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.