Friday 15 November 2013

The Terror of Dr Hichcock [1962]

THE TERROR OF DR HICHCOCK is an Italian gothic horror film that was directed by Riccardo Freda (under the pseudonym Robert Hampton) and originally released in June 1962 under the title L'orribile segreto del Dr Hichcock.  It stars Barbara Steele, Robert Flemyng, Silvano Tranquilli and Harriet Medin. Set in late 19th-century England it tells the story of Dr Bernard Hichcock, a brilliant but perverted surgeon whose necrophilia has not only taken over his own life but has also corrupted his wife, a willing participant in his twisted sexual fantasies.

This film is a good example of the contrast between the British and Italian gothic horrors.  While the two share a thematic focus on the veneer of respectability masking the decadence of the aristocracy it has always seemed to me that British horror films, particularly in the 1960s, were much more reserved than their Italian counterparts, as if British film-makers were reluctant to or prohibited from going too far with the material. Which of course results in the films purporting to deal with horrific, perverse or erotic subjects but in reality being unwilling to shed their own veneer of respectability.

Italian film-makers never appear constrained by anything so bourgeois as good taste and are unafraid to tackle head on the implications of the stories they tell.  While Hammer could quite happily have made a film in which necrophilia was hinted at, I doubt they could have made a film which featured scenes of its leading man in the throes of sexual ecstasy fondling and kissing the corpse of a young woman, as Freda has done in THE TERROR OF DR HICHCOCK.

It's interesting that British horror cinema produced plenty of male stars - Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing foremost among them, two refined and aristocratic English gentlemen - whereas in Italy the stars tended to be women, for example Barbara Steele and Edwige Fenech. Italian society may or may not have been as patriarchal as British society but its cinema at least was more egalitarian.  Steele gets top billing here above Robert Flemyng which would have been unthinkable in a British picture of the same period, even assuming she could have got the work in the first place.

Robert Flemyng and Barbara Steele as Bernard and Cynthia Hichcock
Anyway, I'll stop banging on about national / gender politics and get back to the film itself.  As the title implies, there's a great debt to Sir Alfred in this movie.  Freda has a great time chucking in as many references to the great man as he can manage; I spotted at least five but I'm sure there are more.  Hitchcock loved a perverted hero himself of course and in VERTIGO [1958] James Stewart's character is perhaps the most respectable necrophile in cinema history.  Not only that but the markedly less respectable Ed Gein served as the inspiration for proto-slasher PSYCHO [1960].  Both films are an influence on Freda's although he chose the high gothic of something like REBECCA [1940] as his visual touchstone.

Harriet Medin as the Mrs Danvers-esque housekeeper Martha

Martha supplies Dr Hichcock with a glass of milk for his wife, in a clear nod to SUSPICION [1941]

Two Hitch influences for the price of one here as Cynthia spies on Martha feeding the corpse-like Margherita
 Hitchcock is not the only influence however.  The famed Roger Corman series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, about which I have written extensively on this blog, were clearly in Freda's mind, not only in narrative and thematic terms but also visually.  Freda may not have been as great an artist as Mario Bava but his use of colour and the wide screen are reminiscent of the febrile images of HOUSE OF USHER [1961] and THE PREMATURE BURIAL [1962].

An extraordinary still from Cynthia's drugged, hallucinatory vision of her husband plotting to kill her
I've written about Barbara Steele many times before so I'll limit myself to saying she's excellent in this movie: for once she plays an entirely good character.

Barbara Steele
Robert Flemyng gets the best part though; even though he's an appallingly twisted individual he is also a life-saving surgeon so it's difficult to see him as wholly evil. Flemyng is very good at showing us just how conflicted Hichcock is and how his dark desires repulse even him.

Robert Flemyng

Since his death it has been suggested that Flemyng was a closeted homosexual; I don't know how true that is but if it is correct then it would go a long way to explaining why Flemyng is so good in this part.  I should point out that I'm in no way equating homosexuality with necrophilia, merely indicating that Flemyng may have had good reason to empathise with someone who had to suppress his own emotions.

Tuesday 12 November 2013

Boot Hill [1969]

BOOT HILL is an Italian spaghetti western that was written and directed by Giuseppe Colizzi and originally released in December 1969 under the title La collina degli stivali.  It stars Terence Hill, Lionel Stander, Woody Strode, Bud Spencer and Victor Buono.  As with countless other spaghetti westerns (and indeed many Hollywood westerns) this one deals with greedy, land-snatching businessmen who are making a fortune out of fleecing poor working men before a kind-hearted gunslinger intervenes to even up the score. What makes this particular socialist fantasy memorable is its supporting cast and circus setting.

Yes, I know it says BootS Hill but that just shows you how slapdash the approach to film distribution was in the 60s
But let's deal with the star first.  Terence Hill (or Mario Girotti, to use the name his mother gave him) was a pretty big star in Italian cinema of the 60s and 70s.  He had already made plenty of films using his real name, including a small role in Luchino Visconti's masterful THE LEOPARD [1963], before changing it in 1967 at the behest of the producers of another spaghetti western he was making at the time.  It must have been somewhat confusing for Italian audiences to see an actor they knew as Mario Girotti suddenly getting star billing as someone else.  Off the top of my head I can't think of any English-speaking actors who have changed their name midway through their career but then the Italian film industry works to a different set of rules.

Terence Hill as Cat Stevens (no really)
Anyway, the film Girotti was making was the brilliantly titled GOD FORGIVES... I DON'T! and in it he starred alongside an actor called Carlo Pedersoli who had also changed his name, to Bud Spencer.  The film was successful enough to spawn a couple of sequels, 1968's ACE HIGH and then BOOT HILL.  The three films qualify as a trilogy in that they all feature the same two actors in the same two roles but there's no narrative link between them, not unlike Sergio Leone's 'Man with no name' trilogy which I suppose was the intention.  Hill and Spencer proved such a popular double act with Italian audiences that they racked up 18 appearances together, perhaps most memorably in the two TRINITY films of the early 70s.  (Italian cinema being what it is, after the success of the TRINITY films BOOT HILL was re-released under a new title to make it appear another entry in that series.)

Bud Spencer (R) as Hutch Bessy.  And in the background is Luigi Montefiori.

The mention of Leone brings me to this film's supporting cast.  One reason I love Italian genre movies is the absolutely brazen approach they have to ripping off films whose success they want to replicate.  You have to admire the naivete / breathtaking stupidity of thinking that merely casting a couple of the same actors will be enough to see the money start flowing in.  Usually it's successful American pictures that get plundered for 'ideas' but not always, as BOOT HILL demonstrates: the casting of Strode and Stander is of course a direct nod to / steal from Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST [1968].  But it paid dividends in this instance because as pretty as Terence Hill is and as much as he looks like Franco Nero minus the moustache he's not very charismatic.  So it's left to the grizzled veterans to provide the interest with Hill basically showing up whenever someone needs shooting.

Lionel Stander and Woody Strode

That's no bad thing because Woody Strode in particular was a tremendous screen presence: he managed to carve out a pretty decent film career for himself at a time when that was no easy thing for a black man to do. Moreover, he did it playing strong, proud black characters that were a world away from the humble servants or workshy layabouts that had proliferated in US cinema up to that time.  Had he been born a couple of decades later I have no doubt that Strode would have become an action star to rival Richard Roundtree and Jim Brown.  He's well cast in BOOT HILL as a circus trapeze artist.

Woody Strode

Circus films were popular enough and therefore plentiful enough in the 50s and 60s to qualify as a cinematic sub-genre in their own right.  I suspect their emergence was due to the requirement for large-scale spectacle to fill the new widescreen lenses but aside from that I reckon they're a natural subject for movies.  You have lots of characters - many of them slightly shady - gathering together, performing thrilling and funny acts, and a constant change of location.  All human life is here, as they say.  They've died a death of late though.  Clint Eastwood's BRONCO BILLY is the last one that occurs to me although there was an intriguing HBO TV series called CARNIVALE a few years back, albeit one which only lasted for two seasons.  In BOOT HILL, Colizzi utilises the circus setting to good effect in one memorable sequence, a Hamlet-esque 'play within a play' that is used to prick the conscience of the bad guy.

A few other names worth mentioning briefly are, firstly, Victor Buono, a shifty-looking, corpulent and sweaty character actor who plays the shifty-looking, corpulent and sweaty boss man.  I've mentioned Buono before (in my review of THE EVIL) and he was very good at basically playing one part, a kind of American Roy Kinnear.

Victor Buono as Honey Fisher

The second name to mention is Luigi Montefiori, also known as George Eastman, one of the busiest names in Italian genre cinema both in front of and behind the camera.  He's probably most famous / infamous as the beast in Joe D'Amato's ANTHROPOPHAGOUS (also reviewed on this website), for which he also wrote the screenplay.  Finally, the circuit judge is played by wizened old Eduardo Ciannelli quite rightly slumming it for easy money in the twilight of his career.  Ciannelli was in dozens of Hollywood pictures from the 30s to the 50s before settling down to TV work.

Eduardo Ciannelli (L) as Judge Boone

I'd like to be able to tell you lots of interesting things about director Giuseppe Colizzi but I'm ashamed to say I know next to nothing about him and there is very little available on the internet.  What little I do know is that he only directed six films and that three of them were the trilogy discussed here; one of the remaining three was also a Terence Hill / Bud Spencer picture.

Saturday 9 November 2013

Candyman [1992]

CANDYMAN is an American horror film that was written and directed by Bernard Rose and originally released in October 1992.  It stars Virginia Madsen, Xander Berkeley, Tony Todd, Kasi Lemmons and Vanessa Williams.  Adapted from Clive Barker's short story 'The Forbidden' it tells the story of a post-graduate student working on a thesis about modern urban folklore who investigates the legend of Candyman, a hook-handed killer who appears if you say his name five times in front of a mirror.

A decent sized hit in its day CANDYMAN is less impressive twenty years down the line.  First of all it suffers badly from an affliction that besets so many films from its period, namely fuzzy photography, of a sort that makes the image look less like a film and more like a TV episode.  Only a week before I saw this movie I watched John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN [1978] and marvelled at how crisp and precise the photography looks, even now; by contrast CANDYMAN looks badly dated.

A cinema release from a major studio looking more like an episode of Friends
Secondly, despite a laudable attempt at contemporary relevance in setting the action amid the housing projects of the late 20th century United States the film fails to foreground the black characters sufficiently to make them much more than necessary plot hinges.  It's the kind of film that pats itself on the back for featuring black characters in its script but then features them only in terms of how they affect the central character, who naturally enough (this being mainstream Hollywood) is beautiful, white, successful and middle-class.

Virginia Madsen as Helen Lyle.  I have read that director Bernard Rose persuaded Madsen to be hypnotised for certain sequences so that her pupils would be fully dilated.  I guess this is what he was after.
Thirdly, although that central character is a woman the film makes no effort to present her as anything other than a victim, pursued as she is throughout the film by predatory black men.  Even her final transformation into vengeful spirit suggests that women can either be victims or monsters, with nothing in between.  Indeed, the rest of the film's female characters tend to fall into one or other of these two classifications.

Two victims: Helen and friend Bernie Walsh (Kasi Lemmons) (R)...

... and a monster - the grotesque, impassive female police officer (Rusty Schwimmer)
It's a pity that the film doesn't follow through on the promise of its unusual set up.  There aren't enough films made in any genre, let alone horror, which deal with the problems of the dispossessed and disenfranchised without portraying them as monsters.  Similarly, the film skirts around the issue of racism in modern American society; it is content to use historical racism and slavery as part of Candyman's backstory but there is no discussion, however brief, of the pervasive present day racism which explains black characters exclusively inhabiting the film's ghetto location.  Almost without exception the black characters are associated with squalor, crime, unemployment, and various other negatives; the exception (Vanessa Williams' character Anne-Marie) genuinely is just that - the exception.  And even she is a single mother living in a ghetto shithole.

Vanessa Williams as Anne-Marie McCoy
Those technological and ideological objections aside, CANDYMAN is a decent enough horror movie although it errs in keeping its trump card - Tony Todd's mesmerising performance in the title role - off screen for almost half the running time.  I have to say I also found the film's set piece climax to be unintentionally hilarious as Virginia Madsen, hair ablaze, crawls out from under a raging bonfire to hand back to its mother a baby that had previously been abducted by Candyman.

Tony Todd as Candyman
As I said earlier, CANDYMAN did well enough at the box office to spawn two sequels although these provided the proverbial diminishing returns and the franchise ended there.  As a horror icon, Candyman is not quite up there with Freddy, Jason, Michael Myers and Leatherface.  To me, his USPs - a hook for a hand, and swarms of bees which, much like normal bees, don't do very much and certainly aren't frightening - seemed rather like a movie monster designed by committee.  His means of summoning is so straightforward and manifestly effective as to be patently absurd, particularly when you're trying to prove his existence or otherwise.

Virginia Madsen gives it her all (and sheds most of her dignity) as Helen Lyle while Xander Berkeley slimes it up as only he can as her husband Trevor.  Keep an eye out for director Bernard Rose, who has a small role, as does Sam EVIL DEAD Raimi's brother Ted, who you may remember from XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS.

Ted Raimi
Bernard Rose made a couple of low budget British films (including the interesting horror movie PAPERHOUSE) at the end of the 80s before moving to Hollywood, lured no doubt by its promise of bigger productions. Unfortunately he only made three pictures in 10 years there and, evidently somewhat bruised from his encounter with the studios, embraced the digital revolution of the 21st century thereby opting for a less lucrative but, one hopes, more fulfilling career.

One final point worth noting is the score, which is by Philip Glass and is excellent.

Monday 5 August 2013

The Conjuring [2013]

THE CONJURING is an American supernatural horror movie that was directed by James Wan and originally released by Warner Brothers in July 2013.  It stars Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston.  It relates the supposedly true story of husband-and-wife paranormal investigators Lorraine and Ed Warren who in 1971 were asked to look into an alleged haunting at the Perron family home in Rhode Island.  It's not often that a film on general release gets my attention but THE CONJURING has been attracting excellent reviews, unusually for a horror flick, so I thought I had better run the rule over it.

Having watched it I'm moved to ponder just how many films these reviewers have actually seen because to my mind THE CONJURING offered almost nothing that hasn't been done many times before in countless other, better movies.  Indeed, the same director's last film - INSIDIOUS [2010] - is much much better (and also stars Patrick Wilson) but got none of the hoo-hah that this one has enjoyed.  It's basically a haunted house story and while there's nothing wrong with that it is a very familiar set-up so you'd think that the director would feel obliged to come up with something new to bring to the table.  However, what we in fact get is a bunch of over-familiar situations handled with professionalism but no flair.

This is one of those movies that makes you jump but doesn't send any chills down the spine or give you that prickly feeling in your scalp.  Which means there are plenty of shock moments - usually engineered in the editing room - but no fear, dread or atmosphere.  It's curiously constructed too, keeping Farmiga and Wilson off screen for most of the first half hour (bar an irrelevant subplot concerning a separate case) before building to an abrupt, muddled and unsatisfying conclusion.

One of the few dissenting reviews I'm aware of came from horror fan Mark Kermode who said that he went in wanting the film to be great, wanting to be scared, but just wasn't.  I know how he feels; genuinely frightening films are such a terrific experience and yet so few and far between that when you hear of one which promises to deliver exactly that and then doesn't it's a bitter disappointment.  It's not that THE CONJURING is a bad film - the four leads are engaging enough and there's a nice line in humour - but it's achingly average and certainly not worth the attention it has been getting.

Director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell are the creative brains behind not only INSIDIOUS but also SAW [2004] and its subsequent franchise so they're no mugs but I'm afraid this one is a spurned opportunity.  Far be it from me to tell you what to see but my advice would be to give this a miss at the cinemas (and in my humble opinion horror just doesn't work in cinemas anyway) and rent it only if you must but please don't do so if you've haven't already given INSIDIOUS a go first.  Timely advice, if I may be so bold, because I notice on imdb that INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 is now complete and scheduled for release in the UK next month.

[stills to follow]

Sunday 4 August 2013

Johnny Got His Gun [1971]

JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN is an American drama that was written and directed by Dalton Trumbo and premièred in May 1971.  It stars Timothy Bottoms with Jason Robards Jr, Donald Sutherland, Diane Varsi and Kathy Fields.  The film relates the thoughts and memories of a young American soldier grievously injured in WW2 and now a permanent resident in a military hospital.  The twist, if that's the right word (and I'm not sure it is), is that young Joe has lost both arms and legs as well as eyes, ears, nose and mouth.  He is entirely reliant on the nurses who provide his 24-hour care and his only sensory inputs are vibrations, such as footsteps, and when people touch him.

Aside from its unusual set up, JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN is notable for a couple of other reasons.  First, it is one of very few American films that is both anti-war and atheist; and secondly it was the first and last film to be directed by Trumbo, who earlier in his career had been a prolific screenwriter until he fell foul of the appalling anti-Communist witch-hunts of the 1950s.  Metalheads may also be aware that this film was the inspiration for Metallica's song 'One' and indeed footage from it was used in the accompanying video.

The hospital scenes make effective use of monochrome photography
Unlike, say, Lewis Milestone's PORK CHOP HILL [1959], which tries to have its cake and eat it by pushing a superficial 'war is hell' message but at the same giving us plenty of 'war is heroic and makes a man of you and is essential to sustain our freedom' propaganda, Trumbo's film is explicitly anti-war throughout and features no more than three or four minutes of war scenes - and even those are non-action sequences. One might say that describing it as 'anti-war' is insufficient; perhaps a more accurate term might be 'humanist' because Trumbo's pacifism is inextricably linked with his belief that there cannot be a merciful God who would permit the suffering that war must perforce entail.

Colour is used for thoughts and memories, such as this scene between Joe and Christ in his workshop
To explore this idea Trumbo uses the device of imagined dialogue between Joe, fellow casualties of war and Jesus Christ, played as a kind of well-meaning but ineffectual hippy by Donald Sutherland, who is managing their transport to the afterlife.  Joe asks Christ for help in determining whether he is dead - and truly conversing with Him - or merely dreaming.  After a lengthy discussion, Christ concedes that Joe is only dreaming and that He can offer no help; effectively, Christ - at least in Joe's mind - accepts that He does not exist.  Such a message would be almost inconceivable in current American cinema, even though US citizens are today engaged in largely pointless conflicts much as they were when JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN was first released.  It would seem that, at least on the political right, war and religion are very much part of the American way.

The horrors of war
It's easy to see then how holding views like Trumbo's could get you into a lot of trouble in the US, particularly in the 1950s when rabid anti-Communists spearheaded by Senator Joseph McCarthy were determined to root out anyone whom they suspected of holding views they considered to be un-American. This purge was especially severe in the artistic community where minds were more open and as such more likely to be sympathetic to a liberal, if not left-wing, kind of politics.  The sorry tale of this part of US social and cultural history has been told many times; suffice it to say that Trumbo was one of those who, when called to testify before the Senate about alleged Communists, refused to give evidence and was subsequently imprisoned and blacklisted.  Although Trumbo continued to write screenplays his work was credited to others and it was not until 1960 that the political climate improved to the extent that he could once again receive screen credits in his own right (for Otto Preminger's EXODUS).

Timothy Bottoms as Joe Bonham
Enough with the history already, let me turn to the film itself.  As you might expect, it's a profoundly humane film that for the most part achieves its aims efficiently.  Timothy Bottoms, here making his feature début, is a fine actor who was perhaps uniquely suited to the role of Joe.  There is something melancholy about his very appearance, a kind of long-suffering but undemonstrative world weariness that is perfect for the part.  On a couple of occasions the voice-over in the hospital scenes doesn't quite work but blimey it's a very tough part and on the whole he handles it very well.  The memory sequences, which are in colour as opposed to the harsh monochrome of the hospital, are very touching and quite unconventional.  For example, when Joe and his girl Kareen are caught making out on the couch by her father, he immediately banishes her to her bedroom before sending Joe in there after her, aware that his departure to France is imminent.

Joe says goodbye to Kareen (Kathy Fields)
Similarly, when Joe loses his father's prized fishing rod while out on their last camping trip together the old man (Jason Robards Jr, in another of his warm and wise paternal roles) consoles and embrace him rather than ruin their trip.

Joe's father embraces him as he confesses to losing the fishing rod
But humanity is ultimately shown to be vulnerable to being worn down by the horrors of war, not just among the victims but also among those untouched by the conflict itself.  The lack of humanity displayed by the military doctors comes not from injury or the privations of the trenches but from a lifetime of thinking with a military mindset.  The film's climax, while inevitable given the film's depiction of a monolithic organization, is incredibly moving; it evokes the same feelings of pity, rage, despair and yet hope for the indomitable human spirit as does Milos Forman's ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST [1975], which may give you some idea of this film's quality.

The nurse (Diane Varsi) spells out the letters of 'Merry Christmas' on Joe's chest
A few notes about the credits.  Trumbo I have talked about at length already so I shall just add that he based his screenplay on his own novel.  Oddly, imdb claims that Luis Bunuel was responsible for the Christ sequences but I'm not sure how true that is.  Cinematographer Jules Brenner had an interesting and varied career which included work on such delirious titles as HELTER SKELTER [1976], about the Manson family, Tobe Hooper's excellent mini-series SALEM'S LOT [1979] and Dan O'Bannon's RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD [1985].  He also lensed an obscure TV movie called THE NIGHT THEY TOOK MISS BEAUTIFUL [1977] which despite not being very good has somehow stuck in my mind since seeing it as a kid.  The score is by Jerry Fielding who, like Trumbo, had been blacklisted in the 50s.

David Soul (R)
In the supporting cast you may spot a very young David Soul and also Charles McGraw, one of my Dad's favourite actors who is chiefly remembered for a string of tough guy roles in B-pictures in the 40s and 50s, the best of which is probably Richard Fleischer's THE NARROW MARGIN [1952].  McGraw occasionally got small parts in much bigger movies, notably as the gladiator trainer who torments Kirk Douglas in Stanley Kubrick's SPARTACUS [1960] which was written by none other than Dalton Trumbo.

Charles McGraw as Kareen's father

Friday 2 August 2013

The Hospital [1971]

THE HOSPITAL is an American satirical comedy-drama that was directed by Arthur Hiller and originally released by United Artists in December 1971.  It stars George C. Scott and Diana Rigg.  Among the supporting cast are Barnard Hughes, Richard Dysart, Jordan Charney, Roberts Blossom, Katherine Helmond, Frances Sternhagen, Robert Walden and Stockard Channing.  It follows a hectic couple of days in the life of a Manhattan hospital which is beset by problems, not least of which is a serial killer apparently on the loose.

I can't decide whether it's oddly comforting or profoundly depressing that a lot of the issues identified by Paddy Chayefsky in his script are still besetting healthcare some forty years later.  On the one hand, you might feel reassured that today's problems are nothing new and therefore don't indicate an alarming drop in standards; on the other hand it seems the likelihood of these problems being solved any time soon is low. Healthcare delivered to a high standard and representing good value for money appears to be an impossible goal, particularly as money and resources are sucked out of the system by private companies while a growing equality gap pushes more and more citizens into an unhealthy lifestyle.

George C. SCott as Dr Herb Bock
There is a sequence towards the end of THE HOSPITAL when the serial killer, who has at last been identified, breaks down as he / she recounts a seemingly never-ending variety of cases encountered on a daily basis by healthcare professionals.  It's a genuinely moving and horrifying moment which goes a long way to explain the inadequacy felt by central character Dr Herb Bock (George C. Scott), whose impotence becomes a metaphor for his despair and powerlessness.

Diana Rigg as Barbara Drummond
This, er, somewhat unreconstructed idea of power, masculinity and sex being essentially interchangeable is reinforced when Bock is seemingly revitalised merely by dint of shagging free-spirited young hottie Barbara Drummond (Diana Rigg), who is in the hospital attempting to discharge her father.  Up until this coupling takes place about an hour in, the movie has been a hugely watchable blackly comic drama which, like Robert Altman's M*A*S*H [1970], recognises that the only possible human reaction in the face of such overwhelming problems is gallows humour.  However, after Bock's metaphorical resurrection the film tips over the edge into farce and loses a lot of its power.

Dr Bock bawls out Mrs Christie (Nancy Marchand) as an uncomfortable Hitchcock (Jordan Charney) looks on
It's tempting to read THE HOSPITAL as a state-of-the-nation assessment in the way that Lindsay Anderson's BRITANNIA HOSPITAL [1982] is, explicitly, for the UK.  Indeed, it's always tempting to read films about enormous, dysfunctional organizations as being metaphors for society as a whole.  But I think Chayefsky's script, at least in the second half, focuses too much on Bock's personal struggles and the resolution of the frankly ludicrous serial killer plot for this to apply here.  On top of that I think it would have taken a much stronger director than Arthur Hiller to really deliver Chayefsky's script properly, as flawed as it is.  Hiller, still alive at 89 but now retired, was a journeyman director whose career flitted from project to project for the most part leaving nothing in its wake other than professionally-made but anonymous and superficial movies.  Put it this way, if you wanted to make your film a genuinely biting satire about contemporary society then Arthur Hiller is not your man.

Robert Walden as Dr Brubaker
George C. Scott though is brilliant to watch; he's the type of leading actor I admire hugely, particularly because he is totally unafraid of playing fundamentally dislikeable characters.  There aren't many of that type around any more - the last was probably Gene Hackman and he has sadly retired.  It's difficult to imagine, say, Brad Pitt or Will Smith playing deeply unpleasant men; they're superheroes, essentially, whose persona is that of the ubermensch not Joe Public.  It's not really their fault because that's all that Hollywood requires of them; as far as the money men are concerned, Pitt and Smith were not put on this Earth to play realistic character parts.  And that, sadly, is a reflection of modern Hollywood and perhaps the main reason why I rarely go to the cinema these days; as flawed as THE HOSPITAL may be it is at least a film made by adults for adults, about and directed at recognisable human beings.

Dr Bock lets Dr Welbeck (Richard Dysart) know exactly what he thinks of him
Some notes about the wonderful supporting cast.  Richard Dysart, who plays the objectionable surgeon Welbeck, was a prolific character actor who had equal low-key success in film and on TV; coincidentally, in THE HOSPITAL his character has a heart attack and requires de-fibrillation, whereas in John Carpenter's THE THING [1982] his character administers de-fibrillation, with memorably gruesome consequences. Jordan Charney, who plays Hitchcock the slimy hospital administrator, played the slimy un iversity administrator at the beginning of GHOSTBUSTERS [1984].

Roberts Blossom as Guernsey
Roberts Blossom is a real film geek's actor who played small but significant roles in numerous quality movies and even got to play the lead once, in the Ed Gein biopic DERANGED [1974].

Katherine Helmond as Marilyn Mead
Katherine Helmond is well known for her terrific gallery of weird old ladies, particularly in the great sitcom SOAP and Terry Gilliam's BRAZIL [1985].

Frances Sternhagen (L) as Mrs Cushing and Stockard Channing (R)
Frances Sternhagen was another good character actress, who specialised in no-nonsense spinsters, such as the only person gutsy enough to assist Sean Connery in OUTLAND [1981].  Robert Walden was memorable as Donald Segretti in ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN [1976], a member of the White House 'ratfucking' team.  Stockard Channing is most famous of course for GREASE [1978] but is a talented and quirky actress who has probably been under-used in films.

Diana Rigg will always be Emma Peel and, probably for that very reason, had a curiously underwhelming film career.  Which is a shame because she's really good in THE HOSPITAL as the spunky, kooky and sexy Barbara Drummond; she more than holds her own next to George C. Scott and that's no mean feat.

Wednesday 31 July 2013

Blood Feast [1963]

BLOOD FEAST is an American horror film that was directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis and originally released in July 1963.  It stars, if that's the right word, William Kerwin (appearing pseudonymously as Thomas Wood), Mal Arnold, Connie Mason (also known as Mrs William Kerwin), Lyn Bolton and Scott H. Hall.  The story concerns a series of gruesome murders that has the citizens of Miami living in fear and the police department searching fruitlessly for a lead.

BLOOD FEAST would almost certainly not be remembered at all were it not for its ground breaking graphic depictions of murder and dismemberment.  You have to remember that it was released several years before Arthur Penn's BONNIE AND CLYDE [1967], George A. Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD [1968] and Sam Peckinpah's THE WILD BUNCH [1969], all of which are routinely cited (not least by me) as films that pushed back the boundaries of what could be shown on screen.  So Lewis, in his own ham-fisted, incompetent way, really was doing something no-one was doing.  Moreover, so extreme was his work that - in an unusual example of the movie business not jumping on to a bandwagon - pretty much nobody followed his lead, at least not for some years.  So when watching BLOOD FEAST one has to always keep in mind that one is witnessing a small but important piece of cinema history in the making.

See what I mean?  You can almost imagine the voice over: "Had a long day at the office Janet?  Want to slip into something more comfortable?  Well what could be more comfortable than your birthday suit?"
  Enough of the context already, I hear you cry, what of the film itself?  Well, frankly, it's shite.  More than anything it resembles a porno movie, more specifically a nudist / naturist movie.  You know the thing I mean: brightly lit, garishly coloured, badly acted pieces of trash in which all the girls look identical until they take their clothes off.  Which they do with great regularity, generally just before they get hacked to pieces. Indeed, one could probably ditch all the gore sequences, insert in their place some nooky and call the whole thing SEX FEAST instead.  And Lewis may well have done exactly that had he not spotted a gap in the horror market because several of the films he made before this one were indeed nudie cuties.

Connie Mason (R) as Suzette Fremont relaxes with her girlfriends by the pool
However, in one sense, Lewis's film prefigures a paradox evident in countless other poor quality horror films that have been released over the past fifty years: it comes alive only when depicting death.  Lewis guessed correctly that the average drive-in punter was less interested in credible characters and interesting dialogue than he was in, to put it bluntly, the money shot.  So whereas  in PSYCHO [1960] Sir Alfred Hitchcock took two or three shock sequences and painstakingly constructed a suspense film around them, in BLOOD FEAST Lewis ups the ante by including half a dozen shock sequences and adds the most perfunctory of narratives to a) link them together, and b) pad out the running time to a barely feature length 67 minutes. This truly is a film with the sole raison d'etre of giving throwing buckets of blood at you.

In probably the film's most effective scene, Detective Thornton and his boss discover Ramses' shrine to Ishtar
That being the case it's somewhat redundant to point out deficiencies in the script, acting, photography, editing, score and so on because it's clear that Lewis had very little interest in those aspects.  In fact, such was his lack of interest, he did the cinematography and music himself and apparently worked on the script too, although he isn't credited.  It would be tempting to consider Lewis an auteur, given his high degree of control over his projects and their, ahem, thematic unity.  However, I think it's more useful to regard Lewis as a businessman who happened to choose films as his vehicle for making money, not unlike Roger Corman. Seen in that way, Lewis's control is less a case of artistic vision and more a case of keeping costs down.

Mal Arnold as Fuad Ramses
Peddling images of naked ladies, dead ladies and dead naked ladies, Herschell Gordon Lewis would not be someone you would readily associate with promoting female equality but it's an undeniable fact that the script for BLOOD FEAST was written by Allison Louise Downe.  There were precious few women working in film production in Hollywood at that time, even fewer as scriptwriters and fewer still in exploitation movies, so Lewis and his co-producer David F. Friedman deserves some credit for that at least.

Ramses prepares the titular blood feast
Downe also had a hand in the make up and special effects which are actually pretty good and, despite the bad taste, are preferable to the absurd 'clutching at the chest and falling over' depiction of death that dominated cinema until Lewis came along.

William Kerwin (L) as Detective Thornton and Scott H. Hall (R) as Frank, looking suitably bemused