Tuesday 24 June 2014

Sssssss [1973]

SSSSSSS is an American horror film (with sci-fi elements) that was directed by Bernard L. Kowalski and originally released by Universal in July 1973.  It stars Strother Martin, Dirk Benedict and Heather Menzies. David Blake is a financially embarrassed student (is there any other kind?) who takes a job with a Dr Carl Stoner, a brilliant but equally hard up scientist who is conducting snake-based research which he needs help with.  On the side, Stoner runs a snake-handling show at his isolated farmhouse / laboratory where he lives with his daughter Kristina. On his first day at work David is injected with what Stoner claims is a serum that will protect him from accidental snake bites... and that's when the problems begin.

SSSSSSS is one of those movies I first became aware of when I was kid poring over the pages of my horror books and magazines.  It had a startling image of a man-snake, an image that has stayed with me through the years.  It's only this year that I eventually got round to seeing the movie and inevitable its something of a disappointment.  The 10 year-old kid in me would have enjoyed a lot less than the current me because it's bloodless, talky, dull to look at and has too much love interest. He would have enjoyed watching Dirk THE A-TEAM / BATTLESTAR GALACTICA Benedict but wouldn't have paid any attention to Strother Martin who is the best thing in it.

Dr Stoner looks remarkably excited by the prospect of peeling dead skin from David's back

To be honessssssst it looks like a TV movie and I suspect that it what it was intended to be until the producers or the networks decided it was too out there for television and turned it into a cinema feature. That may explain the brief nudity and an entirely irrelevant skinny dipping sequence.

There's not a lot of horror in it and even if there were the low quality special effects would probably negate its impact.  In fact it's almost as if Kowalksi was determined to undercut any chances the film might have had so badly is it executed, the structure in particular.  What I mean by that is the 'who' is apparent from the outset, the 'why' is established shortly after that and the 'what' is shown halfway through.

Dr Stoner doing his snake tricks.  N.B. If you look closely on the left you can light reflected in the sheet of glass between the cameraman and the snake; there's a similar still of Harrison Ford in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK [1981].

The most effective sssssssequences are the two set in a fairground, which draw heavily on Tod Browning's FREAKS [1932].  In the first, David and Kristina are there on a date and are drawn to the Hall of Freaks, enticed by the barker's promise of a Snake Man.

Ssssssscream if you wanna go faster!

This sequence this still that I remember from my childhood and, in this specific context, it's unsettling but faintly comic.  In the second sequence, Kristina goes there alone determined to find out the truth; we basically see the same shots again but in this second context it is both revolting and pitiful.

I've just realised this snakeman looks like the husband of a girl I used to fancy at school

There's really not much else to say about SSSSSSS.  Everything proceeds very slowly and the audience is one step ahead of the script all the way.  Once in a while the film grinds to a halt to set up a murder by snake which are perforce contrived because it's extremely difficult to get any sane person to go within a hundred yards of a venomous snake.  Worse still the film's climax is so ridiculous as to be literally laughable.  I can't believe there's any other film which expects you to feel horrified by angry mongoose.

A snake's eye view of Dirk Benedict as David Blake.  And I'm not even kidding.

Dirk Benedict was a good looking man in his youth and the film exploits that as much as it can: he must be shirtless in about 75% of his scenes.  Consequently he's not required to do much acting other than act surprised at each stage of his progression into a snake.  I think he's a better actor than he's given credit for though - he must have something to have starred in two enormously successful TV shows.  Having said that, his film career never got going at all.  A quick scan of his career credits suggests that he has an ambivalent attitude towards acting and show business: for someone who has been around since the early 70s he really hasn't done much work, especially when you consider THE A-TEAM stopped in 1987.

Strother Martin as Dr Stoner.  Up to no good, as usual.

Strother Martin is a favourite of mine, as regular readers will know.  This a rare leading role for him and despite its cruddiness he really gets his teeth into it, if you'll pardon the expression.

Heather Menzies has two claims to fame: firstly, she was one of the von Trapp children (Louisa to be precise) in the staggeringly popular Nazi singalong THE SOUND OF MUSIC [1965]; second, I believe she was the first of said clan to later take her clothes off in a movie (in Joe Dante's excellent JAWS ripoff PIRANHA [1978]).  These two linked claims to cinematic immortality say an awful lot about the hand dealt to women in Hollywood, and an equal amount about what audiences want to see.

Heather Menzies as Kristina Stoner.  Wearing glasses in movies is shorthand for bookish, from which we can extrapolate virtue.  In every sense.

A couple of supporting players worth mentioning.  The first is Richard B. Shull who plays an inquisitive university administrator.  Shull was a consummate character actor who worked in mainstream and independent features, including one of my favourites: Monte Hellman's COCKFIGHTER [1974].  On top of that he was, by all accounts, one of those rare things - a character actor who was even more off the wall in real life than he was on screen, like Timothy Carey.  Keep an eye out for him because he's really good, like Walter Matthau but more so.

Richard B. Shull as Dr Daniels

Another familiar face is Reb Brown who plays the muscle-bound bully Steve Randall, in this his film debut. Brown gets stereotyped in tough guy roles, which is understandable when you have a physique like his, but he's a decent actor for all that.  He's probably best known for his role in Ted Kotcheff's UNCOMMON VALOR [1983] but he's been in loads of delirious movies too, working with directors like Bruno Mattei, Antonio Margherit and Albert Pyun.  I have a film on my 'to watch' pile called NIGHT CLAWS that was released last year.  Brown was dragged back to the screen after an absence of 15 years for this tale of a killer Bigfoot; it's got my name written all over it, so watch this space.

Reb Brown threatens our hero

Finally there's Tim O'Connor in a small role as the fairground proprietor who has a less than legit business partnership with Dr Stoner.  An almighty career he's had has Tim, dating back to the 1940s, although he will almost certainly be remembered as the slightly crotchety old bloke in the TV show BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY.

Tim O'Connor (L) as Kogen, inspecting his latest purchase from Dr Stoner

I should also mention Ted Grossman who plays the slightly dim-witted sheriff (is there any other kind?). Grossman, or rather Grossman's leg, is familiar to all lovers of delirious cinema from his, or rather its, appearance in JAWS [1975] as the poor bloke who gets his leg bitten off in the pond.  That's the second time I've mentioned JAWS in reference to SSSSSSS, which should come as no surprise because both films were produced by Richard Zanuck and David Brown.

Thursday 5 June 2014

Operation: Daybreak [1975]

OPERATION: DAYBREAK is a WW2 men-on-a-mission movie that was directed by Lewis Gilbert.  It was a American-Czech-Yugoslav co-production and was originally released by Warner Brothers in November 1975.  It stars Timothy Bottoms, Anthony Andrews and Martin Shaw with supporting turns from Nicola Pagett, Joss Ackland, Diana Coupland and, of course, Anton Diffring.  It is a dramatised account of Operation Anthropoid which was a Czech-led plan to assassinate Reinhardt Heydrich -SS Obergruppenfuhrer, Reichsprotektor of Czechoslovakia, architect of the Kristallnacht, chair of the Wannsee Conference, and so thoroughly evil, barbaric and merciless a man that even Hitler called him iron-hearted.

It's a curious one this because it's pretty obscure and where it's mentioned at all it's usually in disparaging terms.  I think there are several reasons for this.  Firstly, it came towards the fag end of the golden period, if that's the right expression (and I'm not sure that it is), of WW2 movies.  In cinema-goers' eyes that period had been covered enough; it wasn't until Oliver Stone's PLATOON came along in 1985 that the war movie became big box office again by focusing on a different conflict.  Second, the story of Operation Anthropoid is a relentlessly downbeat one: although the undoubtedly heroic mission was a success, the reprisals which followed it were so brutal and so widespread that its value has to be called into question.  Third, it doesn't have a cast that would have drawn punters in their millions.  Fourth, it's very drab looking and fifth, and finally, the script is weak.

Kubis and Gabcik await their target...

... before doing what has to be done.
I recognise all that to be true and yet it is a film which I am very fond of.  Despite taking some liberties with the truth it remains an incredibly moving film which is more about the human cost of war than it is about violent action (although there is plenty of that in it too).  It's as much about betrayal as it is about camaraderie and it's as much about failure as it is about success.  As in all good films, at its heart are relationships: between brothers in arms, between countrymen, between lovers, and between an ordinary man and his family.

Band of brothers (and sister)
Also in its favour are the locations.  Shot in Prague, the film uses many of the real sites for its exteriors - particularly the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius where the climax occurs.  The crypt's air vent which features prominently in these sequences is still there and, marked by German bullet holes, bears a memorial plaque to the members of Operation Anthropoid, bishop, priests and lay members who gave their lives for their country.

The church interior was reconstructed in the studio for the violent gun battle above the crypt. That battle reminds me of John Sturges' THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN [1960] and, particularly, Sam Peckinpah's THE WILD BUNCH [1969] in which fierce resistance is gradually worn down by superior numbers.

Although the cast isn't what the man in the street would call stellar, it does contain some talent. Timothy Bottoms is an understated actor who has demonstrated on numerous occasions an aptitude for playing kind-hearted, boyish parts which often, as in this case, don't end well.  He's given some very clunky dialogue as Jan Kubis, especially in his scenes with Nicola Pagett, but is a very appealing lead.

Timothy Bottoms as Jan Kubis
Anthony Andrews, as Jozef Gabcik is most famous for playing the effete aristocrat Sebastian Flyte in BRIDESHEAD REVISITED [1981] and has therefore become indelibly associated with upper-class fops.  But he's really good in this too; his performance reminds me of another enthusiastic and boyish but steely and determined character, Arthur Davies in THE RIDDLE OF THE SANDS [1981], played in that film by the late Simon MacCorkindale - another pretty boy who was underrated as an actor.  The climactic scenes between Bottoms and Andrews are virtually wordless but incredibly expressive and moving; if you haven't seen it I shan't spoil it for you but it is very much in the Male Weepie category.

Anthony Andrews as Jozef Gabcik
Martin Shaw drew the short straw and plays the traitor Karel Curda.  I understand that the real Curda betrayed his comrades purely for money but in this film he does so because he wants to protect his beloved wife and son from the inevitable reprisals.  That softens the character somewhat, which he doesn't really deserve, but even so the extent of his treachery is written all over Martin Shaw's face.  Interestingly, I read just now that Anthony Andrews was originally cast as Bodie in the 70s British TV cop show THE PROFESSIONALS but was given the heave-ho after a few days because the chemistry between him and Martin Shaw, who plays Bodie's partner Doyle, wasn't working.  Andrews was replaced by the late Lewis Collins and the show was a huge success.

Martin Shaw as the traitor Karel Curda
There are so many familiar faces in the cast that to mention them all would be a right nawse.  So I'll limit myself to mentioning three.  First is the beautiful, vulnerable, doe-eyed Nicola Pagett who plays Anna, Kubis's love interest.  It amazes me sometimes how stardom is achieved by some and not by others; I would have thought that Pagett had everything needed to be a huge star but that never happened.  I suppose in the end it comes down to the parts that are offered.  She was successful on TV but lacked that one major movie role that could have pushed her into the top bracket.  Another reason I admire her is that she has been very honest and frank about her battle with mental illness, a subject very close to my heart.

Nicola Pagett as Anna
Second is George Sewell, a fine character actor who has livened up many a film and TV series.  He's in loads of stuff, much of it delirious, and is the kind of person who, once you put a face to the name, you'll spot everywhere.  He's really good in Mike Hodge's terrific GET CARTER [1971] and in a relatively rare sympathetic role in the TV adaptation of TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY [1979].  I understand he plays two roles in OPERATION: DAYBREAK - firstly, a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo as Hitler, and second as Chief Investigator Panwitz.

George Sewell (centre)
Finally, I can't not mention Anton Diffring.  Like Peter Cushing, Diffring accepted the cards that fate dealt him and threw himself into roles that were probably beneath an actor of his quality.  Whereas Cushing rarely escaped horror roles, Diffring was typecast as Nazis which was probably more soul-destroying.  He's a good actor though; in OPERATION: DAYBREAK he's probably only on the screen for 5 minutes but that's enough to convince you of Heydrich's arrogant depravity.  He made a lot of delirious movies too, notably in the silly but endearing THE BEAST MUST DIE [1974], Riccardo Freda's giallo THE IGUANA WITH THE TONGUE OF FIRE [1971] and a brace of early Brit horrors THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH [1959] and CIRCUS OF HORRORS [1960].

Anton Diffring as Reinhardt Heydrich
Lewis Gilbert was essentially a journeyman director with no particular style.  He did however do thoroughly professional work and made several very successful films which landed him three James Bond pictures towards the end of his career.  He wrote the scripts for a lot of his films and sometimes produced them as well.  He's still alive is old Lewis and, happily, there's no need for me to issue my routine plea for someone to get his memories and anecdotes about a life in the film business down on tape because he's written an autobiography which you can buy here.

He didn't write the script for this film though; that credit goes to Ronald Harwood who adapted Alan Burgess's novel 'Seven Men at Daybreak'.  Harwood is mainly thought of as a playwright but he wrote a good few films too.  He's probably most famous for his play (and the film) THE DRESSER [1983] which is a semi-biographical account of his time working as a dresser for Donald Wolfit.

The photography on OPERATION: DAYBREAK  is by the legendary French cinematographer Henri Decae, who shot a great many of the nouvelle vague films.  I think it's fair to say that this isn't his best work but the drab, damp exteriors and cramped interiors effortlessly convey the sombre tone the film requires. The score is also worth mentioning: it's by David Hentschel and, in a break from the clich├ęd drums of most military scores, is performed on an ARP synthesiser.  At times it reminds me of the scores John Carpenter composed for his own films.

I'd urge you to give this film a chance if you can: it's not an easy or even pleasant film to watch and has its flaws but it's very gripping, has a terrific chase sequence and soberly tells a tale that deserves to be told.