Friday 28 June 2013

The Abominable Dr Phibes [1971]

THE ABOMINABLE DR PHIBES is a British / American horror-comedy that was directed by Robert Fuest and originally released in May 1971.  It stars Vincent Price, Peter Jeffrey, Joseph Cotten and Virginia North with guest appearances from Hugh Griffith and Terry-Thomas.  Price plays Dr Anton Phibes, a horribly disfigured academic / concert organist who returns from the grave to wreak terrible rewengi on the team of surgeons and doctors who failed to prevent his wife dying on the operating table.

On the face of it, that description makes DR PHIBES sound little different to numerous other horror films of the period; the basic plot is almost identical to THEATRE OF BLOOD [1973] and not a million miles away from the Hammer version of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA [1962].  However, in other respects it is pretty much unique, certainly among British horror films: its incredible set design, innovative use of sound and determination to tell the story primarily through these elements (as opposed to the script) make it much closer to, and indeed precursor of, the almost abstract horror films produced on the continent in the mid 1970s.

An illustration of the superb production design for which DR PHIBES is justly renowned and an indication of how European (as opposed to British) the film's visual sense is - this still could easily come from a Dario Argento movie

In addition to its novel approach to form the film is notable for its bizarre sense of humour which encompasses surrealism, word play, visual gags and black comedy.

Two moments of broad comedy
Impressive as these separate technical and stylistic achievements are, it is the way in which they are drawn together to create a strange and unsettling but credible and consistent world of their own that sets DR PHIBES apart and the credit for that has to go to director Robert Fuest.

The hospital...
Early in his career Fuest had worked in television, mainly in the art department.  He is credited with production design on a number of episodes of THE AVENGERS in the early 1960s, eventually graduating to directing some episodes at the end of the decade.  By the time Fuest came to work on DR PHIBES he'd also got a couple of feature films under his belt too.

...and apartment...
The script is credited to James Whiton and William Goldstein but it is claimed that Fuest more or less rewrote the whole thing himself.  To what extent that is true I don't know; certainly Whiton and Goldstein did very little else in the movie business, so make of that what you will.  The claim certainly makes sense though because it would mean that Fuest essentially had total control of the production: writing, directing and almost certainly a big hand in the production design.  And that level of control could explain why the film has such incredible visual and thematic unity.

...and Phibes' house show demonstrate the consistent vision that sustains the film's look
The commitment to visual storytelling is total.  There isn't a single word of dialogue uttered in the first ten minutes and neither Dr Phibes nor his assistant - the fantastically named Vulnavia - speak any lines at all (Vincent Price's lines are recorded).  Imagine the problems that creates for the director, or at least a director of talkies because of course at one time all films were made that way.  And it is very much that period - the 1920s, the jazz age - to which this film looks back, not just in its period setting, but in the way it is put together.

Vincent Price as Dr Anton Phibes - the bolt on his neck is where he plugs his voicebox in
When you think about it, it's bordering on the perverse to hire Vincent Price - whose greatest asset was his wonderful voice - and put him in what is effectively a silent movie but that's typical of the film's high risk approach.  He's terrific in this though, as he is in almost everything he did; a little glance here, a pause there - this is how he builds the character of Phibes into a murderous lunatic and yet one who has been driven mad through grief.

Peter Jeffrey as Inspector Trout
Peter Jeffrey, memorable as the headmaster in Lindsay Anderson's IF... [1968], plays somewhat against type as the rather dim-witted Inspector Trout ("Pike!", "Bream!").  He's a primarily comic character though, which certainly was Jeffrey's forte, and yet he has an admirable doggedness about him and an endearing inefficiency that allows him to function as the film's nominal hero.

Terry-Thomas as Dr Longstreet, enjoying a mucky movie, another nod to the early days of film
Joseph Cotten, one of Orson Welles's closest collaborators and a link to the golden age of Hollywood, plays Dr Vesalius (these names!) and Terry-Thomas, who I've never really been a big fan of but is one of British cinema's most recognisable and fondly-remembered stars, one of the doctors on Phibes' hit list.  Also in the cast, as Vesalius's son, is Sean Bury who had a small but significant role in the aforementioned IF... as the bewildered new pupil Jute, and genre favourite Caroline Munro in yet another non-speaking part as Phibes' dead wife Victoria.

The curse of the first born: Joseph Cotten (L) and Sean Bury (R)
Behind the camera for DR PHIBES was Norman Warwick who was some of a horror specialist, having shot three anthology horrors, DR JEKYLL & SISTER HYDE [1971] and four episodes of HAMMER HOUSE OF HORROR [1980], among others.  The film's terrific score which includes beautiful arrangements of period songs was written and arranged by Basil Kirchin; it really is excellent and, despite only getting a brief mention from me, is an integral part of the film's quality.  The film was produced by American International Pictures, or AIP, the great US B-movie production company for whom Roger Corman made most of his best work, including the famous Poe / Corman cycle of films, most of which starred Dr Phibes himself, Vincent Price.

One final word about Robert Fuest.  As if to prove the old Hollywood adage that 'you're only as good as your last picture', Fuest only made three more features after DR PHIBES, despite its strong performance at the box office.  One of those three was a direct sequel - DR PHIBES RISES AGAIN - which appeared in 1972.  Another was the Michael Moorcock adaptation THE FINAL PROGRAMME [1973] which I saw recently and was very impressed by.  Fuest's final theatrical feature was made in America in 1975 and is called THE DEVIL'S RAIN; it has a terrible reputation and is often cited as being the only film in which you can see John Travolta melt and Ernest Borgnine turn into a goat.  Although that is perfectly true I actually think it's better than most people would have you believe: it builds up a very eerie atmosphere and benefits from a superb cast (plus William Shatner). It got a critical shoeing sadly and for Fuest that was that: a promising film career killed stone dead.  He continued to work but almost exclusively in television. He seemed happy enough with his lot though and often turned up at film festivals and fan conventions to talk about his career.  He died last year aged 84.

Thursday 27 June 2013

Dredd [2012]

DREDD is sci-fi action movie that was directed by Pete Travis and originally released in July 2012.  A British / South African co-production, it stars Karl Urban as the titular badass, Olivia Thirlby, Lena Headey, Wood Harris (from THE WIRE, playing another drug dealer) and, er, well that's pretty much it in terms of people anyone's heard of.  Unless you had a traumatic brain injury in 1976 or you're one of those sniffy types who wouldn't be caught dead reading comics, you'll be familiar to some degree with the central character Judge Dredd.

He's been around a long time has Dredd and despite his huge popularity (at least in the UK - I don't know how successful the comics have been overseas) he has thus far steadfastly refused to become the movie franchise superhero that various producers have dreamed of.  Up until last year, only one movie had made it to screens at all: Danny Cannon's shiny but basically shite JUDGE DREDD [1995], starring Sylvester Stallone.  So underwhelming was it that it all but killed Cannon's movie career and frightened studios off the character completely.

Karl Urban as Judge Dredd
So what of this second attempt?  Well, the first thing to say is that it is significantly better than the previous one.  It's much darker, much less frivolous and doesn't have Rob Schneider in it.  The second thing to say is that Karl Urban is an infinitely better Dredd than Stallone was.  I kind of got that impression with Stallone that he regarded himself as the hero and that Dredd was merely a costume that he happened to be wearing in the movie.  That's not the case with Urban who, by virtue of doing less, makes Dredd come alive as a character - this is the Dredd who I remember from when I was a kid.  There are still one or two attempts to humanise him that I could have lived without but the point is that Urban serves the character, not the other way around.

Mega City One
Unfortunately, I had some problems with the rest of it.  I reckon the decision to limit the action to one tower block, excuse me, mega block, was a big mistake.  Leaving aside the fact that it immediately invites comparison with not only all the other tower block movies that have been made in the last 12 months but also DIE HARD [1988], such a decision effectively ignores the 30-odd years of incredibly detailed lore that has built up around Mega City One.  You're telling me that the best idea they could come up with out of all that was one tower block?  For the entire movie?  That's painfully unimaginative.

Lena Headey as MaMa
Similarly, given all the fantastically bizarre perps Dredd has come up against over the years I find it hard to believe that a sadistic drug dealer was the best option the film-makers could have gone for.  Lena Headey tries her best as MaMa but the character is so underwritten it's untrue, and indeed she's off screen for most of the movie.  It might have been better to not have a chief baddie at all and instead go for a faceless army, as in ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 [1976] a film which DREDD in some ways resembles.

Broadwater Farm.  Sorry, Peach Trees tower block
In making these choices, it seems that a conscious decision must have been taken somewhere along the line to try to make Mega City One less fantastic and more realistic, more familiar, more believable.  Well that has been achieved but with the result that it now seems like a not too far distant vision of some of our planet's more deprived cities.  Which makes it depressing.  Very depressing in fact.  The problems that beset Mega City One are not the fantastically exciting comic strip problems of 2000AD but drug dealing, over-crowding, corruption, gang warfare, endemic crime and violence.  I said earlier that I though the film was less frivolous than the Stallone version, and it is, but it's gone too far the other way.

MaMa enjoys some Slo-Mo - these sequences are stunningly beautiful
In itself that might not have been such a drawback - after all an incredibly grim vision of the future didn't stop CHILDREN OF MEN [2006] being a terrific movie.  But when your hero is essentially a fascist's wet dream it spells trouble.  I say that because we all know - or at least those of us intelligent and humane enough to be left-wing know - that the solution to none of those problems listed above is 'letting the police kill everything in sight'.  Now I know it's a comic book character, and I know it's an action movie, but with the way things seem to be going at the moment around the world - with human rights being curtailed, police thuggery, the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer - I'm just not in the mood to see what is effectively a masked copper in riot gear indulge in extra judicial murder.  I see quite enough of that on the news thanks.

Olivia Thirlby as Judge Anderson
So I think that is why, in the end, I'd have to say I didn't like DREDD. It does a lot of things right: it's undeniably exciting and some of the technical aspects are quite brilliant, especially the sound design and the beautiful, dream-like Slo-Mo drug sequences.  But it suffers from the gloating sadism that marrs so many action films these days and, unforgivably, reduces one of the great comic book characters to merely one of the participants in what is, ultimately, just another running, jumping and shooting movie.  It'll have to do in the meantime, but the definitive Judge Dredd movie is yet to be made.

Tuesday 25 June 2013

Laura [1944]

LAURA is a noir-ish detective thriller that was directed by Otto Preminger and originally released in November 1944.  It stars Gene Tierney as the title character, Clifton Webb, Dana Andrews, Vincent Price and Judith Anderson. It's one of those films that has sustained its popularity over many years, first by virtue of being a superior piece of screen entertainment and latterly because certain critics found in it sufficient evidence to support the then fashionable psychoanalytic film theory.  In my view (or should I say 'gaze') it's a good thriller with a couple of nice twists, no more, no less.

Like Daphne Du Maurier's REBECCA, the film concerns a central female character who is dead but whose presence haunts those who knew her.  One such person, waspish newspaper columnist and radio personality Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), claims to know her better than anyone and as such is the first person detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) contacts when he takes over the investigation into her death.  Others include her on-off fiance Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) and aunt, the independently wealthy Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson).  Through flashbacks we learn how Laura was given a start in the advertising industry via a product endorsement from Lydecker and then built on that start to become a successful and wealthy woman.

Gene Tierney as Laura
However, we also learn that she had a complicated love life.  Lydecker was a close friend but also a jealous companion who resented Laura's other male friends and actively to destroy their reputations through his influence.  McPherson, a charming but feckless Southerner, intended to marry Laura but possibly only for her money and may have been conducting affairs not only with Treadwell but also one of Laura's employees. So when Laura is found murdered in her lavish apartment, her face destroyed by a shotgun blast, there is no shortage of suspects for McPherson to consider.

From L to R: Clifton Webb, Vincent Price and Dana Andrews
Rather than being a true film noir, I'd call LAURA a classic Hollywood melodrama with noir-ish elements.  I don't think it's morally dark enough to qualify as noir and there isn't enough duplicity or cynicism either.  Nor is there a femme fatale, although it's certainly true that Laura, in life and death, casts a spell over those who come into contact with her.  But that's more to do with their own desires than intent on her part.

Lt McPherson awaits his first meeting with Waldo Lydecker...
Dana Andrews does make for a proper noir hero though: he's principled and tough but finds himself being drawn into a world which offers him experiences he perhaps had only dreamed of.  Will he get in over his head or will he manage to pull himself back from the brink?  That's proper noir territory.  Waldo Lydecker, on the other hand, is a very campy character, all Wildean put-downs and acidic quips; film noir is a complex genre with a number of defining characteristics but 'camp' was not one of them.

...which takes place in the bathroom
I like Clifton Webb though: he's the kind of actor who could only really have become a star in the 1940s and who doesn't really have an equivalent today.  He was well into his fifties when he made LAURA and became a star overnight but, even then, he was somewhat difficult to cast and made films only infrequently.  I haven't seen that many of his film but he's particularly good in the terrific THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS [1956].

Lydecker sits impassively as his manipulation of Laura hits top gear
Dana Andrews was one of those guys, like Glenn Ford, who was essentially a bit underwhelming, even dull. But even they found roles that suited them, Ford in westerns as the stoical everyman and Andrews in noir thrillers as the 'blank canvas' hero whose sheer ordinariness makes the delirious events which overtake them seem all the more bizarre.  As such it's not easy to pick out a favourite Andrews performance; however, I can say that my favourite film he's in is the very creepy NIGHT OF THE DEMON [1957].  Vincent Price is a favourite here at Cinema Delirium as regular readers will know and it's good to see him playing a straight role in this movie.

Richard Matheson [1926 - 2013]

Only a matter of weeks after the death of Ray Harryhausen comes the news that author Richard Matheson has passed away, aged 87.  I mention those two together because as a kid growing up in the 1970 there were several figures in the world of genre cinema whose names you just knew, automatically.  You knew Harryhausen for his stop motion animation wizardry, Ray Bradbury for his elegant stories, Robert Bloch for his ghoulish scripts and Richard Matheson for having a hand in seemingly any half-decent sci-fi or horror movie out there. With Matheson's death all four are now gone and with them goes a small but significant part of my childhood.

It's no exaggeration to say that Matheson's contribution to delirious cinema is simply too vast to deal with in depth - no doubt there will be biographies out soon enough, if there aren't already, that will attempt to do so - so I shall confine myself to mentioning what are for me the highlights of his career.

I have written before about this brilliant novel (here) which has been filmed at least four times and inspired many others.  Before I read it I had always wondered what the title meant.  It wasn't until I finally got around to reading it a few years ago that I found out, and marvelled at the perfect logic that lies behind it.  I would urge you to pick up a copy and give it a go.

"The Shrinking Man" / THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN [1957]
Unlike a lot of authors who sell the rights to their work to film producers, Matheson more often that not managed to ensure that he was responsible for adapting his own stories for the screen.  Such was the case with "I Am Legend" / THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (although he was dissatisfied with the outcome) and with THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN.  The "incredible" was presumably added by producers to sensationalize their film but it remains a wonderful movie that, while containing its fair share of giant scissors, fights with spiders and so on, comes closer than perhaps any other sci-fi film to being a metaphysical examination of what it means to be human.

One of my favourite films of all time, regardless of genre, and also one of the great achievements in British cinema, one day this movie will get the praise it deserves.  There have been one or two critics over the years who have recognised its quality and I can do no more than quote one of them, David Pirie, who wrote of it:

"Richard Matheson, who scripted it, was able to improve immeasurably on Dennis Wheatley's ponderous novel, and it is consequently the best film that [Terence] Fisher and Hammer ever made, an almost perfect example of the kind of thing that can happen when melodrama is achieved so completely and so imaginatively that it ceases to be melodrama at all and become a full-scale allegorical vision."

Thinking about it now, that line about the confines of melodrama being transcended to produce allegory is applicable to a lot of Matheson's work, in particular those I have highlighted here.

THE POE / CORMAN CYCLE [1960 - 65]
Matheson didn't write scripts for all of these famed movies but he did four, including two of the best in HOUSE OF USHER [1960] and THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM [1961].  This series of films made by American International Pictures has, unlike The Devil Rides Out, received fulsome praise over the years for its baroque splendour and faithful recreation of Poe's doom-laden atmosphere.  Proof, if it were ever needed, that Roger Corman isn't / wasn't a cynical exploitation merchant and that Vincent Price, who stars in most of them, was a bloody good actor.  You can read my review of The Pit and the Pendulum here, although to my shame I've noticed that I don't mention Richard Matheson at all; that's how much I take his work for granted.  I think I ought to go and remedy that so I shall leave this article here.

PS - Can't believe I haven't mentioned THE TWILIGHT ZONE.  Or Matheson's work with Dan Curtis. Or THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE.  Or DUEL.  And on and on...

Monday 24 June 2013

Hercules [1958]

HERCULES is an Italian historical epic that was directed by Pietro Francisci and originally released in February 1958 under the title Le fatiche di Ercole.  It stars the greatest cinema strongman of all time in Steve Reeves, as well as Sylva Koscina, Ivo Garroni, Gabriele Antonini, Fabrizio Mioni and Gianna Maria Canale.  The film is the direct starting point for the wave of similarly-themed Italian pictures that dominated Italian cinema for nearly ten years.  I've written before about the sword-and-sandal, or peplum, genre before (here) so I won't go over it again; suffice it to say that HERCULES is the daddy who spawned them all.

The model for the peplum was 'big strong hero is given a quest and, after overcoming many obstacles, completes it'.  Nothing wrong with that of course: when you get down to brass tacks, hundreds of thousands of films the world over utilise the same model.  Indeed, 'the quest' is properly identified as one of the seven basic plots to which all narratives allegedly conform.  Moreover, it's also the model which the original legends follow - Jason, Ulysses, Perseus, Theseus, they were all questers.

Steve Reeves as Hercules
Not that the Italians rigidly followed the legends of course; they stitched together the best bits from all sorts of legends in creating their fantasies.  HERCULES is a case in point: we get a couple of the twelve labours, the retrieval of the golden fleece alongside Jason and the rest of the Argonauts, and an encounter with the Amazons (although Hercules doesn't obtain the queen's girdle and she isn't called Hippolyte).

Hercules saves Iole from her runaway chariot horses
In some ways, these Italian peplums are my favourite genre.  What I like about them is that they are pure fantasy, drawing as they do on some of the most powerful mythical archetypes.  There is a reason these tales have endured for so long, much longer in fact than Biblical stories: they speak to us of pure heroes, of gods and immortals, of fabulous beasts and monsters, of great love and great evil, of great deeds and wretched villainy.  They are what story-telling is all about, in essence, and therefore at the root of what good cinema should also be.

Hercules rejoices having implored the gods to grant him mortality
Unfortunately, HERCULES is a bit rubbish, albeit in a completely endearing way.  There are a load of things that are obviously wrong with it: Reeves can't act, the script is banal and some of the effects are pitiful. If I was being uncharitable I'd describe it as being like JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS [1963] with all the Ray Harryhausen bits taken out.  It's one of those films which, if you watched it with a group of mates, you'd be sniggering all the way through. But watch it on your own and it wins you over, almost despite itself.

Hercules defeats the Cretan bull, sort of.

Jason (R) gingerly approaches his prize - the golden fleece
Yes, Reeves can't act but watching him perform is like watching the myth made flesh - was there anyone better suited to play Hercules than Reeves?  I very much doubt it, and I say that as a huge admirer of Nigel Green in the aforementioned JASON movie.  You can see why the film was a massive success, regardless of its many flaws, and that's because the one thing it absolutely had to get right was its depiction of the hero and the producers scored a bullseye in Reeves.

Iole's beautifully designed bed chamber
The one other thing the film has in its favour is on the technical side.  Although director Pietro Francisci was somewhat anonymous, he lucked out in having the great Mario Bava as his lighting cameraman and effects guy.

My admiration for Bava is well documented on this blog and in HERCULES, despite not having total control, his personal stamp is all over it, and in particular the scenes that stand out.  There's a sequence early on when Iole, recounting a childhood memory, awakes from a nightmare; the set design and, especially, the lighting are beautiful, strange and sinister, all at the same time, and a huge contrast to the rather bland visuals that Francisci routinely offers us.

The young Iole wakes in fright
I can't prove it of course but I imagine this sequence was largely Bava's work; compare it to some of the stills I used to illustrate my review of HERCULES IN THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (linked above) to see the similarity.  Better still, get hold of a copy of Bava's anthology horror BLACK SABBATH / I TRE VOLTI DELLA PAURA [1963] - which has just been released on blu-ray - and marvel at his use of colour, light and darkness to create an atmosphere of dreamlike fear.

Steve Reeves (L) aboard the Argo
Of the supporting cast, there's not much to be said.  Love interest Sylva Koscina became a middling European star but crammed well over a hundred appearances, some of them big budget American productions, into her sadly prematurely ended career.  The striking Gianna Maria Canale, who plays Antea, Queen of the Amazons, was already well into her movie career by the time of HERCULES, having previously appeared in Riccardo Freda's landmark horror film I VAMPIRI [1956], reviewed elsewhere on this blog.

Sylva Koscina as Iole

Gianna Maria Canale as Antea
Steve Reeves was of course primarily a bodybuilder although he did actively seek acting roles and was apparently determined to break into movies.  That said, despite his huge international success it seems he didn't enjoy acting and is quoted as saying he found it very stressful.  Which is probably why he only made twenty-odd pictures and retired from the screen in 1964 (although he did return for one last role in a western in 1968).  After that he retired to his ranch to raise horses, his other great passion.  A passion in fact that you can see in HERCULES as he was a talented horseman who did all his own riding stunts.  He died in May 2000, at the age of 74, film immortality ensured.

Hercules brings the house down

Sunday 23 June 2013

Tropic of Cancer [1970]

TROPIC OF CANCER is an American sex comedy that was directed by Joseph Strick and originally released in February 1970.  It stars Rip Torn, James T. Callahan, David Baur and Phil Brown.  Based on Henry Miller's semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, the film depicts events - usually to do with his attempts to get laid or drunk - from Miller's life in Paris in the 1930s.  However, the film is not a recreation of that period; rather it is an attempt to capture the spirit and flavour of Miller's work, played out in modern Paris.

I must confess I haven't read any Henry Miller but I certainly wasn't expecting a film adaptation of perhaps his most famous work to be a zany sex comedy.  I expected the sex part of course as even I am aware of Miller's preoccupations but a comedy?  And not just any old comedy - more than anything the film reminded me of Woody Allens's early films; you might say that TROPIC OF CANCER resembles nothing so much 'Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Henry Miller... But Were Afraid to Ask'.  However, in the film's defence, Allen had directed only one film at the time so maybe he nicked his style from here.

Sometimes the Woody Allen parallels are overwhelming
Once I got over that initial shock I actually started to enjoy it.  There's no plot to speak of; instead we follow Miller (Rip Torn) around Paris in the wake of him being dumped by his wife Mona (Ellen Burstyn).  He circumvents the problem of having no money by prevailing upon his friends to feed and house him for one night a week each while, during the day, whiling away the hours drinking, screwing and generally having a great time.  Each fling gets its own short episode and so the film builds into a series of what are essentially sketches.  For instance, one sketch sees Henry take a job at a boys school in Dijon where, responsible for improving their English, he delights them by telling them about animals with enormous penises.  Another sketch sees him tasked with ensuring the son of an Indian diplomat gets laid.

Henry Miller teaches French boys some life lessons
Were it not for occasional passages from Miller's novel narrated by Torn I would have been hard pressed to tell this had anything to do with him at all.  Films about writers and writing are notoriously difficult to do well and director Strick makes the sensible decision to not even try but in so doing breaks the link between the film's subject and its source.  I can see why the idea of adapting the book appealed though: this was very much the permissive era in the US and a lot of films from that period took advantage of the opportunity to treat sex with more frankness than had hitherto been possible.  Miller had been ahead of his time in breaking this puritanical taboo with his writings so I suppose the time was ripe.

Yes that really is Sheila Steafel on the left, with her hand on Rip Torn's schlong
I wouldn't say the film is shocking exactly but it's certainly unusual to hear to c-bomb dropped so regularly in a film, especially one that's well over 40 years old.  Similarly there's more pubic hair on display than just about any mainstream film I can think of.  So it's explicit then but not liberated for the women are barely credited with any independent thought, being mere receptacles for Miller and his uncontrollable wang.  I'm intending to read the novel to satisfy myself that Miller was more enlightened than this film makes him appear; I can't believe his literary fame rests on such chauvinistic foundations.

A typically objectifying still, of Ellen Burstyn
You have to give credit to Joseph Strick for making the attempt at all; he clearly didn't mind tackling the impossible - he also directed an adaptation of ULYSSES [1967].  That his film works though is almost entirely due to Rip Torn, whose performance is so carefree, uninhibited and engaging that - as feckless and amoral as he is - it's impossible not to like him.

Rip Torn
Torn is a fine actor who, if the cookie had crumbled a different way, would have had the career that Jack Nicholson has had, having originally been cast in Nicholson's role in EASY RIDER [1969].  They are very similar in a lot of ways, Torn and Nicholson: both strongly linked to the independent and experimental strands of US movie making, both have an anarchic streak a mile wide and both have embraced the mainstream as they have got older.  Nicholson was lucky in that his defining roles came relatively early in his career, and in motion pictures; Torn had to wait a lot longer but eventually hit paydirt in the role of Artie, Garry Shandling's no nonsense producer in THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW, one of the great comedy shows of all time.

Even the credits remind me of Woody Allen's films

One or two points about the supporting cast.  Ellen Burstyn was a big star in the 70s and made some fine films but sadly you only seem to see her these days in documentaries about THE EXORCIST [1973], which is a terrible waste.  Henry Miller's friend Van Norden is played by Phil Brown - not the ex-Hull manager but the actor who played Uncle Owen in STAR WARS [1977].  Sheila Steafel was, and still is in fact, a familiar face on British TV so it was something of an eye opener to see her doing topless ballet in this film.  I shan't ever look at THE GHOSTS OF MOTLEY HALL in the same way.

Saturday 22 June 2013

Blacula [1972]

BLACULA is an American horror film that was directed by William Crain and originally released in August 1972.  It stars William Marshall, Vonetta McGee, Thalmus Rasulala, Denise Nicholas and Gordon Pinsent. It is notable for being the first horror film made expressly with black audiences in mind, that is to say the first horror / blaxploitation film.  As such it dispenses with almost all of the customary tropes of a vampire movie - period setting, European location, aristocratic characters and high gothic design - and instead updates the action to 1970s Los Angeles.

William Marshall - a handsome and imposing classically-trained actor with a voice so deep he makes James Earl Jones sound like Joe Pasquale - plays Mamuwalde, an African prince cursed by Count Dracula himself to the eternal hunger of vampirism.  When the contents of Castle Dracula are sold to a pair of American antique dealers, Mamuwalde's coffin is transported to LA where he awakes and almost immediately bumps into Tina (the luminous Vonetta McGee), the likeness of his now long dead wife.  Not surprisingly, bodies soon start turning up all over the city and, before the police can act, then disappearing.

William Marshall as Blacula / Mamuwalde
In a refreshing display of professionalism, this strange turn of events attracts the attention of Dr Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala) a funky pathologist who looks like he came second in the Compton All-Comers John Shaft Lookalike Contest.  Thomas happens to be married to Tina's sister Michelle (Denise Nicholas) and before you know it he and Mamuwalde are sipping French champagne with their beeyatches down at the local nightclub.  However, as the bodies pile up, the adversaries are soon facing off in much less cordial circumstances.

Thalmus Rasulala as Dr Gordon Thomas
Once Hollywood producers cottoned on to the hitherto untapped black audience and started making films with them in mind - a process which started in 1970 - it was only a matter of time before the first horror-themed blaxploitation movie hit the screens.  So I suppose BLACULA deserves a footnote in film genre history for being that ground-breaking movie.  Unfortunately it's not very good.  Well, actually that's a bit harsh; given the total lack of expertise in this field, plus the fact that those inexperienced film-makers were also trying to shoehorn an intrinsically European narrative form into contemporary black culture, it's probably about as good as can be expected.

Blacula about to strike (William Marshall's dignity not pictured)
It benefits from a commanding central performance by William Marshall who brings a considerable amount of dignity to a part that is essentially ridiculous; I mean, his character is called Blacula for goodness' sake. Marshall is given good support by Thalmus Rasulala as the Van Helsing equivalent; at times, and in particular whenever Blacula is offscreen, Rasulala's performance is just about the only thing holding the film together. The reason I say that is because William Crain's direction is dreadfully pedestrian and unimaginative: the entire film has the dreary look of a TV cop show.  You would have hoped too that a film made by and for people who had been oppressed so terribly and for so long would have been less conservative: there are two dreadful homosexual stereotype characters who are then routinely referred to as "faggots" for the rest of the film.

Two gay antique dealers who make David Dickinson look like Lee Marvin
There are two other things worth mentioning about BLACULA.  First is the presence in the cast of Elisha Cook Jr, one of the most beloved and prolific character actors of them all.  This is a man who started his career in 1930 and ended it with a recurring role in MAGNUM, P.I.  Check out his entry on imdb - he racked up a mind-blowing 215 screen appearances in various media.  He's in so many films that he's almost certainly in one of your favourites; he's in at least three of mine.

The wonderful Elisha Cook Jr
The second thing worth mentioning is Gene Page's terrific soundtrack.  It's not as well known as the scores to other blaxploitation films - usually SHAFT [1971] and SUPER FLY [1972] get all the attention - but it's almost as good.

The beautiful Vonetta McGee
One final note about Vonetta McGee, the fondly-remembered and always interesting cult actress.  She blazed a trail in being one of the very few black actresses to have a major role in a spaghetti western (or any kind of western come to think of it) in Sergio Corbucci's IL GRANDE SILENZIO [1968], with Euro acting legends Jean-Louis Trintignant and Klaus Kinski.  Back in Hollywood she appeared in several blaxploitation (apparently she disliked the term) movies as well as bigger budget affairs such as the Clint Eastwood mountaineering flick THE EIGER SANCTION [1975].  Sadly, after that she seemed limited to sporadic TV appearances although she was cast by uber-fan Alex Cox in his classic weirdie REPO MAN [1984].  It's a great shame that she never really hit the heights but I guess at least she found work; countless African-American actors in previous generations didn't even get that.  She died of a heart attack three years ago, aged 65.