagination series. Alan Dobie plays the camply-named Prince Florizel, a Bohemian royal who is bored with his stay in London, and looking out for more exciting diversions. In disguise in a pub, he bumps into an eccentric aristocrat who is giving away cream cakes to the populace. He takes the prince to a private club, which caters for wealthy men jaded by life, who want to end it all. They sit around a table and are dealt cards. Whoever gets the Ace of Spades is the suicide, and whoever draws the Ace of Clubs is their “executioner”. Unfortunately, for this posh Dignitas, the chosen ones usually bottle it when it comes down to the crunch. The Prince decides he’ll end the days of this sinister club. It ends up being a sort of Boy’s Own affair, complete with some nifty bit of sword-fighting. It’s very much old school, and at times a bit too wordy and slow-moving for my tastes, but on the whole I found it fascinating, and couldn’t wait to see how it would turn out. Hildegard Neil puts in a Morticia Addams-like appearance as the club’s “madame”. It might probably be a controversial subject to pick these (overly-)sensitive days, but I actually think a decent remake could be made of this.
THE SWARM (1978)
Dir: Irwin Allen
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen ‘The Swarm’ included in compendiums of the Worst Films Ever Made, and there is no denying that it is an atrocious film, and yet I must stick by my own personal guideline that a truly bad film is one that bores the viewer rigid, and The Swarm doesn’t. In fact, in it’s own way, it’s very entertaining. The acting is awful, and the script even worse, yet if you’re after an undemanding way to spend a couple of hours it does the job. Bad points: well for a start, bees aren’t scary. Possibly they should be, considering they can sting you and even cause death, and a bee-swarm in full flight is a pretty formidable sight, but really, bees as villains? We’re not talking sharks (‘Jaws’) or spiders (‘Arachnophobia’) here, or even birds with their squawking, flapping wings and pecky beaks (‘The Birds’), these are bees. They’re about as convincing as big screen villains as the killer bunny-rabbits in ‘Night Of The Lupus’ or the kittens in ‘The Uncanny’. What truly shocks about this film is how a movie boasting some A-list stars can turn in such truly appalling acting. Michael Caine tries valiantly, but he’s up against it with some dreadful lines (“is it me you’re seeing, or a bee?” “I thought the bees were our friends”). Katharine Ross simply looks horribly uncomfortable, as if she wishes she was anywhere but here. The worst of the lot though is the lovely Olivia de Havilland, a major movie-star of Hollywood’s golden age, but you wouldn’t think it from her acting here. I normally admire her tremendously, but in this she over-acts all over the place. Sometimes she seems to think she’s Lilian Gish, circa 1915, with all the mugging and melodramatics going on. Having said all that, it’s still worth a watch, if only to prove that big stars and an apocalyptic scenario don’t on their own make a good film.
SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950)
Dir: Billy Wilder
Oh Gloria! Glorious Gloria! She was robbed of an Oscar for this one. Silent movie queen Gloria Swanson plays Norma Desmond … a silent movie queen, spawning such legendary lines as “I AM big, it was the pictures that got small!” “we didn’t need words in those days, we had FACES”, and “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr de Mille”. Gloria has a ball, effectively sending herself up something rotten. It helps if you know that she herself was a huge star in the 1920s, living the kind of life that Norma once had in the film. Whole offices working round the clock just to answer her fan-mail, fans committing suicide over her, marrying European royalty … not bad for someone who started out as a bathing belle in Mack Sennett comedy shorts. Cecil B de Mille appears as himself in the film, addressing Norma as “young fellow”, something he did indeed call Gloria when she worked for him as a young actress. Unforgettable as well is Erich von Stroheim as Gloria’s butler, although looking like something more out of the Addams Family! There are some intriguing comments on ageing in the film, although to us these days it seems absurd that there is such a fuss about Norma being 50. As Roger Ebert pointed out in his review of ‘Sunset’ many mature actresses these days (like Catherine Deneuve, Helen Mirren etc) would still be packing them in round the block if they took their kit off on screen! Well, I’m heading up to 50 myself as I write this, and all I can say is “Norma, get a hobby, write your memoirs, travel, become a food critic, whatever, just don’t go gunning down any young men, lovey! It’s really not worth it!” When this film was first aired, apparently another silent movie star, on leaving the theatre, was heard to remark “we old broads were never THAT mad!”
SWEENEY TODD (1970)
No, not the musical, but a drama from the Thames TV Mystery And Imagination series, aired in 1969. It’s very studio-bound, which can feel a bit off-putting at first, but I cannot praise Freddie Jones enough in the title role. He is superb. He gives a beautifully nuanced, soft-voiced, understated performance as the Demon Barber Of Fleet Street, who reputedly killed his customers so that his friend Mrs Lovett (Heather Canning) could make them into succulent meat pies. In spite of the subject matter, this is more a psychological thriller than outright horror, as we get to understand the tormented workings of Todd’s mind, and we actually end up feeling sorry for this very peculiar villain. A good twist at the end too.
SWEET WILLIAM (1980)
Dir: Claude Whatham
Odd, but absorbing little film, based on a novel by Beryl Bainbridge. Jenny Agutter plays a young woman, Anne, who is feeling slightly bereft after seeing her boyfriend (Tim Piggott-Smith) off at the airport, as he embarks on a lengthy trip to the States. Whilst doing a favour for a neighbour, by standing in for her at her daughter’s school harvest festival, she meets William, (Sam Waterston), a rogue-ish American playwright. They embark on an affair, but Anne gradually becomes to realise that she is just one cog in William’s complicated love life. He seems to have a surplus of ex-wives who begin cropping up in a confusing fashion, and he is far too smooth with Anne’s friends. And then, to complicate matters further, Anne finds she is pregnant. It’s a gloomy film in many ways, focussing as it does on the drabness of late 1970s/early 80s London. The two lead characters are also a bit of a pain in the neck. Jenny Agutter does a splendid job, but the character of Anne is such a drip and a doormat at times that she’s maddening. William is also a monumental jerk. Yes, I know that’s the point, but his smugness and pretentiousness is so overpowering that you seriously wonder why women are falling for him all over the place, and not giving him a good slap instead. Arthur Lowe and Daphne Oxenford also appear as Anne’s parents, and this is where the film gets truly depressing, as they seem to symbolise staid, elderly couples who have been left deeply disappointed by life. Lowe has few words, but his sad, lonely expressions are almost too painful to watch. And that dreary Christmas lunch has to rate as one of the most dismal ever committed to screen! The film is redeemed by a neat little twist at the very end. I won’t give it a way, and you’ll have to watch very carefully for it.
THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY (1999)
Dir: Anthony Minghella
I can’t help feeling this was quite a brave role for Matt Damon to take on. A homosexual psychopath, a lonely society misfit. But he performs it with great aplomb. Tom Ripley is sent to Italy by a rich tycoon, to try and lure his wastrel son, Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law) back to the States. Once there, Tom falls not just for Dickie, but his entire lifestyle, to the extent that by a tragic turn of events he decides to become him. Gwyneth Paltrow doesn’t really have to do very much as Marge, Dickie’s girlfriend, other than look vaguely perplexed and worried all the time. Everybody keeps raving about how sexy Jude Law is, and whilst I’m not disrespecting him, he’s never really done it for me. Perhaps I’m weird but I find Matt Damon more exciting. I can’t help feeling you could have put any plastic hunk into the Dickie role. Philip Seymour Hoffman nearly steals the entire show as Dickie’s boorish rich friend, Freddy, who effortlessly manages to offend the effete Tom at every turn with his vulgar, arrogant ways. Cate Blanchett manages to make her Poor Little Rich Girl character quite vulnerable and appealing. You really feel sorry for her, the way she is so deluded by Tom. The film is probably too long, but Italy looks superb, and the jazz score is simply marvellous. I like it.
TALE OF A VAMPIRE (1992)
Dir: Shimako Sato
This is a classic case of a film which I know is deeply flawed, and bunged full of misfires, and yet I love it. It’s a low-budget little effort, set in Deptford (of all places). It centres around a strange, very gothic library, which is frequented by a devilishly handsome young man, Alex, who permanently wanders around in a long, black coat (Julian Sands at his sexiest). It turns out our Alex is a vampire, and he becomes obsessed with new librarian Anne (Suzanna Hamilton), who is a dead ringer for his long lost lover Virginia, who (and I assume this is the case, although it’s never actually spelt out) was the young wife of Edgar Allan Poe. To add to the confusion, Edgar himself (the always watcheable Kenneth Cranham) has been vampirised, and is now stalking Alex through the mean streets of Deptford. If all this sounds a tad confusing, well it is. I would argue to ignore the plot entirely, and just concentrate on that moody decor, Julian Joseph’s atmospheric score, and the brooding Mr Sands in all his alluring glory. Suzanna Hamilton is alright, but she’s wooden and disappointing as the female lead. She seems to trip and stumble over her lines, and is actually at her best when she’s snoozing, whilst being watched from a darkened corner by Mr Sands! Nevertheless, it’s an enjoyable little film to watch on a mellow Winter’s afternoon.
TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972)
Dir: Freddie Francis
One of the scariest films from my childhood, and watching it again on YouTube I was delighted to see it still holds up very well after all these years. Five people are wandering round some caves, when they get lured into a side cavern by a little goblin of a man in a brown monks habit (Sir Ralph Richardson). He proceeds to tell them some unpalatable truths about themselves. Each of them has a dark secret, some terrible sin they have committed. One has killed her kindly old buffer of a husband with a poker (Joan Collins, looking impossibly beautiful and elegant in a stylish cream-coloured suit), another has cheated on his wife (probably the weakest story of the set, as this isn’t exactly on a scale of the others’ crimes!), another has hounded a lovely old man to commit suicide, another is an unscrupulous arms-dealer, and the final one is a callous army major who has grossly neglected the blind inhabitants of an old people’s home. It’s safe to say that none of them gets away with it. In fact, the saying “karma is a bitch” could have been invented for this film. Undoubtedly the most highly regarded of the stories is the one where Peter Cushing, at his most loveable, plays the kindly old man who is persecuted by his rich neighbour. It was made at around the same time as Cushing’s wife died, so the scenes where he talks to her photograph (which is indeed of the real Mrs Cushing) have a particular poignancy. The grim punchline to that one still has to be one of the best I’ve seen in a horror tale. Sir Ralph Richardson is enjoyably sinister as the Crypt-Keeper, those little beady eyes peeking out from his cowl, glinting with mischief, as he condemns his collected sinners to a hell-ish (literally) finale.
Dir: Seth MacFarlane
Affable comedy which offers a unique new take on the old best buddies scenario. John (Mark Whalberg) was a lonely little boy whose only best friend is his teddy-bear. Except his teddy bear comes to life, and stays with him into adult-hood, and starts to get in the way when John finds a girlfriend (Mila Kunis). It’s the classic man moves on, but finds his old childhood pal is still hanging round, trying to hold him back plot. A bit reminiscent of our own ‘Likely Lads’ comedy from the 1970s, only with Terry Collier replaced by a stuffed bear! It’s undemanding fun. I didn’t find it laugh-out-loud funny, but it did make me chuckle. In fact one line – “someone’s stolen my teddy-bear!” – still had me chuckling the next day.
TEN LITTLE INDIANS (1965)
Dir: George Pollock
One of a few big-screen adaptations of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. Ten people are lured to a huge, grand house at the top of a Swiss mountain, and are there bumped off one by one. The house is the real star here, it’s the perfect setting for a creepy thriller. Dark, ornate, old-fashioned, completely isolated. There are some reliable British faces to keep us engrossed, such as Stanley Holloway, Wilfred Hyde-White, Shirley Eaton, but the film doesn’t really hold up as a first-class thriller. But as I say, if you have a thing about spooky, atmospheric houses (and I do), then it’s worth watching for that.
10 RILLINGTON PLACE (1971)
Dir: Richard Fleischer
Outstandingly creepy film starring Richard Attenborough as the serial-killer John Christie, who preyed on women in 1940s and 50s Britain. Apparently Lord Attenborough wanted to make the film because he felt strongly against the death-penalty. Christie famously set up his Welsh lodger, Timothy Evans, as the scapegoat for the murder of Evans’s wife and little daughter. Evans was what we would probably call educationally-challenged these days, and he was no match for Christie’s evil machinations. Evans was hanged for the murders, and posthumously reprieved several years later. It still stands as one of Britain’s most infamous miscarriages of justice. Based on the book by Ludovic Kennedy (which is well worth hunting down), the film shows how Christie was able to manipulate not just the people around him, but the law as well. Attenborough is absolutely faultless in the role, showing Christie as creepy and sly, but also with an authoritative air to him, which he was able to use to manipulate the more simpler and straightforward characters around him. He is also quite camp, whispering in a quite fey way lines like “I’ve got the builders in”. John Hurt is also excellent as poor Evans. A simple-minded fantasist, hopelessly out of his depth when dealing with both Christie and the law-court. A word must be said about the house too. The film was shot at the location of Christie’s crimes, and this dreadful, seedy, run-down tenement block is an all-too suitable backdrop. Dark, gloomy, depressing, it looks like the ante-room to Hell. Some kind of purgatorial block where lost souls gather. Here, where people had nothing, no money, no hope, no future, Christie could cut a mincing swagger with his pretensions to learning and experience he simply didn’t have. (According to one anecdote I heard, he was highly regarded amongst the neighbours, always referred to respectfully as Mr Christie). The ending is superbly done, in a very chilling, haunted way, with a close-up of Christie’s eyes.
TERROR BY NIGHT (1946)
Dir: Roy William Neill
One of my favourites in the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce collaboration, mainly because it’s mostly set on a train. And I have a bit of a thing about train movies. Advertisers over the years have tried to re-capture the magic of train travel as it’s seen in the movies, to persuade us to travel by rail, but the trouble is, we all know it doesn’t exactly translate into reality! Anyway, in ‘Terror By Night’ (reputedly based on the original story ‘The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax’), Holmes and Watson are on the trail of a stolen diamond, ‘the Star of Rhodesia’. Running at only an hour long, this is a fun slice of vintage entertainment. Some of the acting from the other characters is a bit on the ropey side, and that train seems remarkably stable at times. Holmes is able to wander about the corridor without being thrown about from side to side all the time. Nonetheless, it’s worth watching for Holmes ordering his dinner … “steak and kidney pudding”.
TERROR IN THE HAUNTED HOUSE (1958)
Odd little number from 1958, (aka as ‘My World Dies Screaming’) about a young bride going to her husband’s house for the first time, who becomes convinced the house will be the death of her. The beginning feels like a direct rip-off of ‘Rebecca’, with shots of bog-standard house, and a woman doing a “last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” style voice-over. There are a number of things which are peculiar about this film. The way the bride seems much younger than her husband. The way the bride seems a bit away-with-the-pixies, and keeps screaming her head off at the least thing. But most unsettling are the weird faces which flash up briefly now and again. I thought at first I was just watching a bad, flickering copy, but going by comments on YouTube others have seen them too. Apparently they were subliminal messages, such as “scream louder” and “prepare to die!” inserted, presumably as a gimmick. It was a process called “psychorama”, and this film was the first to use it. This was very much the era for that kind of thing in films, and normally they’re a bit of fun, but this one I found simply disturbing. If you do a Google search for ‘Terror In The Haunted House subliminal’ you should get more information on it. All a bit freaky to be honest. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, there was something particularly odd about 1950s & 60s B-movies.
THEATRE OF BLOOD (1973)
Dir: Douglas Hickox
Vincent Price is a hammy old Shakespearian actor, Edward Lionheart, who decides to take revenge on every critic who has savaged his performances. And naturally, he gets his inspiration from the plays of Shakespeare. A host of familiar faces (Michael Hordern, Arthur Lowe, Robert Morley etc) meet their fates in various gruesome ways. Worth seeing just for the sight of Price in a Jason King wig and sunglasses, as a camp 1970s hairdresser! The murders are suitably grim and memorable. Such as Arthur Lowe having his decapitated head put on a milk-bottle, and Robert Morley being force-fed his pet poodles. We also get a fencing scene. But not just any old fencing scene, it’s a sword-fight done on trampolines! I’m sure many in the creative arts will sympathise with Lionheart’s rant at one of the critics that they can’t do themselves, so they need to destroy instead.
THEY LIVE (1988)
Dir: John Carpenter
‘They Live’ is one of those films, like ‘The Matrix’, which has become a cult favourite amongst conspiracy theorists. I found it more gritty and accessible than ‘The Matrix’ though, which has a tendency towards long-winded pomposity. Roddy Piper plays a homeless guy, new in town, and desperate for a job and somewhere to stay. A colleague invites him to stay at a homeless shanty town. Whilst poking around an abandoned church nearby, Piper finds a cardboard box full of new sunglasses. At first he’s not terribly impressed, until he finds that the glasses – a bit like the binoculars in M R James’s ‘A View From A Hill’ – enable him to see things he wouldn’t normally be able to. Walking down a street, he finds that advertising slogans are really messages telling us to Obey, Work, Reproduce. The same with newspapers and magazines. Far more unsettling though, are that some people don’t look right at all. They have hideous skeletal faces. It turns out they are aliens living amongst us, and they’re running the show. I first came across this film in a David Icke book, and it’s influence in the Icke-ian conspiracy world can’t be over-estimated. When I found a copy on YouTube, the loader had said he’d put it there to educate the public. Whether you believe it all to be factual or not, it’s an entertaining film, very much a modern version of ‘Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers’. It’s influence on alternative culture in recent years has been pretty considerable.
THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951)
Dir; Christian Nyby
Taken from a short story called ‘Who Goes There?’ this is one of the most famous of the 1950s American sci-fi’s. An alien ship has crashed near a scientific base in the Arctic, and before you know it, a big, carrot-like man is terrifying the living daylights out of everybody. It’s still exciting stuff, with some sparkling dialogue, and female characters who actually have some substance and plenty of resilience to them, i.e they’re not there just to scream a lot and look decorative. Sigourney Weaver would probably be quite at home with them. Famously remade by John Carpenter several years later simply as ‘The Thing’, and interestingly, without any female characters in that time!
THINGS HAPPEN AT NIGHT (1947)
Dir: Francis Searle
As long as you can accept that this film is very much of its time and place (Britain in the mid-1940s), this is an entertaining little piece of black comedy. Odd poltergeist happenings have broken out at a country house, and an eccentric assortment of people have gathered to investigate. Expecting something creaky and stilted, I was pleasantly surprised by how much fun this was. The characters are all likeable, and Most Haunted was frankly never as funny and exciting as the ghost vigil in the last half. TRIVIA CORNER: Of especial interest to paranormalists is the fact that legendary ghost-hunter Harry Price acted as professional advisor on this film.
THINGS TO COME (1936)
Dir: William Cameron Menzies
An interesting slice of early British sci-fi, although naturally it’s dated somewhat. What I can’t get over though is how the women in this post-apocalyptic world still manage to get their hair permed and set!
THE THIRD MAN (1949)
Dir: Carol Reed
Often regarded as one of the best British films ever made, and it certainly still holds up well over 60 years on. Much has naturally been made of Orson Welles as the unscrupulous bootlegger Harry Lime, even though we don’t see very much of him, and there’s no doubt he camps it up enjoyably in pantomime villain mode. For me though, the more interesting character is Trevor Howard’s army officer, who is trying to catch the man responsible for supplying bent medication to children in hospital. He has the chilling ruthlessness needed to do his job, and yet he’s still on the side of good. The scene where he takes Harry’s friend Joseph Cotton round the hospital, and shows him the results of Harry’s peddling on the children (we don’t see the children, which is even more effective) is extremely well-done. The photography is perfect, capturing the weird mood of post-war Vienna, there is also the famous cuckoo-clock speech, the zither music, and Valli’s walk at the end. I was very taken with this film the first time I saw it, and it hasn’t lost anything in repeated viewings.
30 DAYS OF NIGHT (2007)
Dir: David Slade
When I first heard about this I thought it was a great idea. Vampires thrive in darkness, so … ta-da! put them in a place where the sun doesn’t rise for weeks on end. Nosferatu would have been kicking himself that he didn’t think of emigrating to the Arctic Circle in Winter-time. Add to that I’ve been fascinated by Barrow in Alaska for years, ever since reading Alan Whicker’s account of his short stay there in about 1960, in his autobiography. So why didn’t I enjoy this film as much as I’d hoped? Well it has too many aspects to it that I simply am bored stiff with in modern horror films. The slam-dunk noises every time the creatures appear, and boring, mediocre characters all droning on about their sodding problems. It has some solid atmospheric moments, and I can see why it’s well-regarded. If I’d read this story as a novel I’d have probably loved it, but the film characterisation was just too so-so. HAVING SAID ALL THAT, I must add that the vampires themselves are pretty darn impressive. Bestial, psychopathic creatures with super-human strength, closer to zombies than Count Dracula. We’re a million miles from the usual tendency to romanticise vampires these days, thank God. There’s nothing handsome or elegant or tragically sympathetic about these black-eyed fiends. The trouble is I found the non-vampire characters so dull and/or annoying, that I didn’t care if the creatures got them.
THE THIRTY NINE STEPS (1978)
Dir: Don Sharp
Well-made 1978 outing for John Buchan’s classic novel, this time starring Robert Powell as Richard Hannay. While it doesn’t match the compact quirkiness (or the humour) of Hitchcock’s version, it’s still very watcheable. Tangling with spies on the eve of World War 1, Hannay has to flee across country, winding up in the Highlands of Scotland, where he meets Karen Dotrice, looking fetching in an Edwardian hat. The producer, Greg Smith, wanted to do a version set in the era of the original novel, but radically changed the ending, feeling that the original wasn’t show-stopping enough (it’s really is just a flight of steps). So in this we have the famous sight of Robert Powell hanging from the clockface of Big Ben, which was apparently inspired by silent screen star Harold Lloyd. It was a worthy homage.
THIS GUN FOR HIRE (1942)
Dir: Frank Tuttle
I ordered this one because of my fascination with Veronica Lake. Her on-screen pairing with Alan Ladd was often branded as a down-market version of Bogie and Bacall, and whilst they don’t have the classic aura of those two, they are a fascinating twosome to watch. Veronica is often dismissed by sniffy film critics as having been only famous for a hairdo. She had long, flowing locks, which became a big influence on actresses like Bacall, and would be spoofed by Jessica Rabbit! But to say that’s all she was is a tad unfair. She was a decent actress, who had a likeable on-screen persona. She comes across as rather more quirky than you normally expect from seductive screen sirens of this era. I’ve read that she was paired with Alan Ladd because she was one of the few actresses who was even shorter than he was. Anyway, ‘This Gun For Hire’ is based on a story by Graham Greene, and concerns a professional hitman, the Raven (Ladd), who goes on the run with a top-secret chemical formula. Lake is a nightclub performer who is taken hostage by him. It’s a complicated plot, and it has some classic Greene characterisation with the persona of Raven, who isn’t a million miles from Pinky in ‘Brighton Rock’. Alan Ladd, with his frail (to modern eyes) build, and haunted look, is perfectly cast. There were times (particularly the train scenes) when I couldn’t help feeling Hitchcock should have been in charge, and although it’s a not a Grade 1 classic, it certainly bears more than one viewing. Watch out for Veronica’s bizarre nightclub performance, involving black leather trousers (that tiny waist!) and … er … a fish-tank.
THIS ISLAND EARTH (1955)
Dirs: Joseph M Newman, Jack Arnold
One of my favourite vintage sci-fi’s this one. A scientist is lured to a remote laboratory to work to do some top-secret work. No expense spared. He finds himself sharing the place with a handful of other scientists, gathered from all over the world. It turns out that they are being employed by aliens seeking refuge from their own planet, which is in the grip of a sort of devastating civil war. The trip to the remote planet is very exciting, and we even get a fairly scary bug-eyed monster. What more can you ask?
THIS IS NOT A TEST (1962)
Dir: Frederic Gadette
Absolutely cheap-as-chips black-and-white effort, about a nuclear bomb about to hit the coast of California. A highway patrol officer blocks off a road, and warns a diverse bunch of motorists that a nuclear attack is imminent. Naturally a lot of squabbling and fighting breaks out. Some take refuge in a supermarket truck, whereas 3 others head for the hills, literally. Some of the acting is just plain awful (particularly the dopey policeman, who sounds like he’s got a joint of meat for a head), and the film hasn’t even achieved so-bad-it’s-good cult status. And frankly, where the semi-hysterical Juney is concerned (“no I won’t get in the truck, grandpoppy, I won’t get in the truck, I can’t bear it grandpoppy” etc etc), the damn bomb can’t come quick enough. BUT it’s not entirely without merits. The scene with the small group of survivors is reasonably effective, although there is a horrible part where the dog gets throttled, and I felt for the poor man in the trench-coat who commits suicide. Just to give you some measure of how small the budget was though … the nuclear attack is represented by a flash of light.
Dir: Barry Hines
I would still argue this is one of the most disturbing films I’ve ever seen. I watched it when it was first released in the mid-1980s, when it freaked out everyone who saw it. A couple of years ago I watched it again on YouTube, to see how the passage of time had affected it. It still packs a killer punch. The plot is simple: World War 3 breaks out, and Britain is caught in an all-out nuclear attack. The scenes of the attack still make me want to cry, even now, let alone the horror of the nuclear winter, with people eating rats, and giving birth to deformed babies. Still terrifying after all these years.
Dir: Zack Snyder
What is this rubbish? Apparently this film deeply divides people, from those who love it’s spectacle, to those who accuse it of all sorts of heinous Politically Correct crimes. As for me, I’m just baffled by the whole thing. Search me guv. It’s packed so choc-full of CGI that it felt as if I was watching a computer game. Now for all I know that might well be the point of it. It was based on a cartoon strip … sorry graphic novel, after all. But perhaps I’m too old school. I’d rather see toy boats being tossed about in a huge water-tank, than this kind of nonsense. And as for the cast. Well it all looks like something out of gay porn. Now again, don’t get me wrong, hunky half-naked men in a film are perfectly fine by me. But if this film’s to be believed then ancient armies were made up of gorgeous hunks with six-pack stomachs sashaying around bare-chested, and looking as if they’d just come fresh from the hairdressers. The acting feels like something from another dimension altogether, and the script could have you (unintentionally) chortling for weeks. The film did get praised for Having A Strong Female Character in it. Which is the sort of patronising, unspeakable guff which makes me want to boycott the entire film industry for good.
THREE MEN IN A BOAT (1933)
Dir: Graham Cutts
Disappointing adaptation of Jerome K Jerome’s classic comic novel about 3 friends taking a boating holiday up the river Thames. The book is quintessentially late Victorian which is part of it’s escapist appeal. Updating it to the early 1930s robs it of a lot of it’s charm. And whereas the book is still laugh-out-loud funny, this is just a drag, interspersed by some painful musical numbers. At times it’s not so much quirky, as just downright odd. There have been better versions. Frankly, it would be hard to think of a worse one.
Dir: Terence Young
Probably the least memorable of the Connery Bond films, and yet the one that I would argue captures the spirit of Ian Fleming’s original novels the most. Connery is on top form, in great physical shape and projecting a devilish, mischievous air about him. He’s still thoroughly enjoying himself in the role, and Bond’s dark wit is almost satanic at times. At one point he dumps a murdered girl on a chair during a dance, and jokes “she’s dead!” before wandering off, smirking. Flame-haired Claudine Auger makes a strong presence as Domino, even though at times she reminds me of Geri Halliwell in her Ginger Spice days. Criticism has been made on some film sites about the underwater scenes being too long and confusing. Probably justified, but overall the film works very well indeed. It also has one of the quirkiest beginnings to a Bond film ever, when Bond gets into a full-on fistfight with a guy dressed up in drag in black widow’s weeds!
Dir: Richard Tuggle
I started watching this late one night simply because there was nothing else on, and was surprised how much I enjoyed it, as it’s not normally my kind of thing. Clint Eastwood is a New Orleans cop on the trail of a serial-killer who is targeting young women. Clint is a single dad, devoted to his daughters, but by night he’s investigating New Orleans’s seedier side. The film co-stars Genevieve Bujold, whom I’ve long had a bit of a soft spot for because to me she was the perfect Anne Boleyn in Anne Of The Thousand Days. She couldn’t be more different in this film, paying a rape counsellor, who ends up sparring with Eastwood. High spot of the film for me was Clint visiting a woman in Deirdre Barlow spectacles, who seems to take some kind of buzzy device to his chest for kicks! I suspect I missed something there (it was very late), but worth seeing the film just for that.
THE TIME MACHINE (1960)
Dir: George Pal
For me this is still the best version of H G Wells’s tale. Sexy Rod Taylor is great as the affable scientist who invents a real proper time machine out in his conservatory on the eve of the 20th century. At first he goes only a few years into the future, and seems more fascinated by the changing mannequin in the shop window than anything else. When he realises that war will dominate the 20th century, he decides to go many centuries into the future to see where it will all end up. There he encounters the charming Weena (Yvette Mimieux), as well as the evil Morlocks. There are some great ideas tied up in the story, which should resonate now. Such as the selfish, unimaginative Eloi, who don’t seem too bothered where their food and clothes come from, as long as they’ve got the freedom to lounge around all day. They let age-old books crumble to dust, and seem oblivious when Weena nearly drowns nearby (no Selfies?). When Our Hero rescues her, she walks off without thanking him. The film also contains the question that will drive you nuts … which 3 books would you take with you if you were to vanish into the future forever?
Dir: Jean Negulesco
No no not the Winslet/diCaprio epic, but a black-and-white effort from the 1950s. Barbara Stanwyck plays an American high society lady returning from Europe with her children and estranged husband on the doomed liner. All sorts of soap-style family meltdowns ensue, whilst that dratted iceberg looms ever nearer. A young Robert Wagner plays the suitor of Stanwyck’s daughter, and is prone to bursting into Edwardian song. Whilst all this is fairly interesting, I was more fascinated by the marathon card-game, which is only (reluctantly) abandoned just before the ship goes down into the water. It’s an elegant production with some good performances.
THE TITFIELD THUNDERBOLT (1953)
Dir: Charles Crichton
Much-loved Ealing Comedy about a bunch of villagers trying to save their local railway from closure. If you love steam trains, this film is an absolute must, and the rich 1950s colour gives it all a magical other-world feel. It’s from an era when men wore stripey PJs with thick pyjama cords (I’m glad some things have changed), and vicars were all elderly men who were steam train enthusiasts. In spite of it’s nudge-nudge-wink-wink title, the film has virtually no Carry On-style bawdiness about it. It’s a feelgood film, with some nicely surreal touches, particularly the cups of tea being served in the old railway compartment (“oh what is it NOW, Mr Clegg?”). Edie Martin is absolutely adorable as an eccentric old lady lending a hand, and Stanley Holloway is a boozy aristocrat, who lends support so that he can carry on tippling on-board when the pubs are shut …. or as one worthy soul on Twitter put it “so basically this is all about enabling an alcoholic to have a drink?” Sigh.
THE TOMB OF LIGEIA (1964)
Dir: Roger Corman
Roger Corman (tick), Edgar Allan Poe (tick), Vincent Price (tick). All the classic ingredients in place, with Verden (Price) and Rowena (Elizabeth Shepherd) playing newly-weds being haunted by Verden’s first wife, Ligeia, who manifests in the form of a sinister black cat. Atmospherically-shot amongst the ruins of Castle Acre Priory in Norfolk, this is nonetheless an overwhelmingly melancholy film. Almost too much so at times. You wish Verden would pull himself together, and stop being so neurotic. But this isn’t outright horror, so much as film poetry. Elizabeth Shepherd makes a more interesting and substantial female lead than we often get in films like this, but I prefer ‘The Fall Of The House Of Usher’ and ‘Masque Of The Red Death’.
TOMORROW NEVER DIES (1997)
Dir: Roger Spottiswoode
A Pierce Brosnan outing as Bond, this time with a media-mogul (Jonathan Pryce) as the villain. An enjoyable, entertaining film, although Pryce manages to over-act and yet seem distinctly underwhelming both at the same time. There are lots of sly digs to be had about Robert Maxwell and Rupert Murdoch, although frankly I found Pryce’s villain to be nowhere near as sinister, slimy and reptilian as the real-life Murdoch!
TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER (1976)
Dir: Peter Sykes
Absolutely horrid Hammer adaptation of the Dennis Wheatley novel of the same name. Although it boasts an interesting cast – Richard Widmark, Christopher Lee, Honor Blackman, Anthony Valentine, Denholm Elliott, and Natassja Kinski – it is quite one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. It manages to be depressing, dull and distasteful all at the same time. One of the main things that sits uneasily now is how young Kinski is here. Her character both in the film and in the book is meant to be 18, but Kinski was only 15, which makes some of it a bit queasy. She plays Katherine, a young girl who has been reared as a nun in close confinement, until her 18th birthday, when she is to become some bigwig in the Satanic community. If Hammer were hoping to reprise their earlier success of The Devil Rides Out they were in for a disappointment. This film lacks the exciting pace, the genuinely scary set-pieces, and the period charm of that film. TRIVIA CORNER: when Wheatley saw the film he was furious, branding it as pornographic exploitation, and vowed that Hammer would never film another one of his books.
TOWER OF EVIL (1972)
Dir: Jim O’Connolly
Was absolutely astonished to find, when browsing for this Online, that this film now has cult status! Well sometimes I think if you leave things long enough ANYTHING can achieve cult status. Weird little Brit offering from the early 1970s, in which a bunch of annoying youngsters go and stay at a lighthouse which has a peculiar history to it, and naturally carnage ensues. Thinking about this film now, I can only assume the makers were influenced by some of the nastier, low-rent horror that was coming out of America at the time (The Last House On The Left for instance). This isn’t exactly in that league, but it does have the same thoroughly unpleasant feel to it. I have to say I’m only interested in it these days because it’s set at a lighthouse. There is a fairly effective bit at the beginning with a decapitated head rolling down the lighthouse steps, but there is still an overwhelmingly nasty feel to the film. With it’s set up of annoying kids being bumped off one by one, it’s a foreshadow of many modern horror flicks.
TOWER OF LONDON (1939)
Dir: Rowland V Lee
Dated, but still enjoyable yarn about King Richard III murdering his way to the throne of England (Richard-apologists should probably steer well clear of this one). The superb Basil Rathbone hams it up brilliantly as Dastardly Dick, clearly thoroughly enjoying himself. A very young Vincent Price gives an unexpectedly effete turn as the Duke of Clarence, who ends up being drowned in a vat of wine, after coming off the loser in a drinking-contest (this really happened, although the rumour is that Clarence, who was a bit of a wino, chose this way to die!). The female actors are a bit nondescript (although one of them does a pretty nifty clamber up the inside of a chimney), but we do have Boris Karloff as the incredibly sinister jailer to the two young princes. It’s an oddity alright, and none the worse for that. But as I said, Ricardians may want to give it a wide berth.
TRILOGY OF TERROR (1975)
Dir: Dan Curtis
Trio of tales based on stories by Richard Matheson, and each starring Karen Black. In the first she plays a prim school-teacher who finds herself being targeted by a pupil who drugs her, and then blackmails her into having a relationship with him. There’s a reasonably good twist on this one. The second story, where she plays warring twin sisters, is a bit of a disappointment, as I guessed the twist virtually from the word go. It feels amateur compared to the other two stories. The third story though is genuinely unnerving. She plays a woman who buys a voodoo fetish doll for her anthropologist boyfriend, only to have the wretched thing come alive on her. This is an ambitious tale, particularly as Karen has to carry the entire segment by herself. The doll – which could so easily have been laughable and silly – is actually pretty damn scary. The film rightly became a cult favourite, and Karen complained it typecast her into horror roles. And yet, to be honest, many actors would probably give their eye-teeth to play such a variety of roles in one film!
A TRIP TO MARS (1910)
Usually regarded as the first AMERICAN sci-fi movie ever made, as averse to the first ever sci-fi, which was A Trip To The Moon (see below). Made in 1910, and running at only around six minutes long, A Trip To Mars is an enjoyable, and – like a lot of these Edwardian shorts – very trippy little number. A top-hatted scientist is working in his lab, when he gets some kind of magic potion blown over him. He finds himself sailing up through space and to Mars. Once there he finds himself amongst some man-sized triffid-like plants with grotesque goblin faces. Fortunately Our Hero manages to get away and floats back down to Earth. The man-plants have an almost Python-esque feel to them. When it comes to packing in a lot of story into only a few minutes, these Edwardian film-makers can’t be beat. Sometimes I wish a few modern film directors would take a leaf out of their book.
A TRIP TO THE MOON (1902)
Dir: Georges Melies
Made in 1902, this is the first science-fiction film ever made. Running at just over 12 minutes, it packs in a heck of a lot of story into that short space of time. We start with a bunch of wizard-like men with beards and tall hats, who are clearly up to something momentous. Before we know it they are being packed into a tin-can contraption, and being fired out of a big gun by a bevy of leggy young women in skimpy costumes. Considering, this was era of long bloomers and trailing skirts, where even on the beach you had to cover yourself up like a modern-day Olympic swimmer, I suspect the sight of the full expanse of female leg would have been enough to pack the punters in alone! Our heroes land in the Man in the Moon’s eye (one of the most famous images from cinema ever), and camp down for the night, whilst pretty women’s faces appear in the stars above them. The next day, they go into the interior of the Moon, and are attacked by odd lizard-like men with spears. The early astronauts made a quick getaway, and land in the sea. This is a sweet, charming movie, with a joyous, feel-good ending, and watching it I can’t get over how I’m viewing something from right at the beginning of the 20th century.
THE TROLLENBURG TERROR (1956)
Dir: Quentin Lawrence
Or as American viewers know it, The Creeping Eye. This is a great little low-budget Brit effort. A bunch of people staying at an Alpine hotel find that some strange things are afoot in their vicinity. Mountain-climbers are being found with their heads cut off, and a rather fey young woman with mediumistic skills finds herself becoming obsessed with a particular mountain. Up on the mountain Warren Mitchell is running a science laboratory, which has detected a strange mist which hovers permanently on the mountainside. This is absorbing, and great fun, with some genuinely tense moments. Watch out for the line where Warren is showing off his latest state-of-the-art computer equipment, which he uses to scan the mountain, and chirpily says “it’s better than Windows!” No comment.
28 DAYS LATER (2002)
Dir: Danny Boyle
I don’t want to say too much about this one, simply because I didn’t like it, and I know full well I’m in a very tiny minority there. I was delighted to hear that a British zombie flick was being made, but I should have known I would find it very annoying. The scenes of a deserted London are good, although frankly it has been done before (Seven Days To Noon), and then there’s the issue of the running zombies. Yes, I am one of those irritating purists who like their zombies to stagger along at a stately pace. Running zombies aren’t scary. Well yes of course they would be in real life, but on film they just look like a bunch of film extra’s running. All of us nay-sayers got a lot of flak on Amazon, including an oddly infantile threat to be “impaled on a mackerel” (you what?). The most hilarious though would have to be the one who said we simply didn’t understand that running zombies suit the hectic pace of modern life better than their lumbering counterparts. I think I’ll leave that one there. ADDENDUM: I do feel kinder about the film now having read Chris Scullion’s write-up of it in his book That Was A Bit Mental Vol. 1. It seems I wasn’t alone in being confused by the promo for it (all those years ago). I still seem to be the only person on Planet Earth who wasn’t awed by the tunnel sequence, and I still think the characters were annoying, but now I’m older and mellower (some of the time) I can appreciate it’s good points more. And since then, perhaps I can understand more the points that the film was trying to make. After all, these days a highly contagious virus infecting humans and turning them into rage-filled brain-dead eerily doesn’t feel quite as far-fetched as we’d like it to be. I suspect in time I might even grow to like this film.
TWINS OF EVIL (1971)
Dir: John Hough
Rather dour late entry in the Hammer Horror canon, probably mainly of interest if you fancy the two Playboy leads, Mary and Madeleine Collinson. They are identical twins, set to stay with their stern, Puritanical uncle (Peter Cushing) in the legendary Hammer village of Karnstein. One of the twins becomes fixated with the local castle, which naturally enough, was once home to a notorious Satanic vampire. Even Cushing can’t save this film for me. His character is too grim, and the whole film has a gloomy air. Sadly they couldn’t entice Ingrid Pitt to play Countess Mircalla.
TWISTED NERVE (1968)
Dir: Roy Boulting
Controversial thriller, which isn’t an easy watch (the first time I saw it many years ago, I thought it was repulsive), but I’ve grown to respect it more of late. A ridiculously baby-faced Hywel Bennett plays Martin, a young psychopath, who develops a simple-minded alter-ego called Georgie, in order to win the trust of a beautiful, kind librarian, Susan (Hayley Mills). When he walks out on his wealthy, overbearing parents, he gets a room in the boarding-house run by Susan’s mother (Billie Whitelaw). These days I think it does a fairly good portrayal of a young psychopath, and Hywel is excellent. Hayley Mills is also good as Susan. This character could so easily be annoying, in the Mary Sue too-good-to-be-true sense, but Hayley rises above that. The film apparently caused a storm of protest for making a stupid link between Down’s Syndrome and anti-social behaviour, and had to issue a disclaimer.
THE TWO FACES OF DR JEKYLL (1960)
Dir: Terence Fisher
Thoughtful and elegant re-telling of the Jekyll and Hyde story from Hammer. In this one we don’t get the physically grotesque transformations that are often to be found in other versions, where Hyde all too often ends up looking like a reject from ‘Planet Of The Apes’. In fact, in this version Jekyll is the one sporting a face full of fuzz, whilst Hyde is almost baby-faced in his clean-shaven look. ‘The Two Faces Of Dr Jekyll’ focusses primarily on the psychological change, with Hyde (Paul Massie) as an outright psychopath, incapable of human empathy, and intent on trying to experience every depravity he can. Obviously the film is a bit hampered by the era in which it is made, and so some of the shock value may feel muted to us today, but it tries it’s best with the limitations it had to deal with. Dawn Addams and Christopher Lee add good value in the supporting cast, and Oliver Reed crops up in a small role as (ironically) a wayward drunk.
TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA (1970)
Dir: Don Siegel
Cracking little Western about the unlikely friendship that grows between a cowboy (Clint Eastwood playing Clint Eastwood) and a nun (Shirley MacLaine) in battle-torn Mexico. It’s a rollicking adventure, old-school Hollywood-style, and at times feels like a John Wayne film, but without the broad humour. Shirl is great as the nun-on-the-run, and she’s a good match for Eastwood, even giving him a pretty nifty slug on the jaw at one point. Of course Sister Sara isn’t all she’s reputed to be, and turns out to be a prostitute in disguise. I think I would have preferred it if she’d turned out to be a real nun after all, and when, at the end, she’s shown riding a mule in her real clothes (posh frock and big hat) she looks fairly grumpy. But I gather that Shirley – like most of the cast – suffered quite a bit from illness whilst shooting this film, so that might account for it.
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)
Dir: Stanley Kubrick
When I first saw this as a silly teenager I was completely baffled by it, I thought it was pretentious and over-blown. Since then I do seem to have learnt some sense as it has completely grown on me. A lot of the appeal of the film for me is the use of the music, from the very beginning with Strauss’s stunning Sunrise, to Gyorgy Ligeti’s extremely unsettling Requiem (one of the most disturbing pieces ever, I remember seeing this film once the night before 9/11, and that piece haunted me for ages afterwards), to the Blue Danube. The psychedelic whirl through space, resulting in the birth of the Star Child, (described by some as like being on an acid trip), still remains one of the most stunning sequences I’ve ever seen in a film. This is where cinema moves into another stratosphere entirely and becomes simply a work of art. Don’t try and analyse it too much, just enjoy it. I remember seeing an interview with Arthur C Clarke, where he was asked what it was all about. “Think of it as like a Swiss army penknife”, he replied. Considering it was made in 1968, the technology on it holds up pretty well too. TRIVIA CORNER: conspiracy theorists believe that Stanley Kubrick was allowed to make this film in return for helping NASA to fake the Moon Landings. ANOTHER BIT OF TRIVIA: I read one critic describing HAL the computer’s silky voice as sounding like a taunting homosexual lover.
UNCLE SILAS (1968)
Feature-length TV dramatisation of J Sheridan Le Fanu’s gothic tale about a young heiress falling under the “care” of her unscrupulous uncle. Made in black-and-white, and aired in 1968, it was part of Thames TV’s Mystery And Imagination series. Although it ramps up the gothic atmosphere to sky-high levels, I didn’t find it as absorbing as the 1947 Hollywood version. The entire film is stolen by the incredible Patience Collier, who puts in a terrifying turn as Madame de Rougierre, Maud’s evil governess. This strange gnome-like little woman with the demonic cackling laugh is one of the most frightening characterisations I’ve ever seen in a drama.
THE UNEARTHLY (1957)
Dir: Boris Petroff
Z-list horror, which stars John Carradine as a mad doctor, who uses the patients at his private clinic to further his experiments into everlasting youth. Pretty much universally slated by all, and (not surprisingly) it became a target of the Mystery Science Theater gang, yet I quite like it. As low-budget horrors go, it’s not that bad. The plot is very reminiscent of an old pulp fiction story I once read (by Seabury Quinn I think). It’s let down by it’s low budget, in that the horror of what happens to the patients when the experiments go wrong, doesn’t have much of an impact. Though on reflection, I don’t know how much that’s low budget, or ineptitude on the part of the makers. The young woman who is turned into a wrinkled old prune, should have had more shock value than it did. Likewise the men in the cellar. As the plot of a horror film though, it’s serviceable enough, and John Carradine acts with painful sincerity. I’d almost like to suggest a remake. In these days, when everyone’s obsessed with staying young, and cosmetic surgery, it should strike a chord.
UNEARTHLY STRANGER (1964)
Dir: John Krish
Low-budget British sci-fi, in which a top scientist starts to believe that his wife may be an alien. He bases this at first on the fact that she never blinks, a maddening plot device because of course we then become obsessed with watching her eyes whenever she’s on screen. Fortunately, one man compliments her on her peepers, and she deliberately flutters her eyelashes at him, which breaks that spell anyway. But there are other hints that all is not what it seems with her. She can get hot dishes out of the oven without using an oven-glove, and a baby starts crying when she looks in his pram (a bit like the old lady in ‘The Ladykillers’!). Much as I love these low-budge black-and-white films, I didn’t find this one as engrossing as I’d hoped, and not at all disturbing. Our alien lady is more to be pitied than feared, particularly when she gets upset when a playground full of children run away from her. And I found myself wanting her shopping-basket more than being taken up with her story. But nevertheless an interesting snapshot into the fears surrounding scientists and scientific research at the time.
THE UNKNOWN (1927)
Dir: Tod Browning
Written and directed by Tod ‘Freaks’ Browning, so perhaps one should expect something profoundly strange, and The Unknown, from 1927, is certainly that. Lon Chaney plays Alonzo, a criminal on the run, who hides out in a circus, strapping his arms to his side to play an armless knife-thrower. He has an obsession with Nanon, the ringmaster’s daughter (played by a magnificent Joan Crawford). Unfortunately Nanon has a morbid fear of being touched. If all this sounds a trifle odd, well as I said we’re in Tod Browning territory, so expect anything. Alonzo conceives a scheme whereby he will have his own arms cut off, so that Nanon will marry him. And so he does, only to find that Nanon has got over her fear, and is going to marry the circus strongman instead! Alonzo comes up with a horrible revenge, which could end in the strongman forfeiting his own arms as well. This might all sound rather potty, but this film is well worth checking out. Chaney is brilliant, both sympathetic and frightening at the same time. And Crawford is sexy, vivacious, and yet vulnerable. The final part of the film, where Alonzo acts his revenge is very disturbing, and I actually found myself putting my hand over my eyes! Crawford fans should love it, but so should any connoisseurs of genuinely strange cinema.
UNLAWFUL KILLING (2011)
Dir: Keith Allen
Technically this is a documentary, not a film, and probably belongs more with my Unexplained stuff, but I’m putting it here anyway. Released in 2011 to much hoo-haa, this is a documentary about the inquest into the untimely death of Princess Diana. Directed and presented by Keith Allen, and partly bankrolled by Mohammed Al Fayed – so it was never likely to be impartial – nonetheless it’s fascinating viewing. It touches on all the factors of the case that anyone who has spent any time in Conspiracy Theory world will already be familiar with, such as why were the security cameras at the Alma Tunnel switched off at the time the accident happened? why did it take so long to transport Diana in an ambulance the few short kilometres to a hospital? why was she embalmed so quickly? was she pregnant? was her seat-belt tampered with? was Henri Paul drunk? Questions that I doubt will ever truly go away. It must be said that I’ve read some pretty unsavoury rumours about Al Fayed, but he presents a dignified figure here. The scene where he takes Keith Allen to see his son Dodi’s grave was very moving. The film was banned in Britain, largely (from what I can gather) because of one scene, where Allen interviews Dr Anthony Clare, a psychiatrist, who gives some strong theories about Prince Philip’s personality (none of which, it must be said, that will come as a terrible surprise to many of us, and you can read it on Wikipedia anyway). It’s never been shown in Britain (I saw it on YouTube), and constant threats of litigation have limited it’s showing in the US.
UP IN THE WORLD (1956)
Dir: John Paddy Carstairs
My favourite Norman Wisdom film. Norm gets a job as a window-cleaner at a stately home, which is run by a woman, Lady Sybil (Ambrosine Philpotts) who is obsessed that kidnappers are after her bratty, practical jokester son, Sir Reginald (“who is always right”) (Michael Carridia). Some splendid slapstick scenes, and the whole thing has a marvellously escapist feel, helped by the summery grounds of the house. Norm croons a pretty tune, and also does a pretty impressive number on a drumkit. Maureen Swanson makes a charming love interest, and Jerry Desmonde (who often appeared as a foil for Norman), Michael Ward and Colin Gordon add to the comedy ensemble. TRIVIA CORNER: the house is actually Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire.
UP POMPEII! (1971)
Dir: Bob Kellett
You’ll either love this film’s bawdy, vulgar (and yet strangely innocent) 1970s humour, or you’ll regard it with withering disdain. Fortunately I loved it. Set in ancient Pompeii – just before the volcano goes off – Frankie Howerd plays Lurcio, a slave in the house of a Roman senator (Michael Hordern), and his family of misfits. The comedy isn’t exactly of the sophisticated kind, more akin to saucy seaside postcards, but it’s a lot of fun, helped enormously by Our Francis who is on the top of his form. There is a tendency to look down on 70s humour these days as thoroughly beyond the pale, but I’d rather have the crude, smutty jokes in this than Jimmy Carr’s dark twisted so-called gags involving rape and child abuse any day (oh we’re so bloody sophisticated these days aren’t we!!). At least these jokes mean well and are only meant to be taken as a bit of fun. This film also contains quite possibly the funniest hangover scene I’ve watched, with the brilliant Michael Hordern feeling a bit rough the morning after the orgy.
Dir: Ken Russell
Ken Russell is a Marmite director, you either love him or hate him. I have a bit of a troubled relationship with his films, so there is something a bit ironic that the film which he hated and virtually disowned, is one that I actually love! I came across it in The Official Razzie Movie Guide, and once again I vehemently disagree with them. Valentino is a marvellously entertaining film, and Mr Russell captures the OTT pantomime elements of the Silent Era perfectly. It is true that a gay Russian ballet dancer (Rudolf Nureyev) probably wouldn’t be most people’s first choice to play one of the biggest screen heart-throbs of all time, but he is a delight. He throws himself wholeheartedly into the role, and displays a real flair for comedy. Plus you also get to watch him dance, where he is simply magical. I can’t help feeling time will be kinder to this film. Perhaps nearly 40 years on, we’re more prepared to accept someone’s blurry sexuality, and the legend of Valentino has receded far enough into history for him to be judged more objectively. This is a visually stunning, and madly fun show. You also get to see the delicious sight of Nureyev and Peter Vaughan taking part in a boxing match, and Nureyev snogging Felicity Kendal on horseback! Ken Russell apparently wished he’d never made the film, but I’m very glad he did. It’s recently been re-released on DVD and blu-ray, and I hope it gets the respect it deserves.
VAMPIRE CIRCUS (1972)
Dir: Robert Young
In the early 1970s Hammer, now on a downward spiral, went through a very odd, offbeat, but highly imaginative phase. When they weren’t flogging the Dracula/Frankenstein genre to death, they produced little oddities like Demons Of The Mind, about a tyrannical father (Robert Hardy) and his two incestuous children in a European castle, or the surreal Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter. Vampire Circus has a vaguely trippy feel to it. A Transylvanian village has been sealed off from the outside world due to an outbreak of plague. Although no one is allowed in, a strange, mysterious travelling circus somehow manages to get through police lines. Now this is where the film could have been utterly intriguing, after all the plot so far is quite good. But the circus acts are weird, and not in an interesting or entertaining way, just rather boring to be honest. There are some annoying twins (one of which is Lalla Ward, who went on to become a Dr Who sidekick, and married Tom Baker) who can transform themselves into birds, a male gypsy who can transform himself into a panther (and spends the rest of the time just looking like a smirking creep), and a really peculiar naked, bald-headed woman who scampers around like a leopard. I have a feeling I’m making this sound better than it is. As I said, this could have been very good, but it’s let down by the thoroughly hackneyed vampire-aristocrat-overlord-of-the-village-being-reincarnated nonsense. It didn’t seem to have the nerve to go all out and just be dark and surreal, so it feels like a wasted opportunity. Captain Kronos was the same. The surreal touches (particularly the inn scenes) were jettisoned for misplaced attempts at humour. Or perhaps I just watched it all wrong.
THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970)
Dir: Roy Ward Baker
The Vampire Lovers is often cited as the film that started Hammer’s decline in fortunes, its descent into titillating soft porn thinly disguised as horror. And yet, watching this again just now, I was very pleasantly surprised by just what a classy production it is. The sets and costumes are elegant, the cast are solid and reliable, and the erotic parts are handled very tastefully. Ingrid Pitt is at the peak of her game as the enigmatic Mircalla, who wrecks havoc in George Cole’s household by preying on his womenfolk. Kate O’Mara is excellent, and a complete revelation to me, as I’d really only previously seen her as a buxom serving-wench in The Horror Of Frankenstein (which didn’t exactly stretch her acting abilities). She is the governess, Madame Perrodot, who falls under Mircalla’s spell. Madeline Smith is sweet and innocent as Emma, Mircalla’s youngest victim. These days, the merest hint of lesbianism in a film and everything seems to descend into the level of a teenage boy’s wet dream. This is a cut above all that, and at times it is nicely underplayed. Take the part where Madame Perrodot realises her feelings for Mircalla. These days they would be tearing each other’s clothes off, shoving their nipples into each other’s faces, and sticking their tongues in each other’s orifices. Instead, they exchange yearning looks, before Perrodot follows her into a nearby room, where Mircalla slips off her clothes in silhouette, before we cut discreetly to fade. It is a low-key film, often quite moody in tone. Even the scene where Mircalla prowls the countryside in her nightie, looking for a victim, is quite understated. At times it felt more like an elegant Anne Rice story than a late Hammer Horror. I have to confess I’m not really an expert on lesbian cinema, and I bow to others’ more superior judgement, but I can’t help feeling this should be counted as a classic of the genre. Oh, and to cap it all, we have the consistently good value Peter Cushing on hand, to make sure that order is restored … eventually.
THE VATICAN TAPES (2015)
Dir: Mark Neveldine
Disappointing horror with a strong feel of so-so same-old same-old about it. A young girl has been taken over by the Anti-Christ, and some Catholic priests are sent to exorcise her, which should all sound familiar. And that’s the problem. It all feels like a very pale copy of The Exorcist. It’s The Exorcist for the Hollyoaks generation I guess. It has the odd moment, but it is singularly lacking in shock factor. Angela Holmes barely breaks a sweat as the possessed girl, and it’s noticeable that her hair stays neatly combed throughout. There is even some very lacklustre projectile vomiting! POSSIBLE SPOILER: we are meant to be unnerved by the ending, in which the prediction from Revelations comes true, and a false prophet appears, who is really the Anti-Christ in disguise. The problem is, we are living in a world with some decidedly unnerving politicians at large, so it’s hard to believe that this pretty, but rather vacuous young woman would be able to sweep masses of people up into following her. She might convince a few religious nutcases, and some hysterical teenies, but the rest of us would just mumble “fake attention-seeker”, and go back to worrying about Donald Trump having his finger on the nuclear button, or what Fat Boy is up to in North Korea.
THE VENGEANCE OF SHE (1968)
Dir: Cliff Owen
Awful follow-up to the Ursula Andress version of She, which had been a lot of fun. This is just a mess. It has none of the excitement of it’s predecessor, and is hampered by Olinka Berova, who just feels completely lacklustre in the title role. There are some vaguely spooky Tales Of The Unexpected style moments at the beginning, when Ayesha is taken aboard the yacht, and seems to act as a jinx to the others. But that’s not saying much really. The film doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. Eerie thriller or rollicking old-school adventure? It fails on both counts. Stick with Peter Cushing, Ursula Andress and Bernard Cribbins in the previous one.
Dir: Basil Dearden
Ground-breaking thriller, which was the first British film to use the word “homosexual” on screen. Dirk Bogarde is a young ambitious lawyer, whose promising career is threatened when two vicious blackmailers threaten to expose his (platonic) friendship with a young man who has been found hanged in a police cell. An intelligent script and fine performances makes this film a cut-above. Released a few years before homosexuality was de-criminalised in the UK, it must have been a courageous film to make. Times have changed (thank goodness), but it still packs a punch.
Dir: David Cronenberg
I’ve read a lot about Videodrome over the years. It’s the sort of film which seems to have Serious Male Movie Buffs (Kim Newman-types) waxing lyrical all over the place. I suppose that should be a warning that it’s bound to be the kind of film where I’m reduced to being That Guy, the awkward one who doesn’t like it. Also the fact that until very recently I’ve never felt the slightest urge to watch it, in spite of all the positive ravings. I finally did when it rolled round on the Horror Channel late one night. I know it was late, and I was probably tired and … but oh dear God, it was boring. There was a loud and exceptionally tedious score which thumped it’s way through the film constantly, until in the end you feel like you’re being constantly bashed round the head. Debbie Harry kept popping up on a TV screen, to intone at the central character in a flat, emotionless voice. I’ve read that it’s deeply weird, and gory. But I can’t even believe back in 1983 (when you and I were young, Maggie) that this gore was particularly shocking. We’d had ‘Dawn Of The Dead’ before then, and ‘Halloween’, and the ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’. And as for weird … well only if weird is another word for tedious. I read a young guy on Twitter taking the superior view that “well this sort of thing might have been ground-breaking back in 1983 ….” and for once I could see the young whippersnapper had a point. Well I remember back then that it was the sort of film that had the snooty nerds filling their boots with awe, and me thinking “that sounds a right cool pain in the arse”. I guess it just wasn’t for me.
A VIEW FROM A HILL (2005)
The second of the BBC’s mid-Noughties M R James adaptations, and well up there with the cherished 1970s versions. Mark Leatheran plays a young archaeologist, Dr Fanshawe, who is sent to assess the collection of an impoverished aristocrat, Squire Richards (Pip Torrens) living in a gloomy house in the country. The Squire loans him an old pair of binoculars, and Fanshawe is excited to find that, on looking through them, he can see a church as it was 500 years before (I want those binoculars!). Naturally, this being an M R James story, a spectral phantom isn’t at all pleased about this, and takes to stalking Dr Fanshawe in the woods. The English countryside in late autumn is captured perfectly, and some of the scenes in the woods are genuinely unnerving. The story is a bit reminiscent of ‘A Warning To The Curious’, but frankly I don’t care. It’s an elegant, understated piece, crafted lovingly and with great care.
A VIEW TO A KILL (1985)
Dir: John Glen
Sir Roger Moore’s last outing as 007, and it has to be said probably not before time. Sir Rog was in his late 50s by now, and even for those of us who love him to bits, he was getting a bit long in the tooth for all this. Having said that A View To A Kill is still an enjoyable piece of entertainment, helped enormously by Christopher Walken at his icy, frosty-eyed best as the villain, and the formidable, scowling Grace Jones as his sultry sidekick. Even the really naff bits in this film can be forgiven. Such as the ludicrous not-remotely-convincing dummy which was used as Sir Roger’s stand-in during the part where Bond has to crash-land into a wedding cake. There is a part though where Bond gets off a street-car, and he looks just like a gaunt, somewhat bewildered old tourist (in a naff jacket), which isn’t really how we think of our hero, and shows that it really was time for Sir Roger to go. Nevertheless his time as Bond was a lot of fun, and he should be given more credit for his interpretation of the role than he often is. TRIVIA CORNER: there is a scene in this film where Bond has to knock up a quiche for Tanya Roberts. I think this was deliberately put in to show Bond’s more caring New Man side. Now actually I could quite believe Bond is a good cook. He’s a bon viveur after all, and likes his grub. But here Sir Rog doesn’t even take his jacket off to get stuck into his pastry!
THE VIKING QUEEN (1967)
Dir: Don Chaffey
Not one of Hammer’s better known films, but I enjoyed it very much. It’s like a low-budget Game Of Thrones. Loosely based on the legend of Boudicca, Carita stars as Salina, the daughter of a dying Icenian king, who has to share home-rule with the invading Romans. This is a lot of fun, and although there are some quality male actors in it (Andrew Keir, Niall MacGinnis, Patrick Troughton), it’s very much the women who are to the fore. Nicola Pagett is one of those actresses, like her contemporary Pamela Franklin, who seemed to have something genuinely fascinating and quirky about her. She appears as Talia, the Queen’s sister. Carita, a Finnish model, didn’t pursue her acting career after this, which is a shame as she does a fine job.
THE VIRGIN QUEEN (1955)
Dir: Henry Koster
Absolutely hackneyed old dog’s breakfast of a film about the later years of Queen Elizabeth I, which must have seemed dated even when it was made. Even the great Bette Davis can’t save this one, and, being the consummate pro that she was, she does try. Bette’s star was drastically on the wane in Hollywood when this was made, and she does seem exhausted in this, as though she’s had enough of it all and is just going through the motions. She had played Elizabeth once before, several years earlier, in The Private Lives Of Elizabeth And Essex, when her co-star was the legendary Errol Flynn. There is no one of his calibre here for her to spark off against here, so she is reduced to wandering around clutching a feathery fan, and looking bemusedly at the younger actors around her. To be fair, this might have been how the real Elizabeth felt by this stage too, but it doesn’t do anything to lift the general spirits of the film. The opening few minutes sets the tone, when we get a lacklustre mini sword-fight, and then some incredibly tedious load of old guff about buying a cloak reserved for the French ambassador, which just seems to serve as a frustrating time-waster, when we’re really waiting to see the great Bette. Joan Collins, in one of her first major films, appears as Bess Throckmorton, one of Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting. Joanie is suitably girlish and fluttery, but there’s not much more to be said about her other than that. In her memoirs, Past Imperfect, she confessed to having been absolutely terrified of Bette. I can imagine a lot were.
Dir: Nicholas Roeg
A good film undoubtedly, but not one I ever really rush to watch again. Jenny Agutter is at her best as a schoolgirl, who, along with her kid brother, is taken on a picnic into the Australian Outback, only to have her father lose it big time. She and kid brother escape from him, and head off on a long trek, where they encounter an Aboriginal boy, who helps them to survive. Very much an artistic film, and largely notorious for its near-constant nudity. Jenny fuels many male fantasies no doubt. Her beautiful slender body is either completely naked, or wearing a school uniform! ‘The Railway Children’ this is not. We had to do the book in school, and I remember thinking even at the time that the male author was simply writing out a sexual fantasy. The film only carries it on. As I say, very much an arty film (although if any straight man says he’s not watching it for Jenny Agutter, frankly I won’t believe him!), and recommended, but not a film I have a great love for.
THE WAR GAME (1965)
Dir: Peter Watkins
The 1960s version of Threads. This film was made to show the impact of a nuclear strike on Britain, but the government deemed it too frightening to be shown, and thus it was banned for 20 years. Apparently the UK government was concerned that the film was so horrific and depressing that it would generate a rash of suicides. It was finally shown to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Hiroshima/Nagasaki attacks in 1985. Filmed low-budget in black-and-white, it is still an intensely disturbing film. Where it differs from ‘Threads’ is that it goes into the psychological trauma suffered by victims of an attack, as well as the physical. In fact, doctors and psychiatrists who had helped victims in Japan in the 1940s acted as advisers to the film. I saw this film again in 2013, appropriately enough at Crail Nuclear Bunker in Scotland. It was still an emotionally draining experience, and I had to pass up the opportunity to watch the old ‘Protect And Survive’ videos as well!! (what a treat that would have been!). I will never forget the description of the nuclear impact as “like a giant door being slammed in Hell”.
THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953)
Dir: Byron Haskin
Exciting adaptation of H G Wells’s novel, updated to 1950s America. It has dated in parts, but those pesky Martians still manage to exert a sinister presence. It’s only let down for me by the character of Sylvia (Ann Robinson), who manages to be quite annoying. She’s either mooching around looking doleful, or having the screaming ab-dabs all the time. That, plus the heavy-handed religious segment at the end, makes it very much of it’s time. Having said all that, Gene Barry – as Dr Clayton Forrester – looks pretty hunky in his horn-rimmed spectacles. And the whole thing is a vast improvement on the Tom Cruise version (see below).
WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005)
Dir: Steven Spielburg
H G Wells’s classic story updated to modern America. Nothing wrong with the idea, but I found the finished result a bit hit-and-miss. Although it undoubtedly has it’s share of exciting moments, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d hoped. It doesn’t help that I find Tom Cruise an unappealing little squirt at the best of times, plus WOTW also comes with too much of Spielburg’s trademark sentimentalising for my liking. Then we have Morgan Freeman’s moralising narration, which is completely old-fashioned and unnecessary, and makes the film groan under the weight of it’s own self-importance. Then there is also quite possibly one of the most unspeakably annoying child characters EVER in THE ENTIRE HISTORY OF CINEMA. Dakota Fanning is like a cranky, gobby little pensioner trapped in a child’s body. Inexplicably she won an award for this role. Add to all that the fact that the aliens aren’t very scary, and I think it’s fair to say that WOTW is not a favourite of mine.
WARLORDS OF ATLANTIS (1978)
Dir: Kevin Connor
Not the best of the “lost world” series of films that were made in the 1960s and 70s. Doug McClure (as ever) is on a boat in the Bermuda Triangle when they are attacked by sea-monsters and a giant octopus. This seems to go on forever. Eventually they find themselves in Atlantis, and are greeted by a holier-than-thou po-faced bod sporting a Glam Rock-style wig and costume. Peter Gilmore takes the Peter Cushing role of the naive, dithery scientist, who is awed by everything he sees, even when he’s given a foretaste of the horrors of the 20th century on a fancy head-set. There are actually some very interesting ideas tied up in this film, but it’s let down by horribly hammy acting and too much general peeing about. It feels quite tired all round, and lacks the zest of many others in this genre.
A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS (1972)
“No digging ‘ere!” The second of the 1970s BBC Ghost Story For Christmas, and much respected. Peter Vaughan (excellent) plays an amateur archaeologist, who travels to Norfolk to try and find the elusive third crown of the Anglian kings. Whilst prowling round the countryside, he becomes convinced he is being followed by an eerie figure dressed in black. This is a hugely atmospheric film, which does full justice to the Norfolk countryside in which it is is set. Peter VAughan is given great support from Clive Swift, as a holidaying doctor whom he takes into his confidence. TRIVIA CORNER: M R James’s original story was set in Aldburgh (Seaburgh as it is in the story), but this was filmed in the area around Wells-Next-The Sea.
THE WATER GIPSIES (1932)
Dir: Maurice Elvey
The Water Gipsies by A P Herbert was a book I enjoyed reading very much, so I was curious to see what this early British quota quickie did with it. A very young Ann Todd plays the lead role of Jane, a girl who has grown up on a Thames barge, and who now has a complicated love life. Ann is almost unrecognisable from the icy goddess she portrayed 20 years later in David Lean’s ‘Madeleine’. Here, she’s more like a schoolgirl Margaret Thatcher. At first, the film stays pretty close to the book, but then it decides to rip out the substantial middle part completely, where Jane marries Ernie the Socialist, only for it all to end disastrously. Instead we cut straight from their engagement to Ernie’s fate. I felt very short-changed, particularly as Jane and Ernie’s honeymoon and short marriage were done so well in the original story. Can’t help feeling it really is high time this story was re-made.
Dir: Kevin Reynolds
One of the most notorious and expensive film flops of all time. I’m sure everyone has their reasons as to why this was. On the plus side it’s got a good story, and everyone looks as though they’re having fun in some kind of huge water tank. What kills it for me though is the acting and characterisation. Kevin Costner is unspeakably irritating and lacking in charisma in the lead role. He has no sex appeal, no intelligence, and no humour. There is also a foppish Irishman who should have been drowned at the start, and, to put the tin lid right on it, a thoroughly annoying kid. With a better lead actor this could have been so much more entertaining. Oh, and ditch the smug, know-it-all kid.
Of all the films on this list this one has to rank as one of the worst, and by that I’m mainly using my criteria of does a film entertain? No, this one doesn’t. It’s just simply bad. How on earth anyone can take the fascinating life-story of Wallis Simpson and make it dull is beyond me, but Madonna managed it. This film was both written and directed by Madge, so she has to take the brunt of the blame. All I’m grateful for is that she didn’t star in it as well. The one saving grace about this film is that we have Andrea Riseborough as Wallis, and I’ve liked her ever since she did an outstanding performance as a young Margaret Thatcher in The Long Walk To Finchley. I think part of the problem with this film was the two-stranded story. We have a modern-day young woman called Wally (Abbi Cornish) who becomes obsessed with the story of Wallis Simpson. This kind of two time-zone storyline is always a bit of a gamble, as you run the risk of one story being much more interesting than the other, and this is what’s happened here. There are also anachronisms. Again, this needn’t be a problem on it’s own. In fact, in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette the use of pop music and modern language worked well. Here, it’s just annoying (not to say a bit degrading, when we have Wallis grinding on down to the Sex Pistols). The main problem for me though is that this film isn’t really about Wallis Simpson at all, it’s more about Madonna carping on about her issues of fame and living in another country. The whole thing feels like an extended music video, and not a particularly good one at that. One critic on Rotten Tomatoes made the insightful point that ‘W.E’ is the work of a woman who hasn’t spent time with normal human beings in a while. TRIVIA CORNER: read an absolutely bonkers review of this on Amazon, in which the reviewer complained about the amount of cigarette-smoking that goes on (it was the 1930s, nearly everyone smoked back then), and that there would be no such thing as an American divorcee in that era. Wallis was twice divorced.
WHAT A CARVE-UP (1961)
Dir; Pat Jackson
Absolutely classic Brit comedy from the late 1950s along the Old Dark House line. The incomparable Sid James and his bumbling sidekick Kenneth Connor head up to Yorkshire, after Kenneth learns that a relative he’s never heard of has died and made him a beneficiary. They find themselves in a gloomy old pile, complete with a forbidding assortment of eccentric characters, including sexy Shirley Eaton (in pre-Bond Girl mode) as a nurse. Someone in the house is determined that no one is going to get out alive, and decides to bump off each character in a number of highly imaginative ways. It’s all great fun if you don’t take it too seriously. Surprisingly, it became the inspiration for Jonathan Coe’s excellent novel of the same name, which is well worth checking out too.
WHAT A WHOPPER (1961)
Dir: Gilbert Gunn
The opening shot has Adam Faith warbling whilst the camera does a close-up shot of a woman’s bottom as she ambles down the street. Yes, it’s the 1960s. One of those feelgood young dudes comedies of that era, in the ‘Summer Holiday’ mode. Adam Faith plays a struggling young writer. Unable to find any publisher to take his book about the Loch Ness Monster, he decides to fake an appearance by Nessie to get them interested. It all feels very innocent and knockabout. Being a farce, there’s lots of dashing about, clambering in and out of windows, that sort of thing. There are some duff notes. Freddie Frinton’s tiresome comedy drunk routine is an acquired taste (he also does it in the Terry-Thomas comedy, ‘Make Mine Mink’, so I assume that was his thing), and Scottish viewers might object to the nutter who is still constantly re-enacting Glencoe, but it all has an amiable, escapist feel. Sid James is on hand as a hotelier doing a spot of salmon poaching on the side, and Wilfred Brambell tries to convince us he’s a Scottish postman, even though his accent keeps lapsing into his native Irish. Spike Milligan pops up briefly, but he jars with the rest of the film, which is more gentle farce than Spike’s customary anarchic, surreal comedy. I wish Charles Hawtrey went with the gang up to Scotland, as he’s brilliant as a stroppy artist. “I’m inspired, buzz off!”
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962)
Dir: Robert Aldrich
The legendary cinematic pairing of two of the truly great movie icons of all time, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. This is an outstanding gothic melodrama, about a former child star, Baby Jane Hudson (Bette), who is now reduced to slopping around in her dressing-gown, and waiting on her invalid sister, Blanche (Joan), who was once a successful movie star. This is a dark look at sibling rivalry laid bare, of just how sisters can tear each other apart. Much has been written about the longstanding feud between the two ladies (and if you haven’t come across it, I can fully recommend Sean Considine’s excellent book ‘Bette And Joan – The Divine Feud’), but they were true professionals when making this. Although there are rumours that Joan put lead weights in her clothes, so that Bette would do her back in when she had to drag her across the floor!! Towards the end of her life, Joan denied there had been any rivalry, and said she admired Bette for her professionalism. Being a true pro herself, I expect she did … but somehow I think there was still extreme rivalry there! Bette meanwhile had some choice bitchy remarks to say about her co-star. Of how Joan’s breasts seemed to keep getting bigger. At one point she said she felt as though “I was running into the Hollywood hills” when she got near her. Both women are superb, but Bette steals the picture as Jane, the bratty child in a grotesque, elderly woman’s body, and her descent into full insanity. It’s one of the truly great films at showing the dark legacy of fame, particularly for a child star. Adored in your youth, and then forgotten forever after. Victor Buono is also superb, spot-on, as a conman, posing as a musical accompanist for Jane’s “comeback”. There is a also a good twist at the end. In his book, Considine includes a picture of Joan and Bette sitting side-by-side on set, and sharing a rare lighthearted moment together. He captioned it with “we will not see their like again”. No, somehow I don’t think we will. But at least we got to see them on screen together, even if it was only once.
WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE (1951)
Dir: Rudolph Mate
Classic sci-fi from the 1950s. Earth is on collision course with a rogue planet, which is due to smash into us. A select group of people will be evacuated, and sent to live on another planet. It has dated horribly in parts. For instance, all the lucky survivors are white (and presumably American). And whilst the men work feverishly to build the rocket in time, the women seem to have to content themselves with making the coffee and sandwiches. But it’s still entertaining enough.
WHERE ANGELS FEAR TO TREAD (1991)
Dir: Charles Sturridge
Elegant adaptation of an E M Forster novel, again using the Stuffy Brits Loosen Their Corsets In Sunny Italy plot. Lesser-known than ‘A Room With A View’, and lacking Julian Sands and Denholm Elliot (who both made ARWAV for me), but nonetheless this is still a well-made, engrossing film. Helen Mirren plays a widow who scandalises her family by marrying an Italian much younger than herself. She goes to live with him, only to find that her life in Italy, as a married woman, is far more restrictive than even that of a widow back in Blighty. Mirren dies after giving birth, and her English family are determined that the baby should be brought back to England. Adorable Rupert Graves, playing a stuffy bachelor, is sent (much against his will) to bring back baby, accompanied by his waspish sister and a dowdy spinster friend (Helena Bonham-Carter). Cue lots of jokes about the English just not getting the laid-back Italian lifestyle, and then falling in love with it (apart from waspish sister that is). My favourite is the scene at the opera. HBC complains that she wishes she’d dressed up more for the occasion. RG looks at her and says something like “why, I think you look absolutely splendid”. Ah the old charmer.
WHERE HAVE ALL THE PEOPLE GONE (1974)
Dir: John Llewellyn Moxey
A dad takes his kids pot-holing in the mountains of California. Whilst exploring the area is racked by what they think is an earthquake, but when they come out they meet a man who says he saw strange lights in the sky, and who seems to be suffering from radiation sickness. A solar flare has wiped out most of the world’s population. The idea of this 1974 ABC Movie Of The Week is a great one, but it’s let down by unendurably slow pacing and lethargic acting.
WHISTLE AND I’LL COME TO YOU (1968)
Dir: Jonathan Miller
Highly-regarded (and rightly so) short film, which does full credit to M R James’s classic ghost story. Shot eerily in black-and-white, every moment of this 40 minutes seems to have been crafted with great care and thought. Sir Michael Hordern proves his acting salt to the hilt with his portrayal of the lonely middle-aged academic, Professor Parkin, holidaying alone on the Suffolk coast. He mutters to himself, constantly seeks solace in food, and takes a gleeful childlike pleasure in his own words. Whilst out on one of his long, lonely walks he finds an old whistle and recklessly decides to blow on it. From that moment on he is haunted by strange figures following him along the beach, appearing in his dreams, and creepy rustling noises in his bedroom. Hordern’s rendition of the immortal phrase “who is it who is coming?” sends a shiver. You simply wouldn’t get such a film being made now. It would be stuffed full of CGI and over-the-top histrionics. For instance, take the scene where Parkin has the nightmare about the ghost pursuing him along the beach. In a far less competent version Parkin would wake up, sit bolt up right up in bed, and scream the place down. In fact, he does what most of us do after a nightmare. He opens his eyes, and lies there in quiet consternation. Any ghost story fan should treasure this. ADDENDUM: watching this again on YouTube just now, I was struck yet again by the quality of Michael Hordern’s performance. He really gets under the skin of this poor, lonely middle-aged man. An academic so locked in on himself that he can’t seem to communicate with anybody on a normal level. One YouTube Commenter made the interesting conclusion that Professor Parkin is doomed at the end to have the ghost as an unwanted companion, because Parkin has so shut other people out of his life.
WHITE MISCHIEF (1987)
Dir: Michael Radford
Glossy, weird film about the lives of the notorious Happy Valley set in 1940s British colonial Kenya. Greta Scacchi plays the beautiful young wife of middle-aged Joss Ackland. She falls for the dashing charms of Charles Dance, and all sorts of misery ensue. The film caused a rumpus when it first came out because of a scene where Sarah Miles (well-cast as dotty Alice de Janze) masturbates over a corpse. Usually this scene is cut whenever it’s shown on television. I think the problem I had with this film is that the characters are all so detestable why should anyone care what happens to them? Greta may look fetching in riding-breeches and a crisp white shirt but she is glacially cold. No one has a conscience, no one feels any remorse or guilt. No one seems to even really be enjoying themselves either for pity’s sake! They’re an inhuman bunch, a gang of spoilt, selfish psychopaths gorging themselves on rich food, booze and drugs in the hot sunshine, whilst everyone back home is suffering bombing and rationing. And to cap it all we have to endure the sight of Joss Ackland in drag at a gender-swapping party! An image that is scorched into my brain whenever I think of this film. About the only thing I really liked about it was the scene where Sarah Miles, on getting up one morning, looks out at the beautiful African landscape, and says “oh lord, another beautiful bloody day”. That sums the whole thing up really.
THE WICKED LADY (1945)
Dir: Leslie Arliss
It may be hard to believe now but there was a time when Margaret Lockwood’s magnificent bosom was enough on it’s own to give a film a saucy, notorious reputation. Such was the case with ‘The Wicked Lady’, an enjoyable bodice-ripper from 1945, made by Gainsborough Pictures. In some ways it was the ’50 Shades’ of it’s day, teaming Margaret with James Mason, whom she would go on to co-star with again in ‘The Man In Grey’. In ‘The Wicked Lady’, Margaret, looking stunning with her jet-black hair, beauty patch, and breasts threatening to burst out of her corset at any moment, plays a 17-century bad girl, Barbara. She lives up to her billing by seducing her best friend’s fiance on the eve of their wedding, then takes up as a highwaywoman, and joins forces with the dastardly Jerry Jackson (Mason), to rob a bullion coach, and even murders a tiresome old family butler along the way. There is nothing this unscrupulous little trollop won’t stoop to. Margaret Lockwood rises to the occasion magnificently, giving malevolent little smirks, and fierce glares when she can’t get her own way. She is backed by a good cast. Mason must have had many a female audience-goer fluttering with passion as the saucy Jerry Jackson. Patricia Roc is also on fine fettle as the jilted girlfriend, Caroline. This could so easily have been a thankless Melanie Wilkes-style role, but Patricia makes her more interesting than that, refusing to be blown off the screen by Lockwood, and proving an able match for her. Enid Stamp-Taylor is also on fine bitchy form as Barbara’s supremely catty sister-in-law Hetty, unwisely divesting Barbara of all her jewels at a card-game. The film was remade in 1983 by Michael Winner, but it’s not a patch on the original, which managed to be far more sexy with lot more subtlety. TRIVIA CORNER: the story of Lady Barbara Skelton was actually based on fact. There was a real-life aristocrat who turned to highway robbery to pay her gambling debts. She is now said to haunt the Hertfordshire countryside around her old home, and a local pub, ‘The Wicked Lady’, near St Albans, is named after her.
THE WICKER MAN (1973)
Dir: Robin Hardy
Cult British horror film, which often finds itself on lists of the best horror films of all time, and quite rightly so. Edward Woodward plays a God-fearing police officer, who is sent to a remote Scottish island, Summerisle, to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. When he gets there he finds the island a nest of Pagan-ism, with sex and nudity rife, and hints of human sacrifice to ensure a good harvest. Christopher Lee is the suave local Laird, who encourages pregnant women to come and dance around his garden. Hugely atmospheric, this is an exceptionally well-made film, which never for a moment lets up in its sense of unease. Woodward is great as the policeman. He’s narrow-minded and unimaginative, which would normally make him an unsympathetic character, but you know this man genuinely wants to do good. The finale of the film is truly horrific, as the islanders gleefully resort to murder, not because they’re evil, but because their hogwash beliefs have convinced them it is the right thing to do.
THE WILD BUNCH (1969)
Dir: Sam Peckinpah
Hugely acclaimed Western about a gang of ageing outlaws on the Mexican border, at the very tail-end of the Wild West era, in 1913. At the time it became notorious for it’s graphic violence, but is now regarded as one of the greatest Westerns ever made. I’ve heard rumours that there’s to be a remake, set in the modern day Texas-Mexico border, and involving the CIA and drugs-running. FFS, why can’t they leave things alone?
THE WILD GEESE (1978)
Dir: Andrew McLaglen
A sort of testosterone-charged macho action-flick for middle-aged dads. A bunch of ageing mercenaries reunite to try and spring an African leader from jail and overthrow a sadistic dictator, hired by a double-crossing banker (Stewart Grainger). Whenever this film is shown on television you can be absolutely sure the politically-correct mob on Twitter will practically go into meltdown, as (in their eyes) it breaks just about every taboo possible. But frankly I don’t think it does. There is a scene where President Limbani (Winston Nsthona) and a boorish white South African (played by Hardy Kruger) discuss the future of Africa, which is marvellously done. “The black man will have to forgive the white man for the past”, says Limbani “And the white man will have to forgive the black man for the present” (the present being the 1970s when sadistic dictators like Amin and Bokassa abounded all over Africa). I have also seen charges of homophobia levelled at the film. Well true, we do have Kenneth Griffiths camping it up all over the place as a medic, but it’s done in a very Alan Carr-ish way, and the character is completely liked and accepted by all the macho men he’s surrounded by. Griffiths also gets my favourite line in the whole film. On seeing a bunch of machete-wielding thugs heading towards him: “My! Aren’t you big bastards. What a shame we can’t be friends!” Frank Finlay puts in a brilliant turn as a foul-mouthed Irish priest, and Roger Moore is at his sexiest and most loveable as a cigar-smoking pilot, seeming almost boyish compared to the grizzled, rather more mature charms of Richard Harris and Richard Burton. It’s probably far too dark in parts to count as feel-good entertainment, but as an adventure thriller it still does the job just fine.
THE WILD WILD WORLD OF JAYNE MANSFIELD (1968)
Dirs: Charles W Broun Jnr, Joel Holt, Arthur Knight
Blonde bombshell Jayne Mansfield’s short career was definitely on the skids when this was being filmed, and yet if you were to believe her breathy voice-over you’d have thought she was Elizabeth Taylor or Brigitte Bardot. We keep being told that Jayne had a high IQ, and I want to believe it, but this pathetic, exploitative attempt to keep her fame in the public eye does her no favours at all. The “plot” has the camera following Jayne as she tours Europe, and largely consists of Jayne -sporting a ridiculous poodle hairdo – making limp double entendres as she shows us quaint European customs, like … er … soccer, and roadside prostitutes. There are also some utterly baffling moments, such as the tedious foot puppetry (I might be making that sound intriguing. It’s not, I promise you). Carrying a little dog, and going on about the paparazzi, and gatecrashing the Cannes Film Festival, she seems like a fore-runner of Paris Hilton. Filming of this began in 1964, and then dragged on for another couple of years, until Jayne’s untimely death in a car accident in 1967. As Kenneth Anger once rather bluntly put it, at her death she was as forgotten as a 1920s Silent Era star, which makes all this “I’m so famous, look how I’m being pursued everywhere by my adoring public” nonsense very sad indeed. This isn’t so much a wild, wild world, as a dull and embarrassing one. TRIVIA CORNER: Diana Dors, who met and worked with her blonde rival on the nightclub circuit, once said that she was perplexed that Jayne NEVER seemed to dropped the act, her public persona. Perhaps there was nothing else. Just a thought.
THE WITCHES (1966)
Dir: Cyril Frankel
Black magic in the English countryside, 1960s-style. Hollywood star (and former Hitchcock leading lady) Joan Fontaine plays a school-teacher who comes to work in a pretty little village which hides some dark goings-on. You don’t usually think of a horror film as idyllic escapism, but I’m afraid that’s largely how this film works these days. The horror elements are simply too tame to be impressive to a 21st century audience, and at times somewhat embarrassing, like finding the local parish council getting drunk and flirty on the scrumpy. I find myself watching it for the pretty village, and Joan’s life as a teacher in the kind of school I remember from my childhood. There is some interest too in watching the gin-swilling lady of the manor and her dark, ruthless side, “all my life I have pushed my brain to the utmost!” Ms Fontaine gives an admirably committed performance, and a young and handsome Leonard Rossiter crops up as a suave doctor. In spite of its so-so sinister aspects (and what on earth is all that stuff about at the beginning with the African voodoo??), I have a soft spot for this film, it’s like ‘Emmerdale’ as scripted by Dennis Wheatley, but I probably can’t recommend it as a real scare-fest.
WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968)
Dir: Michael Reeves
Vincent Price had many shining hours in the cinema, but this is the one for which he is arguably best known. A massive cult favourite, the film takes Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General of the 1640s, for its subject matter. Hopkins was a lawyer (wouldn’t you just know it!), who came to prominence in the years of turmoil during the English Civil War. He took to terrorising the countryside of East Anglia hunting down alleged witches, and executing them, either by hanging or drowning (a ridiculous act whereby someone was bound and thrown in a river. If they swam, they were a witch, and hanged, if they drowned, they were innocent). Although the real Hopkins was only a young man in his 20s when he carried out his reign of terror, and Price is middle-aged, it’s of no matter, as he still gives a chillingly cold-bloodied performance. Watching it again what struck me was that Hopkins is portrayed here not just as a corrupt official, but as someone who really seems to believe in what he’s doing. There is a drowning scene. When one of the victims is pulled out dead from the river, Hopkins gives a faux sad smile, and says bless her, she was innocent (or something like that), sounding as sincere as a platitudinous politician throwing a sop to his own conscience. I think the film was made in and around the pretty little Suffolk market town of Lavenham. Once you’ve seen this film, you will never look at it in the same way again!
WITHOUT WARNING (1994)
Dir: Robert Iscove
Severely under-rated American made for TV film, about asteroid attacks on planet Earth. It’s done in a War Of The Worlds mockumentary style, and premiered on Halloween 1994. Apparently, like our own ‘Ghostwatch’ a couple of years earlier, it unleashed a storm of controversy, and from what I can gather hasn’t been shown over there since. I caught it on Channel 5 one afternoon a few years ago, and remember thinking then that I’m amazed it’s not better known. Hunted it down on YouTube, and if you’re a fan of the mockumentary/found footage style, then it is well worth seeing. I admit I was feeling quite weepy at the end. Quite powerful in it’s own understated way.
THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)
Dir: Victor Fleming
“Oooooh We’re off to see The Wizard, the wonderful wizard of Oz / He really is a wiz-of-a-wiz …” One of the greatest children’s films ever made. I loved it as a child, and watched it again very recently. Am pleased to say the magic hasn’t faded at all. The colourised Oz segments are enchanting. When I was a child they made me want to write a fantasy story like this. The Yellow Brick Road, the Wicked Witch’s castle, the spooky forest, the poppy fields, and the Emerald City. All still magical. Judy Garland is a delight as Dorothy. Not only sparky and sweet (without being saccharine), but a brilliant song-and-dance trooper too. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in this role. The Munchkins are creepy little devils though! Much of the script has since entered the language (“I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more, Toto”), and ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ surely has to be one of the most covered songs of all time. Incredibly, The Wizard Of Oz made it into Channel 4’s Top 100 Scariest Films list a few years back, and yet I can see it has it’s moments at the Witch’s Castle. TRIVIA CORNER: there are some famous Urban Legends attached to this film, most particularly the alleged suicide of a Munchkin during the singing of “Follow The Yellow Brick Road”. It’s since been debunked that it was actually a piece of the scenery falling down.
WOLF CREEK (2005)
Dir: Greg McLean
I had heard of professional film critics walking out of screenings of this 2005 Australian horror in disgust (including Roger Ebert). As the film is about a serial-killer, I couldn’t understand why they were so outraged. After all, you expect it to be disturbing. The film is purportedly based on a true story (although there is some debate about this). A trio of young backpackers – 2 British girls and an Aussie guy – set off to explore the Australian Outback. Their vehicle breaks down, but they are rescued by a genial old Crocodile Dundee type, who even obliges them by coming out with things like “fair dinkum!” He seems the salt of the earth type, even refusing to accept money for his help. Of course he is nothing of the kind (otherwise this would be a very different film). He drugs them, and one of the girls wakes up the next day in his shitty old shack, and finds her friend tied to a stake, whilst the ranting homicidal maniac takes pot-shots at her. The first half of the film is very good. There is a genuinely eerie feel to it. I parted company with it at the aforementioned scene though. The girl’s distress was simply TOO realistic to be bearable. I found I simply couldn’t sit through it. I’ve read numerous charges about the film being nasty and exploitative, and against women. I suppose I shouldn’t judge, as I didn’t watch the whole thing, but if that scene’s anything to go by I can believe it. It was just horrid.
A WOMAN SOBBING (1972)
Third in the BBC Dead Of Night ghost stories, first aired in November 1972. Anna Massey plays Jane, a sexually-frustrated middle-class housewife, who keeps hearing the sound of a woman sobbing in her attic. The film adequately uses the old trick of “is it really happening / or is she going mad?” helped along by allusions to Gaslight. Ultimately though, this is a thoroughly depressing film. Although one part – where Jane is carrying out an exorcism in the attic – did make me jump, it’s a miserable over-rated affair. It doesn’t help that Jane simply isn’t a character I can care about. She’s moody, snappy, with a face like a dish of sour cream. Why on earth should I give a damn that this pampered woman, with a very comfortable lifestyle, healthy children, few stresses, feels frustrated with her lot? It trails all the worst nonsense of it’s era, that all housewives and middle-aged women are unhappy and unfulfilled. This is one of those very rare occasions when I wish Katie Hopkins would appear (don’t hate me), and kick this maudlin, self-pitying woman into shape. For chrissake woman, go for a long walk, take up a hobby, have it off with the gasman if you like, ANYTHING but this unjustly venerated garbage.
WORKING GIRL (1988)
Dir: Mike Nichols
Very few things make me feel nostalgic for the 1980s. It’s my least favourite decade. Margaret Thatcher, Greed Is Good, imminent threat of nuclear annihilation, Bros, Jive Bunny, and alternative comedy. But very occasionally something slips through to make me feel more fondly about it, although admittedly not very much. Lady Di frilly shirts, Adam And The Ants … and the big hair as worn in Working Girl. Whenever this film comes round on TV, suddenly Twitter is awash with younger people sneering “look at the 80s hair, OMG!!! The 80s were REPULSIVE!” Oh be quiet, you slaves to hair-straighteners. Do you honestly think that in 30 years time people won’t be sneering at your lifeless ironed hair? Big Hair was bloody wonderful. Although looking at this, you could be forgiven for thinking we all had some kind of Marie Antoinette complex. Anyway, the plot: Melanie Griffiths plays Tess, a very likeable young woman who walks out of her job after an unsavoury interlude in the back of a limo with her coke-snorting boss. She goes to work for the fiercely ambitious Katherine Parker (Sigourney Weaver), and is immediately awed by this smart, feisty woman operating in (what was then) still very much a man’s world. The scales fall from her eyes though when she finds that Katherine has been shafting her behind her back, and we see Tess transform into a shrewd businesswoman. As I say Melanie is very likeable, and you’re rooting for her, but I tend to lose interest when Sigourney Weaver is absent from the screen. The film still holds up well though (big hair and all).
THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH (1999)
Dir: MIchael Apted
One of Pierce Brosnan’s outings as Bond, from the late 1990s. I’m surprised I didn’t enjoy this one more. Brosnan is pretty close to Ian Fleming’s original characterisation of Bond, when all’s said and done. There is a heroine with a really cool name (Christmas Jones). Judi Dench as ‘M’, gets to do more than sit behind a desk and jabber into a red telephone. She also gives the M/Bond relationship a mother-son slant, which – when you read the books – is fairly close to the father/son relationship that Bond and M have. Robbie Coltrane pops up. And there are plenty of loud noises and fast action to keep us all happy. And yet for me it lacks heart. At the risk of sounding like an old fart, I feel there simply isn’t the fun or charm element of the Connery/Moore era. Brosnan may look the part, and adequately shows Bond’s ruthless side, yet he’s simply not interesting enough. He’s a cardboard cut-out Bond. With Connery we had a twinkly-eyed charm, coupled with lethal ruthlessness. With Moore he was plainly enjoying himself, and wanted us to do so too. This feels like an extended car/aftershave advert. The part I did think was very good though was when the boo-hiss villain Elektra (Sophie Marceau) taunts Bond that he wouldn’t really kill her. Oh you don’t know Bond, you silly ass. TRIVIA CORNER: Denise Richards has been voted one of the worst Bond girls of all time. It is true that she completely lacks credibility as a nuclear physicist, but as Bond girls go, she’s not that bad.
WORLD WAR Z (2013)
Dir: Marc Forster
Standard zombie flick, where Brad Pitt (the all-American family man) has to go off and save the world from a lethal epidemic, which is turning people into running and biting zombies. A bit of a mixed bag really. It has some exciting moments, but is let down by lazy characterisation of the first order. Brad does the earnest “hey I’m just a family guy doing a difficult job” routine which has been spoofed so many times, and which brings back unwelcome reminders of that pretentious perfume advert he did a couple of years back. I’m disappointed in Brad Pitt these days. He seems to have a permanent look of a dopey bloodhound who’s about to burst into tears at any moment. But as I said, the film does have some exciting moments, most notably the sequence where half the passengers get infected with the zombie virus whilst aboard an aircraft. It passes the time in an undemanding way, but I wouldn’t call it a classic by any means.
YIELD TO THE NIGHT (1956)
Dir: J Lee Thompson
Diana Dors, when looking back at her flamboyant life, was said to have remarked that, whatever else, she would always have ‘Yield To The Night’ to be proud of. And quite right she was too. Often mistakenly thought to be based on the trial of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain, ‘Yield’ was actually based on a novel by Joan Henry, which was published a year before the Ellis trial. The story is that of Mary Hilton (Dors), who is found guilty and sentenced to death for shooting dead her love rival in the street. The bulk of the film revolves around her 3 weeks in the condemned cell, with flashbacks as to what led her to be there. Dors is quite simply brilliant. Considering she was only 24 at the time she made this, she shows incredible maturity in her acting. In flashback mode, we get the DD we’re more used to, in full glam mode. In the condemned cell, we have her with her trademark platinum blonde locks scraped back from her face, and wearing a dowdy prison overall and slippers. The female cast dominate this film, reducing the men to helpless bystanders. Marie Ney gives a nicely nuanced performance as the prison governor, having to do her duty, yet trying to show gentle compassion at the same time. The prison warders are all revealed to be human. Even the crusty one, who keeps yearning for the “good old days” when punishment was punishment, is ultimately shown to have a tender heart under that starchy exterior. Athene Seyler is also note-perfect as Miss Bligh, the prison visitor. Dandy Nichols, who I’m more used to seeing in comedy roles, appears as Mary’s neurotic mother, unable to comprehend what is happening around her. All helped by a superb script. TRIVIA CORNER: Diana Dors met Ruth Ellis briefly when she made ‘Lady Godiva Rides Again’ a few years earlier. Ellis (unrecognisable with dark hair) had a bit part as a beauty queen. Would love to get my hands on that film, but have been unable to find it anywhere.
YOUNG VICTORIA (2009)
Dir: Jean-Marc Vallee
Lavish biopic detailing the first half of Queen Victoria’s life. It’s certainly a sumptuous film with a good cast, and yet it’s not a favourite of mine. Well worth watching for the costumes alone, and Emily Blunt is great as Victoria, but I’ve never felt any urge to watch it twice, and that’s in spite of the fact that I find the queen an interesting character.
YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967)
Dir: Lewis Gilbert
One of the most iconic of the Bond movies, largely down to Donald Pleasence’s show-stopping turn as Blofelt, the cat-stroking villain. This is the Bond cannon at its very best, largely helped also by John Barry’s superb score, and Sean Connery’s twinkly-eyed turn as “the lethal lounge lizard”. Even the unintentionally hilarious part, where Connery – a tall strapping Scotsman – has to try and pass himself off as a diminutive Japanese fisherman is held in great affection. Always well worth a look. I’ve read complaints of the sexism in the film, but to be honest I’ve seen far worse, and sometimes from stuff made in these so-called far more enlightening times! Believe me, if it was truly horribly sexist, there is no way I would be able to watch it all the way through, let alone watch it more times now than I care to remember. The beginning contains the scene of the astronaut being flung into the depths of outer space, which haunted me when I saw it as a child. I read someone on Twitter describe the sequence where Connery, flying Little Nelly, battles off the enemy, to the stirring accompaniment of John Barry’s James Bond score, as one of the most joyous moments in cinema history. I’m not arguing with that one.
ZIEGFELD GIRL (1941)
Dir: Robert Z Leonard
Oddly lacklustre musical about three women (Lana Turner, Hedy Lamarr and Judy Garland) who get taken on as Ziegfeld girls, strolling up and down staircases in outrageous costumes, and standing and smiling whilst they are crooned at. The costumes look absolutely absurd, to be honest, and the songs – apart from You Stepped Out Of A Dream – aren’t terribly memorable. Lana Turner is great as “Flatbush”, who finds all the attention and glamour hard to cope with, and turns to drink as a result. Unfortunately, we have to put up with James Stewart as her old boyfriend from back home, who thoroughly disapproves of her new lifestyle, and keeps wandering in and out of the film, constantly snarling at her like a moody bore. Give the girl a break! He comes good in the end though, and we get the more loveable Jimmy Stewart we’re used to seeing. Judy Garland gives an energetic performance as born trouper Susan, although the 1940s hair and clothes make her look far older than her years. Hedy looks mysterious and beautiful. It’s great for nostalgia buffs, but it doesn’t have the verve and fun of The Gold Diggers Of 1933 for example.