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

Monday 29 July 2013

The Mole People [1956]

THE MOLE PEOPLE is an American sci-fi adventure film that was directed by Virgil Vogel and originally released by Universal in December 1956.  It stars B-movie legend John Agar with Hugh Beaumont, Nestor Paiva, Alan Napier and Cynthia Patrick.  The story concerns a group of intrepid archaeologists who penetrate the Earth's crust and discover a lost tribe of albinos who keep as slaves a race of vicious mutant mole-like humanoids.

A good few years ago there was a website called Dave's Funky Premise Generator (don't look for it; it's not there any more) the purpose of which to produce gloriously high-concept plots for bizarre movies.  A typical example would be something like "Shape-shifting monks struggle to repopulate the Earth in the ruins of post-apocalypse Miami" or "Dwarven heroes fight for gender equality on the high seas".  I flatter myself to think that my summary of the plot for THE MOLE PEOPLE would have fitted right into Dave's generator.

Dr Baxter, walking us through Symmes' 1818 Hollow Earth theory (no really)
Amazingly for a film with such a ridiculous title THE MOLE PEOPLE takes itself wholly seriously, to the extent that it even starts with an introductory lecture (by "Dr Frank C. Baxter - Professor of English, University of Southern California") on man's fascination with what lies beneath his feet.  Citing figures as diverse as Gilgamesh and Dante, Dr Baxter actually delivers a rather good little presentation although he clearly can't quite bring himself to mention the film's title - although it's entirely possible that Universal didn't have the balls to tell him what it was.

From there we are transported to "Asia", which isn't enormously helpful but was presumably sufficient to convince drive-in patrons that these events were talking place somewhere other than Pig's Knuckle, Arkansas, where Dr Roger Bentley has discovered a sort of Sumerian Rosetta Stone which hints at the fate of an ancient tribe that vanished off the face of the Earth several thousand years before.

Then, following an earthquake, a local yokel finds a second artefact - an oil lamp inscribed with further hints about the lost tribe. Apparently they took to an enormous ark to survive a catastrophic flood and came to rest on top of an enormous mountain, Kui Tara.  Never one to miss an obvious sign like that, Bentley packs up his team and sets off to scale the mountain and find the lost tribe.

From L to R: Hugh Beaumont, Phil Chambers, John Agar and Nestor Paiva
Great stuff no?  Indiana Jones-esque you might think, and you'd be right.  Unfortunately, unlike the good Dr Jones, Dr Bentley has a tiny budget and, behind the camera, a timid field-mouse in comparison to the planet-dominating colossus that is Steven Spielberg.  What it does have though is a terrific enthusiasm and a script that isn't afraid to go large on the historical / anthropological references.  Even better, it has a splendidly liberal attitude - slavery bad, theocracy bad, science good, multiculturalism good - which really sets it apart from a lot of other red-baiting, reactionary 50s movies.  Indeed, the original ending which hinted at the likelihood of harmonious mixed race marriage was kyboshed by Universal in favour of a meaningless bittersweet finale.

The summit of Kui Tara (NB some of this is painted in)
John Agar, who looks disconcertingly like a young Orson Welles, is suitably lantern-jawed as the hero and Alan Napier, familiar to millions as Alfred to Adam West's Batman, is great as Elinu the Machiavellian High Priest albino.  Agar had a career not unlike that of Tim Holt, in that they both started at the top and slowly dropped down the pecking order to the point where all they got were leads in cheapo genre movies like this one.  However, one man's cheapo genre movie is another man's ticket to immortality and Agar is remembered fondly for his starring roles in some of the best known sci-fi and horror flicks of the golden age, such as REVENGE OF THE CREATURE [1955] (the first sequel to THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON [1954]), TARANTULA [1955] and THE BRAIN FROM PLANET AROUS [1957]. It is a measure of the goodwill toward Agar from within the trash cinema community that he was still being cast in genre efforts into the 21st century.  He died in 2002, aged 81.

Roger Bentley (2nd left) and Jud Bellamin (2nd right) with the grievously wounded LaFarge (centre) under armed guard

Alan Napier as Elinu
The rest of the cast don't make much of an impression, least of all Cynthia Patrick as the dolly bird slave girl. It's just about worth noting Nestor Paiva, who plays the cowardly LaFarge; surely one of the most prolific character actors of all time, Paiva racked up a scarcely believable 298 acting credits in a 30-year career, many of them in B-movie gems like this one.  Director Virgil Vogel (wonderful name!) evidently wasn't cut out for motion pictures but had a prolific career directing TV movies and episodes including, remarkably, MIAMI VICE.

Attack of the Mole People!
When I've made it big in Hollywood I'm going to remake THE MOLE PEOPLE as a $250M blockbuster and finally give it the treatment it deserves.  The title will probably have to go but, on second thought, maybe I do something with that too...

THE MOLE PEOPLE (Main Title) (m. John Barry / l. Cinema Delirium)

(to be sung to the tune of Goldfinger)

"Mole People! (BAH-DAH-DAH-DAH)
They are moles
But they are people too...
Just like you!"

Monday 8 July 2013

Providence [1977]

PROVIDENCE is a French / Swiss drama that was directed by Alain Resnais and originally released in January 1977.  It stars John Gielgud, Dirk Bogarde, Ellen Burstyn, David Warner and Elaine Stritch. Written by British playwright David Mercer the film recounts one night in the life of a dying paterfamilias author who, unable to sleep, fantasises scenes from his final novel played out by his relatives.  Resnais is known to English-speaking audiences chiefly for his films HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR  [1958] and LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD [1961].  Those two films and PROVIDENCE use unconventional narrative structures to explore themes of memory, identity and the difficulties inherent in human interaction.

A word which crops up a lot when you read about this film is 'scatalogical' and it's certainly true that John Gielgud's character Clive Langham is obsessed with his bodily functions, or perhaps more accurately malfunctions: this must be the only film in which we see Gielgud administer himself a suppository (albeit, thankfully, under the bedsheets).

The king on his throne
It's also true that Langham employs very coarse language to catalogue his agonies (four years before his equally foul-mouthed Oscar-winning performance in ARTHUR [1981]).  But what I was curious about prior to seeing the film was why it had an 18 rating.  It couldn't just be for the swearing, surely?

This kind of thing got you an 18 rating back in the 1977; nowadays you can see it on Channel 4
To clear that point up first, I don't think it is the language, at least not solely.  There's a scene quite early on of an autopsy and it's very graphic so I imagine that's what did it because, at the risk of putting people off, there's certainly no sex or violence in it.  I know it's a minor point but film classification has always been an issue which fascinates me, particularly in cases such as this where it doesn't seem to correspond to the subject matter at all.

David Warner enters the room...
I don't think it would constitute a spoiler to say that for the majority of the film the characters played by Bogarde, Burstyn, Warner and Stritch are constructs of Langham's literary mind.  Similarly the scenes they enact represent passages from Langham's final novel, the one he hopes to complete before he dies.  As the film progresses, Langham rewrites some of these passages meaning we see some scenes played out twice, with the same characters reciting different dialogue, or the same dialogue recited by different characters.  For example, in one sequence Warner's character enters a hotel room; Langham quickly realises he meant someone else to be in this scene, so Warner exits and we cut to Stritch's character entering the room.  This is done deliberately to confuse the viewer; it's a visual representation of both the process of artistic creation and the artist's bodily decay, specifically his mental confusion.

...but it's Elaine Stritch who opens the door to let Dirk Bogarde in.  Note the hotel room has slightly changed: the decor is the same but there's now a staircase down to the door
This sort of metafiction can be very effective and I'm surprised it isn't used more in films.  It abounds in literature of course, notably in the work of John Fowles (The French Lieutenant's Woman and the ending of The Magus) and Muriel Spark (The Comforters).  I suppose that writing isn't seen by movie producers as being a sufficiently cinematic activity and most of them instinctively shy away from anything that might be regarded as being too clever for its own good.  Or at least in the US they do; not so in Europe.

The deliberately artificial backgrounds help sustain the metafiction
I'm also surprised that PROVIDENCE isn't more widely known or even screened.  It's a very satisfying film that is entirely free from the intellectual sterility that some critics perceive in Resnais's work.  Sure, it's initially somewhat confusing as you try to figure out who is who and what the significance is of the bizarre series of encounters which make up the film.  But Resnais makes that pretty clear early on and the game then becomes trying to work out how much truth there is in Langham's fictional representations of his family.

Gielgud approaches WITHNAIL levels of swearing and boozing in this film
PROVIDENCE won a lot of awards when it came out, particularly a great number of Cesars, the French equivalent of Oscars or BAFTAs.  Gielgud said that it was one of only two screen performances (the other being BRIDESHEAD REVISITED [1981]) in which he took any pride.  He's terrific in it, relishing the chance to get his teeth into a proper part.  His swearing, which was used merely for comic effect in ARTHUR, is more significant here, indicating Langham's essential amorality.  Indeed, a phrase which crops up repeatedly is the "moral language" that is sought by Langham's son, who self-denying honourable behaviour is in marked contrast to his father's.

Dirk Bogarde as Claude Langham
Dirk Bogarde is an actor who for a long time I dismissed, based largely on the fact that he was such a fey individual who never seemed to make the kind of films I found interesting.  To me he represented the lightweight nature of British cinema, as compared to the much more breezy Americans.  However, as I've got older and my tastes have changed I've realised that in the second half of his career, Bogarde actually made some very challenging movies, especially in European art house films, and had a refreshing disregard for whether or not he played likeable characters.  I think that started with VICTIM [1961] which seemed a conscious decision to distance himself from the matinee idol roles he had played in the 50s in favour of more complex parts.  It can't have been easy for the homosexual Bogarde to have played straight romantic leads and it's tempting to read VICTIM as being a tacit declaration of who he felt himself to be.  He would have denied that of course, as he continued to deny accusations of homosexuality to the day he died, but sometimes actions speak louder than words.

David Warner (L) on trial for shooting a werewolf (no, really)
David Warner is a favourite of mine, as my recent review of THE BOFORS GUN [1968] testifies.  Ellen Burstyn I've also mentioned recently in TROPIC OF CANCER [1970].  They're both good in this, as is Elaine Stritch who I seem to remember was on British TV a lot in the 80s without ever quite knowing what she was famous for.

Elaine Stritch
Of the supporting cast, Denis Lawson is familiar to millions if not billions of film fans from his roles in the STAR WARS movies.  Peter Arne had small parts in dozens of terrific movies and TV shows, adding depth and colour to the smaller roles such as alongside Warner in Sam Peckinpah's troubling STRAW DOGS [1971]; he was murdered in 1982.  Anna Wing, who was most famous for playing grumpy old Lou Beale in EastEnders, has a very small part as Langham's devoted housekeeper.

Updated on 11/07/2013 to add:  It was announced earlier today that Anna Wing, mentioned in the final sentence of my review of PROVIDENCE, passed away last Sunday at the grand old age of 98.

Thursday 4 July 2013

Scanners [1981]

SCANNERS is a Canadian sci-fi thriller that was written and directed by David Cronenberg and originally released in January 1981.  It stars Stephen Lack, Patrick McGoohan, Michael Ironside, Jennifer O'Neill and Lawrence Dane.  The plot, such as it is, concerns a young man who discovers he possesses extraordinary telepathic powers which bring him to the attention of a shadowy corporation who want to harness those powers for their own ends.  SCANNERS is best known today for a couple of startling images and for being the penultimate film Cronenberg made before he went big time.  It's less well known for being almost certainly the best film ever made to feature not only the cover of a Japan LP but also one by The Jam.

A lot of my early film memories are stills from the big hardback horror movie books I had as a kid but often the most vivid recollections are from posters for films that I was way too young to be able to get into the cinema and actually see.  One image that stood out for me was the terrifying, snarling face of the beast from AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON [1981].  I can picture the poster right now and I can even remember where I first saw that poster: outside the Midland Arts Centre in Cannon Hill Park in Birmingham.  I would have been 9 years old.

Another such image is a drawing of a Michael Ironside from the climax of SCANNERS.  I can picture that poster too.  Ironside is standing sort of side on with his arms down by his sides, wearing black trousers, a black waistcoat and a white short with the sleeves rolled up.  I know they're rolled up because you can see the veins on his arms bulging out; not only that but the veins on his head are bulging out too, obscenely so. His mouth is wide open as if he's releasing a roar of aggression or pain.

Thinking about it now, you have to wonder about a film classification system that rated films as being unsuitable for children but permitted posters to be displayed to the general public - including kids - that carried some of the most extreme images those films had to offer.  Anyway, the posters were obviously very skilfully designed because those images, among many others, have stuck in my mind for over thirty years.

I can't remember whether any of the posters for SCANNERS also carried the notorious image of that bloke's head exploding but I'm sure I was aware of it well before I ever got to see the film itself.  It's possible I saw the image in one of my movie books but however I first came to lay eyes on it that image too was burned into my memory.  I imagine I first saw the film sometime in the late 1980s, almost certainly on video.  I can't really remember what I thought of it but the fact that I'd not bothered to watch it again until today probably means I didn't think that much of it.  So how does it bear up to a second viewing after all that time?

The first thing to say is that I saw it on a lovely big widescreen TV on blu-ray and with surround sound so that instantly makes it a better viewing experience than first time around.  The second thing to say is that I'm probably a much tougher sell as a viewer than I was back in the 80s: I'm not so easily swayed by blood and guts as I used to be and I've seen an awful lot more films - good and bad - since then too.  Any film re-viewed under those conditions is going to have to be very good to appeal to my more mature taste.

A superb still to illustrate how good SCANNERS looks on blu-ray
I'm afraid SCANNERS doesn't fall into that 'very good' category.  I'm not even sure that it scrapes into the 'good' category.  More than anything it reminded me of a cheapo rip-off of Brian de Palma's THE FURY [1978], which wasn't very good to start with.  Instead of Andrew Stevens you get Stephen Lack, a gormless looking guy who doesn't have anywhere near the level of acting ability required to cut it as a leading man.

Stephen Lack as Cameron Vale
And instead of John Cassavetes you get Patrick McGoohan who recites his lines very slowly in that deep voice of his in an attempt to imbue them with some significance.  At least it does have Michael Ironside - one of the great genre actors - who in Darryl Revok plays the film's most interesting character, a guy so tormented by his powers that he drilled a hole in his forehead to try to relieve the pressure on his brain.  It's Revok who 'scans' the bloke whose head explodes and it's Revok who is the guy I remember from the poster.

Michael Ironside as Darryl Revok
Aside from the ropey acting, the main problem I had with the film is that it doesn't go anywhere.  It's essentially a long chase with a showdown at the end.  Very little is made of the Parallax-lite ConSec organisation, who want to exploit the scanners, and very little is made of the dangerous drug 'ephemerol' that is being prescribed to pregnant women, two interesting ideas that aren't developed.  The showdown, when it comes, is also a disappointment, being a bizarre mix of the climax from THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK [1980] and one of those gurning contests.

Cameron Vale about to get inside Ben Pierce's head, in every sense
It isn't actually a bad film - the action sequences are well handled, the photography (by regular Cronenberg collaborator Mark Irwin) is excellent, the production design is good and there is obviously a strange sort of intelligence behind it - but somehow it never quite comes together.  Except, of course, for the special effects, which were supervised by Hollywood legend Dick Smith.  Even though the film itself isn't that good it's still worth watching for these superb sequences.  One of the guys in Dick Smith's team was Chris Walas, who went on to handle the effects in THE FLY [1986] and won an Oscar for it.  Less creditably, Walas directed the sequel which came out three years later and was a total dud.

Darryl Revok scans a scanner...

...and makes his head explode
Patrick McGoohan is known the world over for his TV work but had a strangely unfulfilled film career; he made some good movies (SILVER STREAK [1976] and ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ [1979]) but I think ultimately his range was too narrow and he always gave the impression of being magnificently bad tempered.

Patrick McGoohan as Dr Paul Ruth
Stephen Lack was only really moonlighting as an actor and made just eleven films; he's now a reasonably successful artist.  Jennifer O'Neill, who despite star billing is only in half the movie, was on the cusp of stardom in the early 70s but never quite made it, perhaps because she chose some poor projects.  Fans of delirious cinema will know her for her appearance in the Lucio Fulci movie SETTE NOTE IN NERO / THE PSYCHIC [1977]. Lawrence Dane is a prolific Canadian character actor who I wouldn't have known from Adam a couple of months ago but I then saw him in a fairly obscure but interesting backwoods-slasher flick called RITUALS [1977] in which he made an impression.

Lawrence Dane as Braedon Keller
Robert A. Silverman, who plays the criminally insane scanner-turned-sculptor Ben Pierce, is an occasional actor who functions as something of a calling card for David Cronenberg, having appeared in five of his films to date.

The Mask of Satan [1960]

THE MASK OF SATAN is an Italian gothic horror film that was directed by Mario Bava and originally released in August 1960 under the title La maschera del demonio.  It stars Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Andrea Checchi, Ivo Garrani and Arturo Dominici.  It is a tale of witches and warlocks, of terrible curses, of earthly love and of hatred that endures beyond the grave.

Although Riccardo Freda's I VAMPIRI [1957] is generally recognised as the first Italian horror talkie, and is a good film in its own right (see review elsewhere on this site), it was Bava's official d├ębut feature that really set the ball rolling.  Eschewing Freda's modern day horror Bava opted instead for a period setting, as Hammer had done so successfully with their recent adaptations of Dracula and Frankenstein.  Again like Hammer, Bava laid on the gothic trappings with a trowel: castles, horse-drawn carriages, aristocrats up in the big house, rhubarbing locals in the tavern, you name it.  However, unlike Hammer, Bava really tested the boundaries in terms of gruesome visuals, to the extent that the film was cut significantly by foreign distributors, notably the Americans.

Barbara Steele taking her dogs for a walk down by the cemetery
As much as I love British horror films, I've always had the feeling that they soft-pedalled the horror, that they were usually held back by a sense of propriety or 'good taste'.  The horror or sadism, or indeed lust and desire, always had to be implied or understated.  Even in the 1970s when things were less uptight and Hammer felt able to introduce nudity into their films, it was always done in a very decorous way.  You never get that with Italian horror films, which are - for the most part - entirely unencumbered by piffling considerations such as decency.

The titular mask
The opening sequence of THE MASK OF SATAN is a good example.  We see a witch tied to a wooden frame, a spiked mask is hammered on to her face and she is burned at the stake.  No matter how many times you see it, it's a powerful and shocking sequence.  As if the mask itself were not sufficiently horrific, the sight of the executioner - masked and wielding an enormous hammer - and the realisation of what he's going to do is even worse.  

Bombardier Billy Wells was never like this
This is the point at which most horror films, and particularly the British ones, would cut away to perhaps a shadow image or an offscreen howl of pain.  Bava, however, not only shows you the hammer blow but also the immediate effect of it.  

What you can't see from this still is the blood pumping out of Asa's face.  Cor.
It's hard to imagine what a surprise that must have been to audiences of the day, unused to such graphic depictions of sadism and torture.  Imagine sitting in the cinema seeing that and wondering what - now the boundary had been redefined - what else the director might have in store for you. Wonderful.

Andrea Checchi (L) and John Richardson (R)
The rest of the film, while gorgeous to look at, doesn't really live up to the power of that first few minutes. On top of that the storytelling - never Bava's strongest suit - is slack to the extent that the film seems a lot longer than its 80-odd minutes.  The photography, set design and lighting are exemplary, and Bava peps things up as best he can with hidden passages, trapdoors, crumbling tombs, creepy forests, and even a mob armed with torches and pitchforks but despite a series of remarkable images and an at times overwhelming atmosphere of decay what you end up with is a less than gripping and, by now, fifty years on, really rather tired narrative.

The hand of the decaying but very much alive Javutich reaches out from the grave
Barbara Steele was of course one of the great scream queens of European horror and has been discussed many times on this site.  John Richardson, who plays the hero, Dr Andre Gorobec, was a handsome but wooden British actor who made a few desultory European genre movies and even a few in England, notably Hammer's SHE [1965] and ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. [1966].  Andrea Checchi, as the ill-fated Dr Kruvajan, was a significant figure in pre- and post-war Italian cinema and had such a long and prolific career that he was still acting well into the exploitation years.

John Richardson (L) and Ivo Garrani (R)
Ivo Garrani, who plays young Prince Vajda, is another legend of Italian cinema with a career of such longevity that it makes Checchi's look fly-by-night.  Garrani was in Pietro Francisci's HERCULES [1958] that I reviewed a few days ago, as well one of my all-time favourite films - Visconti's THE LEOPARD [1963].  He's still alive is Garrani, at the ripe old age of 89, and I can but hope that some enterprising young film fan is transcribing his memories as we speak.  

Arturo Dominici
Another veteran of HERCULES is Arturo Dominici who plays Asa's grotesque reanimated lover Javutich. Dominici is another Italian gothic horror that is, if anything, rather more satisfying than this one, namely Antonio Margheriti's CASTLE OF BLOOD / DANZA MACABRA [1964].  Margheriti wasn't as talented a stylist as Bava but he was a good pro who probably had a better grasp of narrative.  Dominici, if his credits are anything to go by, was more at home in peplums than horror, which may explain why he was less prolific from the mid-60s onwards.  Bava's father Eugenio made the fabulous masks and face-casts which litter the film.

Monday 1 July 2013

The Bofors Gun [1968]

THE BOFORS GUN is a British drama that was directed by Jack Gold and originally released in April 1968.  It was adapted for the screen by John McGrath, from his own play "Events While Guarding the Bofors Gun".  It stars David Warner, Nicol Williamson, Ian Holm, John Thaw and Peter Vaughan.  Long unavailable and hence of great interest to me, THE BOFORS GUN has recently resurfaced on DVD and I'm happy to report that, unlike a lot of obscure and 'lost' films, it is a quality piece of work.  The film is set on a British military base in Germany in 1954 and deals with a small group of soldiers on night guard.

It's worthy of your attention for two main reasons.  First, it represents an opportunity to see a fine ensemble cast strut their stuff, in particular the mesmerising Nicol Williamson.  Williamson, who died a couple of years ago in semi-obscurity, was arguably the finest actor of his generation; John Osborne described him as "the finest actor since Brando".  To modern audiences, whether they recognise his name or not, he's most familiar as Merlin in John Boorman's lavish but eccentric EXCALIBUR [1981] but in the 1960s his name was usually mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Albert Finney, Peter O'Toole, Tom Courtenay - that group of classically-trained actors who had made the breakthrough to film stardom.

Nicol Williamson as Gunner O'Rourke
There's a good case for saying Williamson was the best of the lot but, unlike those actors mentioned above, what Williamson never had was the one defining role that would have firmly established his name with cinema audiences the world over.  There's a suspicion too that perhaps he just wasn't good looking enough to cut it as a movie star.  Which is desperately unfair of course but indicative of how a successful movie career can sometimes be based on little more than luck and a good bone structure.  Such things are less important in the theatre and Williamson's stage work was extremely highly regarded.  His signature role was Bill Maitland in Osborne's "Inadmissible Evidence", a part which (from what I can gather anyway, since the film version in which Williamson recreates his stage performance is also one of those movies that just seems to have disappeared) is virtually one great howl of rage by a man right at the end of his tether.

From L to R: David Warner, Richard O'Callaghan, Donald Gee, Nicol Williamson, John Thaw
Williamson also had a reputation for belligerence and being hard to handle.  To what extent that is justified is very difficult to say; certainly his obituaries routinely cited instances of obstreperous behaviour but surely over the course of a long career most actors will be guilty of that from time to time.  Nevertheless, as Gunner Danny O'Rourke in THE BOFORS GUN, Williamson found a part which played to his strengths both as an actor and a human being.  That was no accident however; John McGrath had written the role with him in mind.  O'Rourke is an aggressive, unstable Irishman who has chosen this one night to have the mother of all breakdowns.

The second reason why THE BOFORS GUN is interesting is because it was written by John McGrath.  McGrath was very much in the tradition of post-war leftist British writers and directors and like others of that stable, for example Ken Loach, he cut his teeth in the early 60s on episodes of the British TV police drama Z CARS.  Like the army, the police force is a highly stratified organisation that to writers represents fertile ground for exploring themes of power, class and identity.  And it is these ideas which McGrath is considering in THE BOFORS GUN.

Bombardier Evans enjoying some free time at a chamber concert...

...and O'Rourke enjoying some free time drinking heavily
The two poles of the narrative are O'Rourke - Irish, Catholic, working class, bellicose, unruly and impetuous but a commanding, domineering personality - and David Warner's Lance Bombardier Terry Evans - English, atheist, middle class, thoughtful, indecisive and, fatally, weak.  Both want to escape: O'Rourke has had enough of being told what to do and Evans wants to get back to England (the following morning) where he will be assessed for a potential commission.  O'Rourke has reached breaking point and as such is no longer under anyone's control, least of all his own, but Evans is reluctant to discipline him because he knows to do so would initiate a process that would prevent his departure.

O'Rourke and Featherstone (John Thaw): literally caged after they have released the regimental goat
There were a number of filmed plays released around this period: this, the aforementioned INADMISSIBLE EVIDENCE [1968], and A DAY IN THE DEATH OF JOE EGG [1972] (reviewed elsewhere on this site), among others.  A dozen or so were released under the banner of the American Film Theatre collection, films made expressly to capture for posterity landmark theatre productions.  Once you accept them for what they are, you can get past the fact that they are driven by dialogue rather than incident.  That's certainly true of THE BOFORS GUN which is also claustrophobic but that too is intentional.

Still penned in: Evans and O'Rourke
David Warner now appears in a good many horror and science fiction movies, chiefly as baddies, so it is easy to forget that, earlier in his career, he was one of the most highly regarded young British actor.  His versatility is remarkable, encompassing Shakespeare, Ibsen, swinging 60s comedies, period dramas, Nazis and even surviving two brushes with Sam Peckinpah.  Although he has gone on to have a very busy career in delirious cinema, Warner's time as a leading man was all too short so it's worth tracking this film down to see him strut his stuff opposite Nicol Williamson.

David Warner as Evans
Richard O'Callaghan, who plays the dimwitted Roe, is an actor who has mainly worked on the stage; indeed, at least three of his film credits are screen adaptations of stage productions, including this one and Harold Pinter's excellent BUTLEY [1974]. Geoffrey Hughes, who has a 30-second cameo, was a much-loved British character actor, first in the soap opera CORONATION STREET and latterly in the sitcoms KEEPING UP APPEARANCES and THE ROYLE FAMILY.