heathblair

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Reviews

The Sweeney: Chalk and Cheese
(1975)
Episode 1, Season 2

Unusual episode
Well written and interesting installment with an unusually strong visual sense, for instance the shot of Dennis Waterman in the back of a car toward the end is remarkable for the time. Well acted all around with a particularly touching performance from David Lodge. One of the best Sweeneys I've seen.

The Laughing Policeman
(1973)

Obscure film for a reason - garbled, dull, and miscast.
Disappointing.

Not all of Hollywood's "gritty urban 70s thrillers" were classics - in fact most of them were fairly indistinguishable in look (drab) and feel (flat) from their TV show cousins, apart from much stronger language and violence. Indeed, The Laughing Policeman plays like a feature length episode of The Streets Of San Francisco, complete with older-cop/younger-cop buddy schtick but without the charm. I don't know if this movie "inspired" that old TV show or vice versa, and frankly I doubt anyone cares now.

It begins with a mass murder on a bus that's certainly harrowing and grimly intriguing. Enter Matthau's downbeat detective to solve the case. But then about ten minutes in, I noticed something. Matthau was irritating me. But that's impossible! I love Matthau! But almost immediately I saw that all of his character's relentless gum chewing and taciturn blankness were imposed characteristics rather than real character traits. I have a feeling Matthau didn't quite get a handle on the part and opted to coast. Consequently, we never quite see the character. We see Matthau working. He's a wonderful actor, but was simply miscast here. His lovely loping gate and demeanour suggest a humour that never actually materialises. It's just not there in the script for him. The effect is discombobulating and irritating (my advice: stick with The Taking Of Pelham 123 - the Matthau cop movie that got it right).

Bruce Dern also seems miscast. Dern, a good actor, is always at his best playing vaguely sinister mid-westerners whose toothy grins camouflage psychotic belligerence. He plays his character here as a mildly obnoxious borderline a-hole. That's a problem when we're supposed to care for him for two hours. Anti-heroes can make for fascinating movie characters, but Dern's cop is not bad-boy enough nor deep enough to be interesting. He's just... mildly obnoxious. Phfft.

As the movie grinds along, piling on every urban movie cliché you can think of, the plot is revealed to be not so much complex as contrived and silly. Apparently, the film was considered to be agreeably off-kilter by its contemporaneous critics, but now its internal rhythms feel just outright faulty. Worse, it addresses social issues (race, sexuality etc) in un-nuanced ways that would be unthinkable ten years later, or even, ironically enough, ten years earlier.

Multiple story arcs and sub-characters simply evaporate (it's typical of the film that Lou Gossett's potentially interesting character is not given a decent pay-off. The film might have been better remembered if he'd played Dern's part), a pitifully ersatz French Connection type car chase is thrown in just to be fashionable, and the whole thing has an ending that I confess to not understanding. I completely lost interest 15 minutes earlier so probably missed some "important" plot exposition. And I don't care.

I feel so sorry for director Stuart Rosenberg even at this distance in time. In 1967 he made Cool Hand Luke, a brilliant iconic film of the period. Six years later, stuff like this. What happened? Bad scripts, bad advice, bad luck? Life, I guess. It's odd that quite a few other directors who made fantastic debuts in the late 60s found themselves adrift in the 70s, their style perhaps more suited to an era that ended just before they could make the most of it.

Barbarella
(1968)

The problem with Barbarella is...
...she doesn't really do anything. Rather than create the ground breaking heroine they could have, Vadim and his all-too-male crew go for the easy option by portraying the character as not much more than a deceptively dull Barbie-doll figure. She moves from one situation to the next like a wide-eyed tourist, barely taking part in the proceedings, let alone actually causing things to happen. I don't think she solves a single problem in the entire movie. Not with her mind anyway.

This is a cardinal sin in film making: creating a lead character who is NOT proactive.

Female viewers might be disappointed that the promise of a feisty, sexually confident, independently minded action heroine is only partly fulfilled. Yes, the character is sexually confident, but even that is at the service of the male characters in the film. As for the rest, forget it. Pity. The film makers should have looked to Emma Peel/Kathy Gale from The Avengers for a model of how Barbarella could have worked.

On the upside, the movie looks great - terrific psychedelic designs and sets. Good fun for the eye. However, while individual static shots are well composed, Vadim doesn't do much with camera movement, so the film isn't as graceful as it could be. He doesn't seem to know much about pacing either - the internal rhythm of the movie is a little bit off which adds to the unsatisfying feel of the whole thing.

The cast is fine. Fonda, an otherwise superb actress, does her best with a non-character. She hints at the intelligent, resourceful character Barbarella might have been if the script had been on her side. Milo Oshea is great as the mad scientist, and David Hemmings is fun, if a little wasted, in what amounts to an extended cameo.

In summary, a hoot for fans of super-camp kitsch cinema, and a bit of a male sex-fantasy for undiscerning 14 year old boys of all ages, but otherwise, and from the viewpoint of modern grown-up audiences, just an hour and a half of tiresomely sexist trash. Ironically, if Vadim and Co. had retained the sexiness of Barbarella's character but boosted her IQ and resourcefulness then the film might be enjoying a far greater reputation than it currently does. It wouldn't have taken much effort, but they blew it.

Out of the Unknown: Stranger in the Family
(1965)
Episode 3, Season 1

John Wyndham meets Charlie X meets the BBC
Expertly directed by Alan Bridges, also responsible for the satisfyingly low-key and effective Brit sci-fi movie "Invasion" of the same year as well as more prestigious dramas later, this instalment of Out Of The Unknown is among the best of the series that I've seen so far. The depth of atmosphere and mood it evokes belies its modest video-taped production. Beyond Bridges direction, this mood is attributable to Richard O'Callaghan's sensitive and extremely eerie portrayal of the mutant boy. His emphatic but quietly spoken instructions to his hapless "victims" compelling them to his telepathic will provide several genuinely unnerving moments (the bathtub sequence is quite brilliant).

Along with a supporting cast who all take their parts gratifyingly seriously, further atmosphere is provided by good lighting (especially for video of the period) and some very cannily chosen electronic music cues.

Stranger In The Family is not without flaws, however. A sub-plot involving a desperate actress and her pimping agent doesn't really work. Although important to the story (providing both a sexual angle and a more interesting but ultimately under-developed dig at advertising), it feels unequal to it because of their somewhat clichéd characterisation. Also, the bare fact is that writer David Campton has obviously and rather blatantly "borrowed" huge chunks of ideas, plot-points and even dialogue from "Children Of The Damned" (sequel to "Village Of The Damned") made a few years earlier. To be fair he makes mostly good use of them, and some of the boy's more anguished speeches are interestingly written and evoke a palpable sense of "otherness". But it remains a quite derivative piece over all. Thankfully cast and crew elevate it.

Ironically, a year later and on the other side of the Atlantic, the "Charlie X" episode of Star Trek came to closely resemble Stranger In The Family - both had an unstable, sexually jealous telepathic teenager unable to suppress a psychic rage. It seems MANY owe John Wyndham A LOT one way or another.

Nevertheless, full marks to the cast and crew of this BBC production.

Well Anyway
(1976)

Not quite gone, not quite forgotten.
I was very young when I watched Well Anyway, about 10 or 11. I loved it. Bird and Fortune were new faces to me then. In those days, long before their great stint as the Two Johns, they weren't well known to general television audiences.

The premise for the series, as I remember it, was that Fortune barged into Bird's flat claiming to be an old college chum (probably a total fabrication) and sweet-talked his old "friend" into letting him stay. But Fortune's character is just a parasitical chancer who embroils Bird (a man at a perpetual loose end) into a stream of crass money making schemes.

At times, the series could be quite subdued, almost like a Beckett play for two. But it was always wryly funny and, occasionally, quite surreal. I remember one episode where Fortune persuades Bird to create an artificial life-form from the odds and ends lying around his kitchen. The not-so-honourable goal was to win the Nobel Prize for chemistry and collect the forty grand cash prize.

I think I read somewhere, ages ago, that Bird and Fortune practically disowned the show, saying that it wasn't very good. Who knows, maybe it wasn't. But it made me laugh at the time, and it had an nice off-kilter atmosphere (I liked that kind of thing then and now) not unlike Black Books or Nightingales.

I'd love to see it again. Why allow gems like this to gather dust in the BBC vaults? Well anyway...

Black Patch
(1957)

A premier for music legend Jerry Goldsmith
Black Patch is a routine western notable for being the first film scored by Jerry Goldsmith, a composer who would go on to some very great things indeed: Planet Of The Apes, Papillon, Chinatown, The Omen, Alien, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, L.A. Confidential and hundreds more. Naturally, Black Patch doesn't sound anything like those works, but Goldsmith's characteristic voice is unmistakable, if not yet fully formed.

Despite only being in his late twenties, Goldsmith wrote music that indicated a fledgling dramatic sensitivity and intelligence that would blossom into the hallmarks of his career. So, for the composer at least, it was a good start musically even if the film itself was modest.

Bouquet of Barbed Wire
(1976)

A vortex of middle-class sexual anxiety... and kipper ties.
I first saw this as a small child (progressive parents or irresponsible ones? You be the judge) and have revisited it recently on DVD. Well...! What a carry on! What a palaver! What an outrage! What a great, glorious, steaming pile of melodramatic bilge.

I dare say that its upmarket target audience were flattered to see "their lives" being portrayed with such candour. Maybe so, but what they were actually getting was little more than a dramatised Woman's Own article produced, perhaps inevitably, in the style of Crossroads. Oh alright, not Woman's Own. Observer Sunday supplement to be fair.

Bouquet of Barbed Wire is a soap. Make no mistake. I expected something a little more philosophically lethal, perhaps along the lines of Potter or Pinter in "Betrayal" mode. Alas no. This was LWT mainstream peak-time television viewing, not a night at the Royal Court. Does that make it rubbish? No, not completely. I rather enjoyed it for it's slow, single-minded approach. I like verbose scripts and this had dialogue by the ton... hours and hours of it. And more hours.

Writer Andrea Newman displays a gift for reproducing the broken speech rhythms of people under intense emotional pressure. Other times she stubs her toe on the dramatic conventions of soap opera ie. spelling out EXACTLY what the characters are thinking and feeling at all times so as to not confuse an ITV audience. This is a prime example of over-writing, typified not only by the characters' continuous declarations of their states of minds, but also by the occasional "thought voice-over" - a device as blatantly literal-minded as it was crudely achieved. These are emotional shades of grey painted in very gaudy colours.

Such lapses of taste were, doubtless, symptoms of insecurity on the part of the producers - a lack of faith in their audience. Elsewhere, the dialogue is quite entertaining although perhaps not for the intended reason, and every character seems to be a tad more eloquent than is credible. These people should write novels!

Bouquet of Barbed Wire was a huge hit in 1976. White middle-aged, middle-class swingers and bed-hoppers had rarely been brought under such close scrutiny on UK TV. Yet, for all its supposed sexual candour (hints of incest and the endless confessions of sado-masochism) it's a deeply conservative piece at heart. The naughty girls and naughty boys get what they deserve in the end - misery and death. That'll teach 'em. It pretends not to pass judgement on the characters, but, really, their comeuppance is judgement enough.

The serial's sexual politics would rightly enrage even a mild feminist then and now. For example, a major character (pregnant) is beaten half to death by her violent husband and the police are NEVER mentioned, not even by the doctors who treat her! The assault is put down to everyday domestic strife. And besides, the couple have a sado-masochistic relationship, so that's OK then. Sorry but this degree of complacency is inexcusable, even by Seventies standards.

Elsewhere, Newman has her leading lady proclaim as fact that what all women secretly want is to be slapped around by their men. Not badly enough to end up in hospital, mind you, but enough to make it exciting. Uh-huh. I wonder if "Andrea Newman" isn't a pseudonym. Could there be an "Andrew Newman" who's fooled us all? Abysmal.

So, what's good about it? It's ludicrousness. Viewed by contemporary audiences, a lot of it is enjoyable on a trash basis. There are moments of unintended hilarity only appreciable thirty years hence eg. The leading lady's off-screen lover (a very lusty chap) is called Sven Erickson. I kid you not. Plus, our dysfunctional TV family's name is Manson. Geddit? And of course there's Frank Finley's wardrobe - a nightmare torrent of Burtons menswear. Frank's ties are... well, Bouquet Of Barbed Wire features the first known instance of a tie wearing a man (old joke but never more applicable).

The performers are actually damn good. Finley plays it for real, and Susan Penhaligon is authentically unsettling as his neurotic daughter. Everyone else is up to scratch.

Finally and sadly, I'm beginning to wonder if the golden age of television was all that golden. I've revisited quite a few of these old 70s shows on DVD lately, and a lot of them are actually quite bland, or, as in Bouquet, ridiculous. Incisiveness and credible emotional depth were not necessarily the norm. Perhaps writers like Dennis Potter really were one-offs after all.

Columbo: The Conspirators
(1978)
Episode 5, Season 7

Revill, the ultimate adversary, and an excellent script.
Clive Revill, the actor portraying the villain of this piece, was described by Steven Berkoff as one of the great under-praised actors of the UK. He might just be right. For proof look at this episode of Columbo. Revill is very light of foot in the part of the IRA gun-runner who manages to charm us even as he murders his way toward supplying weapons to terrorists. Quite a feat, and a testament to the actor's beguiling skills - inaccurate accent not withstanding. Forgivable.

In a curious way, something similar might be said of Peter Falk who might just be one the best actors of his generation in the US, yet who remains synonymous with that gull-darned macintosh. Falk paying Lear? Bring it on and for god's sake someone film it!

If these actors have a flaw it's that their ranges exceeds the tastes and comprehension of the casting directors whom ulitimately determine the course of their careers in film and TV. Ah well, that's showbiz.

Meantime, while wrongs might still be corrected, we have this fine piece of TV which combines two excellent actors at the peak of their ingenuity into a memorable, yet diametric team for our pleasure. Wit for wit, move for move, this classic Columbo chess-match entertains and delights with a minimum of gun-play and a maximum of intelligence (for TV anyway) - and what contemporary cop-show can boast that?

Good script, good direction, good score, good acting. What else do you what?

Also, for anyone who cares, there is perhaps one of the first "gay" subtext ever featured in a US TV show. Watch it and go figure for yourselves. Columbo as a template for a secular society? Why not? It had to start somewhere.

True Romance
(1993)

An amazing cast list, and a fine turn by Saul Rubinek.
I've nothing to add to an already comprehensively reviewed film, except a word about Saul Rubinek's performance. He play Lee Donowitz, a corrupt Hollywood movie producer with criminal tendencies.

It's tempting to speculate that the part was based on an actual person (quite possible in La La Land). Whatever the origin, Rubinek portrays the character with enormous skill - sleazy, charming, camp, vulnerable and menacing all at once. His final anguished outburst after discovering he has been betrayed is surprisingly moving and alarmingly convincing. Terrific acting. Bravo. Indeed, the movie is full of superb performances from a once-in-a-lifetime cast.

True Romance
(1993)

An amazing cast list, and a fine turn by Saul Rubinek.
I've nothing to add to an already comprehensively reviewed film, except a word about Saul Rubinek's performance. He play Lee Donowitz, a corrupt Hollywood movie producer with criminal tendencies.

It's tempting to speculate that the part was based on an actual person (quite possible in La La Land). Whatever the origin, Rubinek portrays the character with enormous skill - sleazy, charming, camp, vulnerable and menacing all at once. His final anguished outburst after discovering he has been betrayed is surprisingly moving and alarmingly convincing. Terrific acting. Bravo. Indeed, the movie is full of superb performances from a once-in-a-lifetime cast.

Children of the Damned
(1964)

Superior Children, Superior Sequel
The inexplicable appearance of a group of children, advanced 1 million years beyond Mankind's genetic development, causes fear among the governments of the world. When the authorities try to contain them, the children respond with deadly telepathic force.

This is a rare instance of a sequel being better than the original. The 1960 adaptation of John Wyndham's Midwich Cuckoos, filmed as Village Of The Damned, was a highly memorable and influential movie in its own right. However, it was also a product of post-war British film making complete with cozy, somewhat gentrified attitudes to class, sex and an illusory rural idyll. This was exemplified by George Sanders' typically suave performance as the smoking-jacket clad, martini sipping hero. Children Of The Damned is a much tougher affair. This time the action takes place in the dark, grim, urban backstreets of early sixties London - not so much swinging as downright gothic.

Rather than the aliens invaders of the first film, the children here are a human super-species, socially and intellectually incompatible with the rest of humanity. They don't seem to mean any harm, but their eerily cold and quiet presence provokes the authorities into a fearful contemplation of what they might do. John Briley's adult and intelligent script takes an insightful look at how our inherently insecure systems of authority might hunt and destroy that which merely suggests a challenge to their control.

The cast is excellent. Ian Hendry and Alan Badel as the two conscientious scientists trying to fathom the children's secret, are terrific. They bounce Briley's sometimes caustically witty lines between them with a delightful, naturalistic touch. The rest of the cast play it for keeps too, imparting a sense of urgency and, as with Alfred Burke's government man, icy menace.

The children themselves are surprisingly well played. No brattish over-acting here. Instead, the group of young, multi-racial actors exude a perfect sense of other-worldly calm, and, when necessary, chilling ruthlessness.

The film's technical credits are excellent. Cinematographer Davis Boulton's vivid black and white images ensure that Children of the Damned is one of the best photographed British films of the era. The special effects are simple (glowing eyes) but startlingly effective. The late, great Ron Goodwin was a composer best known for comedies and war films, but here he provided a subtler kind of score which suggests both the child-like and the ethereal. It was one of his best.

The main plaudits must go to director Anton M. Leader. His handling of actors, the imaginative staging and his pictorial compositions, particularly towards the climax, are outstanding. For example, the scene depicting a group of gunmen trying, somewhat disastrously, to capture (or kill) the children in a derelict church is a tour de force of tension and horror. Yes, horror. This movie may have children in it, but it isn't a children's film.

In all, this is much more than a quick cash-in sequel. It deserves credit for making an early stab at confronting the ethics of genetics, and for being, along with the Quatermass movies, that rare thing; a thought provoking, grown-up science fiction film.

The Stone Tape
(1972)

Memories of horror etched in stone
WARNING - ACUTE SPOILERS

A team of free-marketeering research scientists move into their new R&D premises: an old English mansion house. Before they have even unpacked their equipment, the ghostly, shrieking apparition of a long-dead chambermaid besets them. The scientists' curiosity overcomes their fear and they set out to investigate. They discover that the phenomenon has a hard-science explanation; the "impressions" of past occupants have been recorded in the very stones of the house. These "mineral recording" are triggered by the emotional stimulus of anyone whom enters their vicinity. The scientists realise that a new and highly lucrative recording medium has been discovered. However, a particularly psychic-sensitive member of the group delves deeper into the mystery and discovers that the stones hold an even more ancient and deadly "recording".

After watching The Stone Tape again after a gap of thirty years, I realised that I had just revisited an old friend. Friend or perhaps foe because my first encounter with it, age six, left me with lingering nightmares of which I had long forgotten the source. But looking again at this play left me in no doubt. I had found the culprit!

Many regard "The Stone Tape" as Nigel Kneale's finest achievement, although that accolade is perhaps more rightfully retained by the Quatermass stories. However, this television play from 1972 is an outstanding piece of work that bristles with ideas, urgency and passion. It's typical Kneale in that respect. It also revisits one of the author's strongest conceits; that inhuman evil can invade our planet from both the skies above and the earth below. The nature of the evil in The Stone Tape is never explained. That's no cop-out. It's a device which gives the play the unbreakable logic of a nightmare. Perhaps these creatures are an unimaginable life-form from Earth's primeval past. Who knows? They are simply THERE.

Another Kneale preoccupation, swinish, over-bearing authority figures, gets a good going-over here in the form of Brock, the head of the research team. Brock is a grade-A b****rd: driven, driving, callous, greedy for power and glory. A sociopath in other words, but the stuff of great corporate cultures nonetheless. He is also, as Kneale himself pointed out, a very weak man whose arrogance hides his fear of failure and blinds him to the truth.

As with other Kneale works, the foil to this dangerous ambition is a more humane and sensitive figure, in this instance Jill Greely, a computer programmer. Her emotional compassion is matched by her psychic sensitivity, both of which are abused unto death by Brock and the dark forces within the house. In Kneale's book, good guys and gals finish last but always to the cost of wider humanity. Will we never learn?

The Stone Tape is very ably directed by Peter Sasdy, a director more closely associated with the same period's Hammer films. Thankfully, the (tedious in my opinion) gothic Hammer house-style is largely absent here. Instead, Sasdy opts for a brisk but imaginative approach more in keeping with Kneale's writing.

The performers give their monies worth. Michael Bryant portrays Brock with the necessary viciousness and energy. Bryant was a very familiar face on British television in the seventies. I remember him being a quite subtle actor. Here, however, he gets the bit between his teeth and gnaws. Perhaps a tad too much. He certainly makes Kneale's point though. The real acting revelation is Jane Asher's portrayal of Jill. Asher is now something of a celebrity TV chef and soap star, but in this production she shows an amazing grasp of character that goes some way to fill a few motivational gaps in Jill as written. Bravo, Ms Asher!

Today, audiences starved of quality drama are brainwashed into thinking that a bucket-load of CGI effects will suffice. The Stone Tape had priceless writing and an effects budget of about ten pounds. But the effects work! In fact, as I watched the DVD recently, it was the effects that rekindled my childhood horror. The genuinely nightmarish scenes of Asher being chased up a set of stone stairs by a swarm of un-named, malevolent creatures hit me like a bullet. Swaying, shapeless green blobs with red, firefly eyes, and Asher's anguished struggle up those nasty stairs... only to fall, and fall, and fall... horrifying. I recalled almost nothing from the rest of the story except these images. And I remembered them PERFECTLY even as they replayed before my eyes. Memories and images can indeed lie dormant until the right stimulus awakens them. Nigel Kneale does it again!

Scream and Scream Again
(1970)

An enjoyable but disorientating pulp cocktail
POSSIBLE SPOILERS

A British government sponsored scientific clinic run by Vincent Price is secretly producing a race of superhuman cyborgs assembled from stolen human body-parts. The cyborgs are taking over key positions of power throughout the world with a view to total domination. The superhumans' plans are threatened with exposure when one of their number flees Price's clinic and goes on a psychopathic killing spree. More mayhem ensues when a cyborg hit-man is dispatched to England from a fascistic eastern European country to eliminate all witnesses to the murders, including his former co-conspirator, Price.

If writer Chris Wicking had streamlined the above storyline, Scream And Scream Again might be regarded today as a lean, mean minor classic. Instead, the film's reputation has suffered because of a partial failure to resolve the screenplay's many intrigues; spy-planes, government cover-ups, police investigations, car chases, swinging London, transplant surgery, eugenics, and vampirism. Wicking obviously wanted to portray the intangibility and inter-connectedness of evil, but ninety minutes is scarcely time to tie all of these elements together and accommodate character development. Unfortunately, Wicking sticks rather too closely to the original book's choppy narrative (itself a result of multiple writers hacking away to produce a pulpy, patchwork, dime-store novel), and doesn't quite make it gel. Nice try though.

Christopher Matthews plays the young, inquisitive police pathologist and is the movie's nominal hero. But his character exists only to bear witness to the very small piece of the puzzle that he is a part of. He is what film critics used to call a cipher. Indeed, all of the characters are ciphers. They don't exist as properly motivated people in themselves, but rather as conduits disseminating the story's fertile ideas. It's possible to make an interesting movie in this way, but Scream And Scream Again is first and foremost a schlock exploitation film. It says "American International" on the tin, so you aren't going to get Antonioni here.

So, high art apart, is the movie any good as schlock entertainment? Sure! It possesses a fair dollop of pulp-trash energy, and its willingness to flit recklessly between locations, time-frames, and plot-points lends it a certain charm.

The casting is astute. The late Michael Gothard makes a good, eerie cyborg psychopath as he prowls groovy London discotheques in search of party-girls whom just assume he's a good-looking guy with a fast car and an Austin Powers shirt. Of course, the reality is more gruesome, and he is soon savagely murdering them and sucking their blood - although why he has vampiric tendencies is, typically, never explained. With his turns in that other super-trash magnum opus, Lifeforce, and Ken Russell's brilliant The Devils, I'm surprised Gothard doesn't have more of a cult following.

Elsewhere, Alfred Marks pretty much steals the show as the curmudgeonly cop in charge of the murder investigation. He has some nice throwaway lines (the only real character-based dialogue in the movie) that he delivers with mordant relish. Think of a British version of Walther Matthau in The Taking Of Pelham 123. Marks was a well known light-comedy actor in Britain, and appears here in one of his few film roles.

Judy Huxtable plays one of Gothard's victims in a brief and suitably unpleasant scene. A little later, Huxtable's became famous for being Peter Cook's second wife.

The movie's big selling point is the casting of Price, Cushing and Lee. All but Price have little more than extended cameos, but it's always good to see them. Some have praised Price's "serious" performance, but, to me, he is his usual quite wonderfully camp self.

My personal favourite piece of characterization is that of Konratz, the sadistic cyborg hit-man/superfascist, icily portrayed by Marshall Jones. I don't know what became of Jones, but his stint here, conveyed with minimal dialogue, is impressively charismatic and convincingly evil. His preferred method of murder is noteworthy; a lethal version of Leonard Nimoy's vulcan nerve pinch, which, in this case, seems to induce an immediate cerebral hemorrhage. In one bravura sequence, Konratz calmly waltzes into a busy police station, kills one of the major characters in a startling and gory close-up, steals some files and waltzes out again without missing a beat. A very scary fellow.

The movie's technical credits are fine. Gordon Hessler directs efficiently, indeed some of his set-ups are inspired - fairly ambitious tracking shots and some energetic hand-held shots from the POVs of killers and victims etc). Elsewhere, it's a case of point-and-shoot, probably a result of time/budget constraints. John Coquillon's cinematography takes a similar path, doing well enough with limited resources. He was to do more interesting work on Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs a few years later.

David Whittaker's riotously jazzy score seems initially to be outrageously inappropriate, then, as the narrative silliness progresses, you realise it is COMPLETELY appropriate. It's that kind of a movie. When it was re-released on video in the mid 80s, the movie had a new electronic score composed for it by Kendall Schmidt perhaps to avoid Musicians Union re-use fees. While I'm fond of Schmidt's effort, I prefer Whittaker's original. The score actually takes a more serious tone towards the denouement when Whittaker underscores the true horror of Price's laboratory with an eerie saxophone mysterioso and dissonant brass. The film might have benefited from more of that kind of scoring.

Finally, with its wild fusion of elements, Scream And Scream Again is an enjoyable gallop through late sixties paranoia. If nothing else it highlights that era's creeping fear of medical progress. This was a time when the latest advances in transplant surgery were making global news. The latent horror of these techniques, echoing Frankenstein, were to inspire other productions such as O Lucky Man, Coma, and Gerry Anderson's UFO with its organ stealing aliens. But at least Scream And Scream Again got there first.

Columbo: How to Dial a Murder
(1978)
Episode 4, Season 7

Williamson is good, but don't say 'Rosebud'.
British actor, Nicol Williamson, as the guest murderer, earns his transatlantic paycheck in this fine story. As always with Columbo, the culprit is rich, resourceful and highly intelligent, and Williamson's take on the character, a motivational psychologist, is detailed and meticulous. It may not be his finest screen performance (check out The Bofors Gun and Inadmissible Evidence), but he makes a worthy foil to Falk.

The story has some interesting cultural asides, such as L.A.'s burgeoning self-help craze of the 70's, and the cult of the movies, particularly Citizen Kane; something which proves to be both the killer's murder weapon and his eventual undoing.

The only let-down is the somewhat low-key ending. I would have preferred more of a flourish from both actors, but it wasn't really in the script for them.

Over all, it's an intelligent and interesting movie. Patrick Williams' ethereal/ominous music (woodwinds and low strings) is rather good, and which, once or twice, quotes a fragment of Bernie Herrmann's Psycho score; why? For the hell of it. And why not?

The Destructors
(1968)

Rude Reds Rob Red Rubies
Agents employed by Red China plot to steal a new American laser weapon powered by rubies. Enter Richard Egan as the counter-espionage agent who stands between the West and commies bent on global domination. Fortunately for the free world, his precious bodily fluids are working just fine. Does he save the day? Whaddya think?

This filler film, with its paranoid reds-under-the-bed plot, was probably at least ten years out of date when it was released. It's a strictly comic-book adventure, dashed out to capitalise on The Man From Uncle, Bond, etc. It totally lacks the wit of those productions, however, and takes a more Dragnet-type approach, ie. stiff, no nonsense, and rapidly tiresome. Richard Egan is quite impressive though. Egan, a big, chunky guy and a decent leading man, sports a tan for this movie deep enough to turn George Hamilton green with envy. B-movie king Michael Ansara features as the smoldering baddie (no surprises there), while the rest of the cast give their producer his money's worth.

It's childish rubbish of course, but smoothly filmed in an expensive TV film manner. The elaborately symphonic musical score by Paul Dunlap totally out-classes the movie and almost makes you think you're watching a good film. You're not though. You're just listening to the score for one. Dunlap pretty much left the film scoring field after this. A pity. He was (is) good, but all too often seemed to get saddled with B-movies like The Destructors. Fate's fickle finger jabs again.

The Dark
(1979)

It's grey, Scoob. Yikes!
Years ago while watching this picture on TV for the first time, I figured about half way through 'Hey, this ain't a sci-fi alien-on-the-rampage flick! It's an occult zombie movie hastily re-edited in a fever of post-production panic to cash in on the popularity of the same year's Alien'. Phew. What a literal thinker I was. Looking at IMDB's 'trivia' section, I see I was right. Wasn't I clever way back then? No. It really IS that obvious.

Disjointed, silly B movie. Not without some pleasures though. Keenan Wynn's fearful walk through a darkened underground car park worked for me, and there are a few unintended laughs here and there eg. William Devane's rather strange reaction to the sight of his dead daughter lying on a mortuary slab: he burps, and somewhat skittishly too. I wonder what Lee Strasberg would have thought of that. Perhaps William was expressing his heartfelt feelings toward the movie he found himself in. Actors get up to these tricks, you know.

And then there's Casey Kasem's police pathologist who is asked by a cop what colour the murderer's (still assumed to be human) skin is. Shaggy Kasem's reply of 'It's grey' is pleasantly creepy and recalls similar moments from Kolchak: The Night Stalker. In fact, Carl Kolchak's shadow looms large over this picture, even down to the unexpectedly spectacular denouement featuring a growling monster throwing cops bodily in all directions. VERY Kolchak.

Actually, damn it, I recommend this movie. It's enjoyable trash if you're in the right mood. But be warned - thanks to/in spite of post-production re-cutting (complete with inept Ed Wood type voice-over to fill in the plot holes) IT MAKES NO SENSE WHATSOEVER. Might be part of it's idiotic charm.

Alien Resurrection
(1997)

From Horror Poem To Corporate Menu
"You don't dare kill it" said Yaphet Kotto of the original alien's tendency to use acid for blood. Well, the IMDB User Reviews seem to be using their own acid to kill off Alien Resurrection.

It is, as of this writing, five years after the film's release, and the bile keeps flowing over Alien 4. I'm not going to spew acid. I don't like the movie either, it's true. But adding more bile to the brew would be redundant. Instead, I'd like to put Alien 4 in context by rekindling a little fire underneath Ridley Scott's original movie.

Scott is on record as saying that he took the job because the script was tight, direct, plain and simple. In other words, it was a nice blank canvas for his great visual skills to run free. His one and only aim was to make a frightening film, and because he was Ridley Scott he also made, by default, a very beautiful film. Beauty and fear is one hell of a mix.

Part of Alien 1's success lies in its simplicity. The dialogue is terse and functional - almost Kubrickian in its deliberate banality - and is delivered with documentary conviction by a superb cast of legitimate actors. Not stars. Actors.

The script is not weighed down by back-story. It finds no need to explain anything beyond what we see and, more importantly, feel. That was all it needed to work. There was no baggage with Alien, no anally retentive fans to complain that such and such a piece of trivia was inconsistent with Bishop's this, or Ripley's that from an earlier Alien movie. There was no tedious Lord Of The Rings/Star Wars type lore and mythology to be beholden to. None of that bilge had set in. Not yet. Rather, it is a simple story about seven people facing one big problem. But Scott's and Geiger's vision made it a richer experience than anything in the increasingly complex Alien stories to come. Alien 1 is simple in intention, but baroque in execution. There is imagery here which reaches deep into the subconscious. It lingers there.

The critic Leslie Halliwell called Alien's imagery 'half-assed poetry' (at least Halliwell, a habitual movie reactionary, recognised that it had poetry). I'd take Scott's half-assed poetry over Cameron's simple minded Vietnam revenge allegory any day (aliens as surrogate 'gooks'? A disgusting, NRA wet dream). And I'd take Scott's half-assed poetry over Alien 3's laughable pretentiousness.

And then there was Alien Resurrection. Alien Resurrection - it's a painfully ostentatious title. This hopefully final installment of the series is a typical Hollywood product of the 1990's and remains a good example of what was to come in the following decade. It has speed but no grace. It has surface gloss but no texture. It substitutes escalating dread with repulsive gouts of blood. It replaces crisp dialogue with disconnected strings of would-be hip one-liners (a common practice that works for a trailer but kills the actual film stone dead). Worst of all is the film's smug portentousness - the ultimate fate of all film sagas.

So, what happened to bring this about? Money happened. The need to make it. Scott's poetic vision was long gone, or at least too expensive by then for the producers to re-hire. Yet those producers were haunted by that poetry. Half-assed or not, they needed it. They also needed some 'class' to counter balance the goofy, MTV-style script they had bought from the man who wrote Buffy The Vampire Slayer. And so they imported it, fresh from France. Enter Jeunet.

Jeunet had a reputation as an art-house director, yet by even considering this project, he immediately relinquished any claims to 'art'. He certainly didn't achieve it in the movie. Many reviewers claim that Alien 4 has a strong, distinct visual style. But I agree with the reviewer who pointed out the studio-bound look of the film. In fact it more resembles an expensive TV movie. Both Scott and indeed David Fincher used long lenses and peripheral lighting to give a sense of depth and life to their pictures. Jeunet used shorter lenses and hard, textureless lighting to render a crisper but flatter look - probably so that it would 'look' better on a TV screen. It would seem that Monsieur Jeunet sold his art house and bought a condo in Malibu.

Acidic bile is creeping into this review. Must be time to stop.

I'll finish with what may seem an odd notion. I believe that if another Alien film is made, and I don't think it should by the way, then it should be helmed by a British director. This is not idiotic nationalism. It is an acceptance of the fact that there is something in the British psyche which is uniquely suited to the original concept of Alien: innate morbidity. It's the same quality which Hitchcock brought to the American scripted Psycho, and which pervades even the cheesiest Hammer film.

Horror is in the blood of British film makers. Directors after Scott would spout pseudo sociological waffle about how the alien is an allegory of AIDS, Vietnam, the role of the family, corporate greed, etc. This is an over-conceptualised, self-conscious and quintessentially American set of views. Scott's own publicly stated appraisal was much less Sunday supplement friendly. To him the alien is death incarnate. Full stop. Nothing half-assed about that.

Psycho
(1998)

Julianne Moore's Irritating Walkman
"In Memory of Alfred Hitchcock" read the final caption. The preceding two hours demonstrated that Gus Van Saint should have undergone deep hypno-regression therapy. But it wouldn't have done him any good. Remembering and mimicking the genius of a great film maker does not immediately imbue you with his innate gifts. It's more likely, as Orson Welles wisely pointed out, to inhibit your own creative development. But then, what did that hack know?

So Gus gets to play Hitch for a couple of hours and fulfils his childhood dream, Hollywood squeezes a few more drops of box-office blood from the Psycho franchise, and Joseph Stefano gets paid all over again for a forty year old screenplay. At least I hope he did. It was and is, mostly, a great piece of work; literate, poetic, compassionate, and nightmarishly funny. However, the new cast, seemingly less practiced in the subtleties of their craft than in the imbibing of fresh orange juice and nasal Ajax beneath a hot blue California sky, butcher it. Shakespeare spoken by am-drams sounds like guano. Nuance is eroded, emphasis is misplaced, meaning is lost. Stefano may not be a Shakespeare, but he gets similar treatment from this troup. They seemed to have wandered in from a whacky, campy sitcom. Jerry Seinfeld playing Norman Bates would have been much more frightening.

The original cast's interpretations and performances have only been elevated by comparison. Vaughn confuses camp for Perkins' neurosis, Hecht confuses skittishness for Leigh's world weariness, and Moore confuses hostility for Miles' determination. William H. Macey, a very good actor, comes off with some credit but he's up against tough competition. In the original film, Martin Balsam's single, extended scene with Perkins displays both actors amazing sensitivity to subject and character. The tension is brilliantly captured by Hitchcock's chiaroscuro camerawork. In the update, Macey comes close, but it takes two to tango, and Vaughn ain't a-dancin'.

Van Saint directs shot-for-shot scene recreations most of the time. He misses a few tricks though. Hitchcock's highway patrol man is much more sinister, for example. Occasionally, Gus slips in a few home-made grace notes; surreal, flash-frame cuts from the murder victim's POV. Most critics hated them along with the rest of the film. I found them startling and actually quite effective, mainly because of their sheer unexpectedness amid the relentless dross. They hint at better ideas inside the directors head; ideas all but frozen to death in Hitchcock's shadow. Other critics regarded them as exhibitions of Van Saint's boredom.

It's a pity that Van Saint didn't completely succumb to boredom and offer up something more playful, subversive, and revisionist in the way Scorsese did with his Cape Fear remake. But Van Saint is too constrained by the holy grail of Psycho 1960, and as such, Psycho 1998 "doesn't gel, and if it doesn't gel it isn't aspic..." or as this version puts it for no very good reason, "it isn't jello".

And, of course, Julianne Moore's Walkman is extremely irritating.

The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer
(1970)

Ahead of its time, yet too late.
A mysterious, charismatic figure (possibly another incarnation of Cook's George Spiggot Devil character from 'Bedazzled') appears from nowhere and takes over a small advertising agency. Through a series of ruthless strategies (media manipulation, political chicanery, blackmail, bribery and murder) he attains huge public notoriety and rises to the heights of government and beyond.

With its amazing cast of contemporaneous British comedy actors and a script by Peter Cook, John Cleese and Graham Chapman, the film should have been a satirical classic. The fact that it isn't, and indeed has virtually disappeared, is mainly due to the very brilliance of its creators. The sketch-show dynamic and satiric insight with which they dominated television comedy and theatre revue does not translates well to the cinema. Here it appears as an unfocused and fragmented ramble.

Rather than create a set of rounded characters which might withstand big-screen scrutiny, Cook and company resort to what they know best - caricatures. Accurate caricatures though they are, these are not 'people' but conduits and Aunt Sallys for the film-maker's understandable exasperation.

Peter Cook never looked so urbane and strikingly handsome as Michael Rimmer: a charming manipulator whose every utterance is a covert announcement of his smoothly diabolical strategy. Cook plays the role like a kind of malevolent mannequin. Grinning and mechanical. It was a deliberate move on his part and quite brave. But the viewer soon craves for him to break cover, show a crack in the veneer, display some vulnerability to connect with. It never happens. Rimmer is no Richard III. Maybe that's the way Cook regarded such power-players: passionless shells of men with nothing but their ambition to drive them. Unfortunately, the film itself takes on these very aspects and becomes heartless and mechanical.

The script is also not quite funny enough. The intimidation of writing for the big screen seems to have severely compromised the talents of the writers. Many of the jokes are forced and frequently fall back on tits-and-arse sight-gags - an unhappy irony as the film is highly critical of the use of sex by advertisers to sell useless products. A severe case of "having your cake and eating it".

A lot of the minor players ham it up to grab laughs in that peculiarly loud, desperate, English rep-company manner. However, it is a truly wonderful thing to behold Peter Cook, Denholm Elliot and the great Harold Pinter (as a fantastically smarmy TV talk-show host) appearing in the same frame trying to out-smarm each other. It's a three way draw. Brilliant.

Yes, there are some good things. Kevin Billington has a nice eye for composition, but, perhaps understandably, he can't do a thing with the fractured narrative. Alex Thompson's camera-work is excellent and imparts a sense of real cinema. The film's insight into the cynical manipulation of the media by politicians seems even more prescient today. But ultimately, it all fails to gel.

Perhaps it came too late in the cycle of British satirical comedy to really get everyone's blood moving. Cleese and Chapman moved on rapidly to the ground-breaking surrealism of Monty Python, and David Frost, the film's co-producer, dived headlong into a lucrative career as a talk-show host and professional jet-setter. But Cook's hopes for becoming a major movie star were destroyed by the film's failure. Apart from sporadic periods of greatness (re-uniting with Dudley Moore etc), he basically drank himself to death over the next twenty-five years. A sad conclusion to a great comedian's life.

The film is worth seeing if for no other reason than to witness a snapshot of British comedy before it flew into a very different orbit.

Jumpin' Jupiter
(1955)

Not shown in Britain for 25 Years As Far As I know
I have very fond memories of this one, although I haven't seen it for a good 25 years. It's weird that of all the great WB cartoons, this one one hasn't seen a UK TV broadcast since about 1975! And I've been watching out for it!!

Things to enjoy: Porky and Sylvester experiencing a spectacular alien abduction scenario that even Chris Carter would hesitate to portray; a terrific 'space-score' by Carl Stalling which includes a beautifully epic arrangement of Raymond Scott's 'Powerhouse' music; the disturbing sight of a terrified, dumb-struck Sylvester realizing that he and the pig have been whisked off to an alien planet while Porky remains totally and blissfully oblivious to the the fact.

Great!

Love to see it again.

Flying Padre
(1951)

Hatchling Genius Spreads His Wings
This, one of Kubrick's very first commercial film making efforts, is a stepping stone but not much more.

It follows two days in the life of priest Father Fred Stadtmuller whose New Mexico parish is so large he can only spread goodness and light among his flock with the aid of a mono-plane. The priestly pilot is seen dashing from one province to the next at the helm of his trusty Piper Club administering guidance to unruly children, sermonizing at funerals and flying a sickly child and its mother to hospital.

In the light of Kubrick's later deeply ironic works, one is tempted to view these events in a slightly sinister, mischievous light. However its ironic sense can only be derived from its ludicrous, super-earnest newsreel format - commonplace at the time. Kubrick was to put such a format to good, unsettling use with the voice-over introduction to Dr Strangelove, Alex's voice-over in Clockwork Orange, Michael Horden's instructing tones in Barry Lyndon, and Private Joker's darkly humorous commentary in Full Metal Jacket. With this film, no such irony was intended (I think).

This is a strictly by-the book programmer; a second feature documentary made by a twenty-three year old future maestro for money, experience, and industry kudos. There are no real signs of Kubrick's later talent for pictorial composition (even though he was at this point a noted photo-journalist) or razor sharp narrative intellect. Although it is a perfectly competent piece, Flying Padre is virtually indistinguishable in form and content from any other programmer of the period.

Yet it is Kubrick and as such it's a valuable document in the early development of one of film's greatest artists. But for a real hint of what was to come, one should look at Kubrick's Day of the Fight made a year earlier. Invention, control of form, photographic dazzle, and energy. It's all there... except the irony. That was to arrive with Fear and Desire (1953).

Beast from Haunted Cave
(1959)

Well, it scared the bejeezus out of my parents in 1959!
To be honest I've only seen this movie on Yahoo Broadcast's movie channel, and at one frame every eight seconds with bad sound it was a less than satisfying experience. But even though viewing conditions were bad, I experienced enough of the movie to get some idea of why my folks thought it was the scariest film of 1959 - in fact even now they come over hushed voiced when talking about it.

Truth is it ain't all that terrifying. The first 65 minutes are pretty routine B-picture fare with comic book villains and soap opera heroes exchanging threats while an unseen 'thing' makes noises from the snowy woods. BUT I must say that the last 10 - 15 minutes sees the movie shift into a different gear. There's a genuinely nightmarish quality to the scenes in the creatures lair as 'the beast' approaches its screaming, helpless, cocooned victims. The imagery here is strongly reminicent of Tom Skerrit's death scene from 'Alien' - Dan O'bannon must have seen this movie at the same time my folks did!

I'd love to see this film properly, I don't think it has ever been shown on UK TV.

Snatch
(2000)

Cor blimey guvnor. How cynical can you get?
Britain's current infatuation with vicious, throat-cutting gangster culture continues with this piece of exploitation which is neither as funny nor as charming as it would like you to think it is.

Guy Ritchie, a semi-aristocrat with pretensions to working class chic, attempts to sustain the myth that all gangsters are just loveable rogues rather than the sadistic sociopaths that they really are. Sure, violent men have their reasons to be violent and many fine films have been made which have sensibly explored the theme of male violence. Snatch is not one of these.

The day when an audience is expected to derive amusement from the exploits of psychopaths and enjoy a 'good laugh' along with them as they dish out their un-metered brutality is a day when... hang on a minute! That day seems to have come. I hope we all have enough sanity not to laugh.

Event Horizon
(1997)

Solaris with no brains and no soul.
Terrific production design, a good cast, great effects, etc etc. Yes to all that but so what?!

This is a soulless, inept, disjointed, senseless piece of derivative trash.

The basic theme of Event Horizon was first filmed as Solaris by Tarkovsky in 1970. That was a work of great emotional insight and strength by a master film maker. This is merely effluent. And it's nasty effluent at that. Please see Solaris instead, I beg you!!

Lifeforce
(1985)

I NEVER tire of this film!!
Yes, I love Lifeforce. Why? Because, and I say this without a hint of irony or malice, it is the funniest film ever made. Ever. And I mean EVER. With a budget of twenty million plus, it has to be, along with the Blues Brothers, one of the most expensive comedies ever made - and it's funnier than the Blues Brothers too (which is saying a helluva lot).

Every inept line is delivered with staggering conviction by a cast who are living their roles in ways Lee Strasberg never bargained for.

It is the greatest bad movie of all time. However, I must say that beyond all the unintended hilarity, the musical score by Henry Mancini is a genuinely fine work and the pre CGI special effects are terrific.

You don't need to be drunk to enjoy this film - it would help, but a good working knowledge of 1950's B-movie sci-fi cliches would be even better - you get them all here in spades and performed by the cream of Britain's Shakespearian actors. A work of sheer twisted genius.

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