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'Summerfield' is 3/4 a great little movie... well, 5/8. But all the good work is somewhat negated by the payoff.

As my fellow reviewers have noted, the technical qualities are excellent: evocative cinematography, haunting score and sound design, sensitive direction. All of the performances are good but I particularly liked John Waters as the brooding brother and Geraldine Turner as the rubenesquely sexy landlady. The townsfolk have those wonderfully earthy, naturally idiosyncratic faces that seventies Australian cinema is full of.

The problem lies with the script. After a great build-up where clues are laid with nuance and subtlety, the revelation about the Abbott's relationship is lacking in the necessary emotional force. And the final scene just doesn't work for me. I was left puzzled and irritated.

On second thought, maybe its partly the script and partly the execution of the final moments. Maybe it worked better on paper than director Ken Hannam captued it on screen. I dunno. At any rate I was disappointed.

See the film if you can. There's an awful lot of good stuff happening before the climax. In fact, it's because the build-up is so good that the finale comes off as such a let-down.

The Blood on Satan's Claw

A simple yokel discovers a strange, demonic 'face' whilst ploughing his field; Then comes a wonderfully unnerving credit sequence with a raven seated in a silhouetted tree. The viewer sits up straight. "Ah", he thinks, rubbing his hands, "a scary-yet-poetic meditation on the fears and superstitions of simple dark ages country folk a la 'Witchfinder General'". Well, no. 'Blood on Satan's claw' never achieves the cohesion and narrative drive of that (also slightly overrated) film. What it does have is a handful of eye-catching sequences and ideas executed in surprisingly lurid detail. Nice photography and an effective if slightly run-of-the-mill score help cover the cracks.

The film was originally conceived as a portmanteau piece, with three separate stories. The makers then decided to link the tales with a common location: a 16th century rural community. They didn't quite figure out how to do it properly, though. 'Blood...' moves in fits and starts but without unity and resolve. The viewer is kept relatively engaged, at least up until two thirds of the way in, but too many potentially fascinating threads evaporate into thin air. The climax doesn't work, with the final freeze frame a staple cop-out of the time.

There's always been lots of praise for the performances in the piece. I'm not convinced. Much standard theatrical emoting is in evidence. Patrick Wymark has a great voice and odd manner, but feels like he's on auto pilot. Linda Hayden widens her eyes and licks her lips lasciviously the best way she can. Sundry villagers fret and gurn.

There are some chilling moments: a couple of oldies excitedly look on at an adolescent rape/murder (still v. unpleasant), and something nasty comes up through the floorboards of Simon Williams' room.

Overall it deserves its "oh yeah, I remember that bit - what was the title again?" status.

The Haunted House of Horror

Michael Armstrong talks us through the film that never was.
This film is available on disc in the UK from Anchor Bay as part of their Tigon box-set, along with 'The Beast in the cellar', 'Witchfinder General', 'Virgin Witch', and 'The Body Stealers'.

'Haunted House' was available on the late lamented Vampix video label in the early 1980's in the UK. That release was notable mostly for the dark, drabness of the print. It looks considerably improved here, with lustrous, bright colors and correct aspect ratio. The film itself is not up to much, but remains watchable for its late 60's period frills and a couple of effectively nasty murders.

What makes this incarnation of the film interesting is the director's commentary supplied as an audio extra. Michael Armstrong's career had unfortunate beginnings: He shot this flick, his first, when he was 24 and the experience was painful, with the film taken away from him and his original cut undone by studio re-writes and re-shoots. The following year he went to Germany to make 'Mark of the Devil' and suffered exactly the same fate. The financial success of both titles (especially 'Mark', which was a huge exploitation hit) was little consolation to the tyro film-maker and he vowed to stay away from movies until he was guaranteed complete creative control.

Armstrong here explains the changes made to his original concept in great detail, pointing out exactly which scenes he shot and how they would/should have fitted into his scheme of things. The film he wanted to make - 'The Dark' - certainly sounds pretty interesting the way he tells it, and the most frustrating thing about the whole episode is that it seemed to boil down to a personality clash between him and Louis 'Deke' Hayward, AIP'S man-in-London at the time.

Hayward tried to shoehorn Boris Karloff (who owed AIP one film as part of a contract) into the plot at various junctures, a ploy which Armstrong vigorously resisted, resulting in a war of wills that Hayward was destined to win. Hayward went on to extensively re-write the script, inserting Dennis Price as a policeman and George Sewell as a lurking spurned suitor, and employed a technician called Gerry Levy to shoot the necessary patch-up sequences. It's fascinating to watch the film whilst Armstrong indicates continuity errors in the insert sequences and identifies the various loose ends that commemorate the residue of his original script.

Its no surprise, then, that 'The Haunted House of Horror' is a bit of a mess. Its perhaps remarkable that it plays as well as it does. But I recommend this release for the commentary, yet another that uncovers machinations and interference undreamed of by the casual viewer. As an education in the unseen political wranglings of film-making it is most enlightening.

The Vicious Circle

Kept me watching
This is no minor classic. But I wouldn't dismiss it quite as quickly as my fellow reviewers. It looks and feels rather like one of those British 'Quota quickies' churned out sausage-style by Butchers films in the 1950's and 60's. Which is not a bad thing. It's longer than those efforts, though, and has more 'names' - the star is John Mills.

I enjoy the way that the piece depicts safe, sterile suburban middle class life turned upside down. Well, not quite 'turned upside down' exactly: there's a charming little scene where dear Johnnie takes his mind off the fact that he's a man on the run for murder by playing a few rounds of golf. The film has a most agreeable atmosphere of suspicion and distrust. Certainty and normality fray at the edges. Nobody can be trusted. Your smoothly amiable best friend of longstanding just might have it in for you. Your fiancée may not be what she seems.

There are some very enjoyable performances. I particularly liked Wilfrid Hyde-White as a civilised but sinister late-night caller. In fact, pretty much everybody in this film does civilised and sinister rather well. Mills is his usual watchable self. The direction is largely uninspired but is nicely unobtrusive: events unfold with pace and sharp simplicity.

If you want to catch a true lost masterpiece of suburban British post-war paranoia, look for Lance Comfort's "Pit of Darkness", with William Franklyn as another urbane professional who finds his routine existence up-ended. There's only one moment in 'The Vicious Circle' to match that film for my money. Don't ask me why, but the scene where Mills turns up at a 'social gathering' and finds only an empty apartment flooded with the sound of pre-recorded party chatter unnerves me every time. It seems that there's a tinge of genuine madness and disruption just lurking at the corners of the frame.


"Stupid punters. Telly all the week, screw the wife Saturday"
I've watched 'Villain' innumerable times since I taped it off a late night Channel 4 screening in 1999. Why? Because it's truly excellent.

Atmosphere, plot, quirky characterisations, violent action, dialogue, squalid sex - brother, it's got the lot. A far, far more interesting film than the same period's 'Get Carter'.

Scripted by venerable British comedy maestros Clement and Le Frenais from an initial novel adaptation by the simian faced American character actor Al Lettieri (and I'm sure there's an interesting story behind that process), 'Villain' is remarkably modern in its tone. We aren't presented with goodies or baddies, simply players of the never-ending game:

Vic Dakin (a darkly humorous Richard Burton) is the good old traditional mother-loving gay psychopath who enjoys slicing up informers with a cut-throat razor;

Wolfie Lissner (a superb Ian McShane, playing probably the most interesting character in the piece) is a survivor who'll do what ever it takes to survive, be it pimping unsuspecting lovelies to the elite, selling pills to late night ravers or taking the brunt of Dakin's sadisitic sexual urges;

Bob Matthews (a wry Nigel Davenport) is the disillusioned copper dedicated purely to bringing Daykin down - "I don't want a fertile imagination, I don't want to know if society's to blame, I just want to catch criminals".

And Gerald Draycott (an eternally eyebrow-cocking, seedily lecherous Donald Sinden) is a charmingly corrupt politician with a weakness for the kind of nubile young girls Wolfie supplies.

The script traces the intertwining fates of these characters after a bungled wages heist with terse, witty precision. Oddball subsidiary figures like Joss Ackland's ulcer-ridden crook (who gobbles pain-relieving hard boiled eggs during a getaway) and James Cossins' bitter, wife-hating clerk garnish the proceedings like tangily flavorous seasoning. The backdrop of grubby and grim seventies Britain is so well sketched that you can almost smell it. Jonathan Hodge's musical score is both percussively minimalist and hauntingly lyrical - very powerful. And its a rare triumph for the otherwise hack-like Michael Tuchner, who directs superlatively here with vigorous assurance.

Look out for stalwarts like Tony Selby, Tim Barlow and an uncredited Johnny Shannon ('Performance's Harry Flowers) as a copper coshing con.

"Got a hard-oh, have ya? DRIVE!!"

The Uncanny

The worst anthology film?
Replete with endless shots of disinterested moggies (presumably being teased by an out-of-shot toy mouse) and fluorescent red paint (supposed to be blood), 'The Uncanny' is a tedious dud.

Peter Cushing and Donald Pleasence are fabulous actors notable for giving their best to even the most irredeemable of projects. But here they both throw in the towel and deliver depressingly lacklustre turns.

The stories are dull, predictable and poorly executed.

There is little more to be said, except for "Avoid".

However, apparently an IMDb review requires a minimum 10 lines of text, so I will elaborate: "Avoid like the plague".

Dead Man's Shoes

Now I'm the monster...
Essentially a genre piece made fascinating with a wealth of idiosyncratic personal detail, 'Dead man's shoes' has become a cult film in the UK in same way that 'Get Carter' and 'The Wicker man' did in the 1970's.

A soldier returns to his hometown to seek vengeance for his brother. The soldier is Paddy Considine, gripping as a sort of Travis Bickle/Michael Myers hybrid by way of the spaghetti westerns. The style is Ken Loach meets Antonio Margheriti.

The film, low in budget but admirably high in ambition, rather bravely relies on performances by quasi professionals for the majority of its effect. And for the most part, they are convincing. Considine, who was alternately frightening and empathetic in Shane Meadows' previous 'A room for Romeo Brass' pulls the same trick brilliantly with this role. Its a crying shame that the British cinema won't offer him the vehicles for his talent that he so richly deserves, and that he will probably end up doing quirky miniatures in American blockbusters.

Gary Stretch is also impressive as Considine's chief antagonist, the leader of a group of criminals so inconsequential that even the term 'petty' suggests a status they could only dream of. He's a charismatic, narcissistic thug whose demise seems ill-judged by Meadows.

The piece can't sustain the engrossment of it's first two thirds, and on repeat viewings the extended musical passages appear as longueurs rather than the comments on the surrounding action they were intended to be. Its a quietly remarkable film, though, and Meadows' projects are definitely ones to watch for.

The Eiger Sanction

terribly enjoyable/ enjoyably terrible?
This is the silliest film with Eastwood's name on the credits, and that includes stuff like 'Francis in the Navy' and 'Tarantula'. But at its best, its a kind of bravura silliness. There are chunks of quotable dialogue, vertigo inducing cinematography and the requisite smorgasbord of villains and could-be/would-be villains. Just don't ask me if its a spoof, because I have no idea. I'm pretty sure nobody involved with the picture did, either.

The intermittent tone seems largely attributable to the fact that, at this point in Clint's career, the ego had landed. Thus we witness scads of nubile young lovelies attempt to lure the granite hewn stud into bed, whilst he disrobes to reveal a finely honed physique at every opportunity. The women are all sex crazed psychopaths (ain't it the truth) driven to distraction by his squinting cool and formidable musculature. Notice also the number of times both female AND male characters are required to comment admiringly on Eastwood's appearance and caress his form with their eyes. There's no distance to any of this, however. Even the pop-Nietzcheian antics of the mountain climbers are served cold. The director star never offers us the merest suggestion that he's mocking the preening machismo at any level.

All of this worship, plus the fact that the star's performance is WAY, WAY over the top - his usual 'snarling and eye-rolling alternated with boyish grin' is accentuated to parodic proportions - lends the piece a bizarrely dreamy, awkwardly sadistic homo-eroticism. If, in any other film, the hero yelled, "you're quiet now, ain't ya, ya little prick?" at a dog called 'faggot' after he'd killed it's master, I'd be on safe ground in assuming that the makers were nudging my ribs. Here, though, the surrounding unfettered narcissism and borderline unpleasantness it engenders makes it impossible to tell when the joke is for us or on us.

But its fun because of this nonsense. Even the final inconsequentiality of the whole exercise can't diminish that. It's just that this film, more than any other in his catalogue, lends extreme credence to biographer Patrick McGilligan's central assertion that, cinematically speaking at least, Clint is a lot less smart than critics allow.

Mikey and Nicky

Wildly overpraised
People are going crazy for this film here: "one of the best films ever made", "lost classic" "10 star movie", etc, etc. When I finally got hold of a disc, I was wetting myself in anticipation.

Friends, it ain't all that. It's watchable. Reasonably entertaining. Often feels like it's gonna go somewhere profound, though never does. Has lovely little moments. But it meanders, is unnecessarily technically inept (it was a major studio picture with people like the great Lucien Ballard involved) and somehow never has the courage of it's convictions. Cassavetes' similar film from the same period, 'The Killing Of a Chinese Bookie', is far better.

I don't dislike the film. It has a great 70's texture and plenty of lovable eccentricities, such as the brief musical 'score'( anyway you look at it, it doesn't work, but I sort of enjoyed it for that reason). There's one scene I really liked: Cassavetes walks into an all-night candy store (as a Brit, the concept of that alone excites me) and tries to buy ice-cream. Nothing worth really talking about happens, but it's quirky and entertaining. It's that kind of movie.

Super Fly

Amateurish, rambling and incoherent. But very enjoyable.
This turned up on BBC2 last night, and it's 'bash whitey' stance no doubt provided a rebellious frisson for all the students who cut short their drinking to catch it.

The vast majority of blaxploitation flicks fall short of their soundtracks, but this film doesn't even come close. It's like dubbing Beethoven onto a home movie. Curtis Mayfield appears in person to perform 'Pusherman' in an 'intimate nightclub' setting, but like the rest of the piece, the effect is muted by the unimaginative camera-work and stiff editing.

With it's 'one more big score and then I leave the life' plot line and endless "I'm gonna pop a cap in 'yo ass, nigga" exchanges, this is probably THE film that Snoop and Fiddy, etc, study endlessly. But despite it's reputation it really is amateurish. It's also sluggishly paced (the wonderful, upbeat score BARELY keeps it moving) with several continuity howlers (a character emotes to Priest whilst actually facing the wrong way round, and - my favorite - Priest lashes out at a corrupt honky pig only for his fist to connect with a completely different cop who appears from nowhere). A lot less conversation and a little more action would have been appreciated. The few good ideas, such as the (dated) photo montage, are again fumbled by the slack cutting.

Nevertheless, I was entertained. The bad, camp moments are funny, and at it sometimes exudes a kind of 'Harder they come' style rawness. I really, really enjoyed the romantic interlude in the bathtub, in which the female protagonist's righteously taught butt ripples in slow motion after being mauled by O'Neal. Poetic.


"It's just the wind"
I recently purchased the Anchor Bay 'Phantasm' boxset for 30 quid, and have just sat through the four films, commentaries and all.

Me and the original 'Phantasm' go way back. Like a lot of people posting here, I saw it as a kid, and images from it have stayed with me ever since.

Viewing it now (and I have seen it numerous times throughout the intervening years, but not for a while), I'm struck by the extraordinary eccentricity of the film. It plays like a melancholy children's film interrupted by moments of goofy silliness and grisly surrealism worthy of Bunuel. It's extremely well made with excellent photography and editing (all done by writer/director Coscarelli), and a beautifully textured musical/sound effects track. Commentators here have complained about poor acting and shoddy special effects, but I can't agree. I find the performances to be effectively low-key, especially Michael Baldwin as the child protagonist, who is pretty much perfect. The visual ideas are so inventive and odd that the budgetary limitations imposed on their execution have minimal detraction.

The print of 'Phantasm' presented here is superb, and matted at 1:85:1 (16:9). The sound is also very impressive, with 2.0 stereo and 5.1 mixes. There are some great extras, most notably a 100 minute 'making of' documentary, called 'Phantasmagoria', which tells you pretty much everything you could wish to know about the film and it's sequels. At one point there is even a shot of the invoice presented to the producers by the manufacturer of the silver sphere!

The documentary also reveals that a rough cut of the film ran for nearly three hours. 'Phantasm' has always looked like a film that had pieces missing, which only adds to it's mystery. A lot of the footage that was removed involved character detail and back story, and samples can be found in both the 'deleted scenes' section of the disc, and as interpolations during 'Oblivion', the third sequel. I enjoyed this stuff immensely, and whilst it's removal was correct, I would very much like to see Coscarelli's original cut.

The 'hanging tree' sequence, which involves a suspended tall man whispering exhortations to Mike to cut him down, is particularly brilliant. It's wonderfully atmospheric, and feels like something from a Grimm's fairy tale. It can be seen in 'Oblivion'. In fact, I would recommend the fourth film purely on the basis of the 1979 footage. It is cleverly used, with the final shot of Mike and Reggie in the ice cream truck being extremely effective.

The original 'Phantasm' works because of it's almost total ambiguity. For me, it's best read the most obvious way - as the dream within a dream of a child attempting to comprehend the enormity of death. Sure, there are moments that don't work, but there are also sequences of great power. Mike's initial night-time exploration of the mortuary is shot and edited with pristine elegance.

Whilst I enjoy the three sequels to varying degrees, I find them to be basically inessential. Visual tropes and action sequences are repeated ad nauseam throughout (flipped and exploding cars appear to be a recurrent obsession), and the slapstick gore style of the 'Evil Dead' films seems (unfortunately) to have been a major influence. There is, though, an engaging dopeyness to their approach if you enter into the spirit of the proceedings, and Coscarelli always knows how to frame and cut his action.


Surprising and moving
I saw this for the first time last night on Channel 4. I've never sought out the film before because I assumed that it would be an uninvolved telling of an uninteresting piece of British history. I was wrong.

The piece works on several levels, as they say. First, the period evocation is excellent. I became interested in this era after reading an interesting book on slum landlord Peter Rachmann a few years back (he is a minor character here). Christine Keeler was a figure who inhabited both the pot and ska parties of London's impoverished immigrant community and the bedrooms of the most powerful men in the land, and this breadth and contrast gives the film sufficient scope to successfully capture the energy and feel of the time.

Second, the handling of character development is exemplary. The film surprises you by gradually shading in the relationship between Keeler and Stephen Ward, until their completely believable 'love affair' becomes the focus in the moving finale. Joanne Whalley and John Hurt are both exceptional as Keeler and Ward, turning in subtle and detailed performances. These characters are contradictory and ambiguous, the kind of complex human beings who could quite easily be reduced to type by lesser actors.

Third, the film is made with real heart and intelligence. It is sympathetic to its characters and it strives to understand them, and thus help us to understand them. The director, Michael Caton-Jones frames and cuts with brilliant understatement, making potent and witty use of contemporary music throughout. I really didn't expect the seamless technique and low-key accretion of detail employed here, and it kept me fascinated.

The tone of the picture is just right. A kind of compassionate sadness. We come to feel the real injustice of the moral and social hypocrisy bought to bear without being assaulted by it, and as noted before, the ending is powerful and affecting. It would appear that tabloid scumbags were as pernicious an influence then as they are now, and the observations thereon are as relevant as ever.

If I had to find fault with the film, it would be this: Ian McKellen models perhaps the least convincing bald pate in the history of cinema as John Profumo. So much so, that, for me, it impacts negatively on his otherwise notable performance. Its a minor flaw all told.

I was surprised. I was impressed. I was moved. If you happen upon the film, sit down and watch it. You will be rewarded.

The Last Horror Film

Worth a pound of anyone's money.
I bought this on DVD from a Poundland for, hey! - a pound. It was re-titled as 'Fanatic'. Actually it was a double bill. Another schlock flick who's title I forget was on the flip side of the disc. So in effect, I got the Spinell picture for 50p. I'd say it was money well spent.

This was shot on the hoof at the 1981 Cannes film festival. Joe is a taxi driver who goes there to seek out his idol/wet dream Caroline Munro. Caroline appears with her then real life spouse Judd Hamilton. Husband and wife are both dubbed, and Caroline looks pretty much as she did when she was a hostess on '3-2-1' with Ted Rogers. The film bears little resemblance to the previous Spinell/Munro vehicle, 'Maniac'. That was grim, gory and reprehensible. This is light, silly and incomprehensible.

'The last horror film' seemed to receive an inordinate amount of coverage in the British film fantasy magazine 'Starburst' at the time. I can now see why: Spinell appears reading a copy of said periodical. Reciprocal publicity. There are also numerous references to other films, especially Scorsese's 'Taxi Driver' (which Joe appeared in). In fact, there is a vaguely interesting blurring of film reality and fantasy and 'real' reality and fantasy throughout. Generally, though, it's a mess. Scenes just seem to rear up out of nowhere. But if you're interested in such things, the footage of Cannes and the general nakedness of the female cast will provide fifty pence's worth of entertainment.

There's a nice story on the Spinell documentary included on the Anchor Bay 'Maniac' disc which pertains to the making of this film. The cast and crew were staying at a rather expensive Cannes hotel, and due to the penurious nature of the budget found themselves unable to foot the extravagant bill. Spinell, Winters, Munro and all concerned therefore decided to do a runner in the middle of the night and catch the nearest plane home. Pity they didn't film that little episode and stick it in here along with everything else.

Watch out for Joe's verbal sparring with his real life mother Filomena (aka Mary). Pretty funny.


Thoughtfully moody modern noir
'Hustle' is an overlooked film, though it is easy to see why.

Stylistically it is very low-key with no notable flourishes or tricksiness. It boasts little in the way of 'action'. A hostage situation sequence seems to have been added purely to provide something in that line for fidgety Burt fans. It is profoundly cynical and resolutely (almost excessively) downbeat. But it is also very thoughtful, atmospheric, well acted and absorbing. A kind of modern dress companion piece to 'Chinatown'. And whilst not quite achieving the force and subtlety of that film, it remains highly creditable.

Reynolds is effective as the world weary cop in love with a French prostitute, a cipher whom Deneuve turns into a real person. Her character represents some sort of unattainable, glamorous continental dream to the policeman. This idea is explored and reinforced by numerous references and allusions to European cinema, culture and locale.

Burt looks uncannily like a youthful Brando and brings great restraint to a role which could have been horribly over-played. Ben Johnson, Eileen Brennan and Paul Winfield also all give good performances as beaten, screwed-up people. The outstanding turn, though, comes from Edward Albert as Leo Sellers, a wealthy and powerful businessman with dubious tastes and connections. This character is key to Steve Shagan's screenplay in the same way that John Huston's Noah Cross was to Robert Towne's 'Chinatown'. A persona symbolic of corruption and degeneracy, but also integral to the prosperity of the society he is such a part of. Sellers is a refined, intelligent man with a keen eye for people's weak spots and fingers deft enough to push all of their buttons at once. Mr. Albert brings him to life with a palpable evil.

'Hustle' is a film that I like to reacquaint myself with from time to time. Whilst Shagan's script is occasionally a tad overblown and too fruity for its own good, there are some great lines and moments. For me, it's noirish exploration of thwarted romanticism is pretty much irresistible.

A minor classic.


Pete Walker Boxset
The comments that follow are made with regard to the recently released Anchor Bay box set in general rather than this film in particular.

The films presented in the Pete Walker collection are 'Die Screaming, Marianne', 'House of Whipcord', 'Frightmare', 'The House of Mortal Sin' and 'The Comeback'. The prints are very nice, especially 'Frightmare', which I had previously only seen in its 1996 Redemption video incarnation - an NTSC transfer, and unattractively dark and grainy. This version is sharp and colourful (and matted at 1:85:1), which adds considerably to the entertainment value of the piece. 'The Comeback' print, though, leaves much to be desired. This I found particularly unfortunate as I consider it to be Walker's most 'watchable' film (it was certainly his most expensive and glossy up to that point). As a whole it is rather dull and washed out. I remember reading some time ago that Walker owned the negatives to all of his pictures. Was this the best version that could be provided for DVD posterity? The Satanica video release was better.

Most of the commentaries recorded for each film are a disappointment. Walker is not an articulate man (at least not on this evidence), and seems to know less about his films than most of the people who will have shelled out for this box set. The commentaries for 'Whipcord' and 'Frightmare' are moderated by Steve Chibnall, author of a comprehensive and entertaining book on Walker's films. Mr. Chibnall, whilst being a reasonable ink slinger, is also not the most eloquent of men, and the results are ramblings that rarely stray beyond the location of a given scene ("a little café just off the A62") or the fate of a day player. On the odd occasions that he attempts to explore ideas about subtext or social context, his overtures are rather brusquely dismissed with comments like "that wasn't intentional", or simply a withering, "well....yes". Walker's other (mostly silent) partner in these musings is Peter Jessop, his regular cinematographer. Like Walker, he has not bothered to refresh his memory on his own or others' involvement. Which is unfortunate, as he has forgotten pretty much everything about the films beyond the fact that they were made very quickly and economically.

Why was David McGillivray not asked to partake in these commentaries, or was he simply 'unavailable'? It is obvious that most of the themes and ideas were his, and as an inquisitive, engaging and practiced broadcaster he would have provided the insight, or even just the plain old gossip, that is lacking. However, although the print of "The Comeback" is poor, the accompanying commentary track is rather good. Here Walker is joined by one Jonathan Rigby, a horror aficionado and bit-part actor/author. A mellifluous, enthusiastic and well-researched host, Rigby provides us with with a wealth of anecdotal detail and even manages to coax some half-way interesting stories out of Walker. He also enjoys re-acquainting the director with his critics' most scathing reviews, and having a subtle dig at every opportunity. Walker and Rigby also discuss 'Mortal sin' and 'Marianne', to somewhat lesser effect, on their respective discs

The additional extras (presented on the 'House of Mortal Sin' disc) are two short documentaries - a half hour piece on Walker and 15 minutes on Sheila Keith. Both are fairly enjoyable, if unenlightening (and, appropriately, were obviously done fast and on the cheap). Fair enough, Walker isn't Orson Welles, but a lot more effort, at little additional cost, could have been put into these featurettes. I mean if you're fervid and, well, crazy enough to produce a piece on someone like Walker in the first place, then surely you could show a little more care and imagination than is demonstrated here.

At around £25 - £27, the box set represents good value for money: about a fiver a disc. If you are not yet acquainted with the man's oeuvre but have any interest in exploitation cinema, you should pick this up. Walker moved out of movies into property speculation, and as a film director makes a good real estate agent. But his flicks are not without merit or enjoyment. Despite the often silly claims that are made for them.

Angel Heart

Wasted opportunity
To my mind, Alan Parker has always been one of the least interesting filmmakers who ever lived. Unfortunately, he's had access to some of the most interesting plots/premises in the movies. 'Angel Heart' is probably the ultimate case in point. It's basic set-up - that a man sold his soul to the devil for fame and fortune, but then found a way to renege on the deal - is fascinating. In the hands of William Friedkin on form, or Roman Polanski, or even Jeff Lieberman, this could have been a great little film. Instead it's overlong, portentous and pretentious, and lacking in anything approaching real wit. It's also terminally rooted in the 80's with it's overt, lazy score, spurious sense of 'style' (lots of shots of ceiling fans and Ridley Scott lighting) and general lack of subtlety. Some things even Parker can't foul up, though. The De Niro scenes are highly enjoyable, Rourke is watchable and the guy playing 'Toots' is a hoot.

I haven't read the book, 'Fallen Angel' by William Hjortsberg, that this is based on, but I'm betting its pretty good. Shame that Parker, the man who made fiction out of the real life 'Midnight Express' and never got William Wharton's 'Birdy' off the ground, got his paws on it.


Whats not to like?
This got a late Friday night screening on BBC2 recently. Who negotiated that deal, Mr. Warren?.

And apart from an excruciating synth score by one Ivor Slaney (who also draped his dubious doodlings all over Norman's 'Prey'), it was pretty much all good.

Sexy stage-trained actresses never to be heard from again? Present and correct, sir.

On-the-hoof shots of Soho at night? Tick.

Strangely antiseptic sequences of murder and mayhem? You betcha.

Look out for Dirty Dave McGillivray cameoing as a TV reporter, Peter 'Chewbacca' Mayhew deathlessly intoning "You want a mechanic?". And Milton Reid throwing a Greek out of a nightclub.

The Long Firm

Somewhat disappointing
I tuned in to 'The Long Firm'" with high hopes. A modern historical drama starring the excellent Mark Strong looked promising, bringing to mind memories of 'Our friends in the north' - one of the best TV dramas of the past 20 years. Having now seen the fourth and final episode, I have to say that, although it was entertaining and extremely well-made, I was more than a little disappointed.

I am loathe to criticise ambitious drama like this in the light of the soapy dreck that constitutes the vast majority of British televisual output. However, 'The Long Firm' promised more than it delivered. And its faults lay firmly with the writing.

Each episode used a different narrator to relay details of their associations with the main character, London gangster Harry Starks. The technique proved clumsy, with the voice-overs unsubtle and unenlightening. Why employ such a method if ultimately the insights are all the same? More friction needed to exist between what we saw and what we heard for it to work. Like too much modern drama, the approach didn't transcend its stylistic facility.

In the same vein, character development and the attendant psychological underpinnings (e.g. gangster as thwarted celebrity/entertainer) were clichéd and overly familiar. The final episode, in particular, was embarrassingly heavy-handed in its satire of the counter-culture and academia. In general there was too much pastiche and caricature to allow real interest. Any emotional impact generated by these people was purely down to the skill of the actors and the director. Also, I haven't read the source novel by Jake Arnott, but I am presuming that it made a more profitable and resonant use of the metaphorical title. Here, it was explained briefly in episode one and then thrown away.

Ultimately, each episode proved highly watchable but somehow unsatisfying, leaving this viewer to assume that we were building to some revelation/twist/new insight that never came, the screenwriter happy to fashion the piece into little more than a summation of period iconography/psychology.

There was much to enjoy, though. The piece was extremely well-cast, mixing a few expected-but-impressive veterans with a lot of talented but lesser-known faces. Mark Strong proved to be a commanding linchpin as Starks, bringing charisma and nuance to the role. Also notable were Lena Headey's Ruby Ryder, the excellent George Costigan, and Shaun Dingwall as Harry's biographer. The period detail and mise en scene were nicely understated and entirely convincing, and there were nice, ballsy touches like the interpolation of footage from the 'Parkinson' show. Additionally there were a few welcome surprises on the contemporaneous soundtrack, such as Janice Nicholls' novelty hit 'I'll give it five'. Or 'Oi'll give eet foive!'.

Perhaps I expected a little too much from this piece. I walked away reasonably entertained but with an air of opportunities unfulfilled.

Suddenly, Last Summer

This film is without question one of the silliest I have ever seen. It's just really, really silly. I enjoy melodrama, but this goes beyond dumb. Its almost as crass and unbelievable as an episode of 'Eastenders'.

And Liz Taylor. Listening to her read Tennessee Williams' laugh-out-loud stoo-pid, histrionic lines in that unbelievably irritating southern accent she does is as close to torture as I want to get. Yes, she looks great in the bathing costume. But she was the Kelly Brook of her day. A total non talent.

Montgomery Clift moves through the whole thing wearing one, almost indescribable, expression. It's poised, painfully, somewhere between complete surprise and abject terror. And thats just to deliver expository dialogue like "How are you today?". Very strange.

One point of interest. Rita Webb, a familiar face from things like 'The Benny Hill show' and various British sex comedies of the seventies, appears briefly as an inmate in a mental asylum. Naturally, its a mental asylum where the patients laugh maniacally and leer into the camera from frenziedly undulating rocking chairs.

Dogs in Space

One of the great films about modern youth
'Dogs in Space' pretty much seems to have disappeared over the years. My widescreen copy was taped off Channel 4 in the early 90's, and I'm pretty sure this was the last British terrestrial screening. Which is a real shame, because its a fantastic film. Written and directed by Richard Lowenstein, maker of the excellent 'Strikebound' and promos for INXS and U2, its an apparently semi-autobiographical piece about the various dwellers of, and visitors to, a rather decrepit squat in late 70's Melbourne.

For those who might be put off by Lowenstein's corporate rock pedigree, fear not. The film avoids modish stylisation in favour of a rather free-wheeling, Altmanesque approach to construction and character development. The viewer is left to decipher dialogue and make connections for themselves.

The piece is beautifully photographed and edited, and makes wonderful use of the 'steadicam' camera mount. Only at the very end does Lowenstein indulge himself in promo-style picture-making to sell the tie-in single 'Rooms for the memory'. And presumably give his otherwise pretty uncompromising vision some commercial lustre.

As with Altman's best work, the guiding hand is detached but compassionate. The characters are all fiercely idiosyncratic individuals, often infuriating and shallow. But they are never mocked. Instead we see that their silliness is often merely a result of an attempt to either forge uniqueness or merely belong, and as such it often attains a strange nobility.

At the films heart, though, lies a discernible disillusionment with, and subtle but pointed criticism of, the reality of the 'punk revolution'. Its most voluble proponents are shown to be either mouthpiece middle class drop-outs or confused, neglected teenagers. And its socio-political effect negligible.

Michael Hutchence's presence (again, presumably largely a commercial consideration) is rather subversively integrated into this schema. He is cast as a pretty but vain, self-obsessed and generally unlikeable singer Sam, whose outwardly anarchistic stance barely conceals a ruthless careerism. Sam is also witty illustration of the fact that punk inevitably existed off the graces of the bourgeois. He has his mother turn up at the squat with a freshly cooked meal and clean clothes while all the other residents are out. Again, though, the effect is wry rather than bile-drenched.

'Dogs' is well-acted by a cast of mostly never-heard-from-agains. The ubiquitous but brilliant Chris Haywood appears briefly to deliver a heartfelt eulogy to a chainsaw. It employs an excellent soundtrack, and special note should be made of the remarkable sound-mix.

It's an evocative, atmospheric snapshot of a sub-culture founded on both vainglorious naivete and admirable, rebellious individuality.

Deserves a deluxe, restored, fully stereophonic, all-bells-and-whistles DVD at the very least.

The Driver

'B' picture remake of 'Le Samourai'
As a film-maker, Walter Hill is somewhat akin to John Carpenter. Back in the 1970's when their contemporaries were experimenting, these guys were happily remaking B-pictures and flaunting their "no-nonsense, no pretension" attitude. As a kid, I loved the flicks of both these directors. Now I'm not so sure. Even the best of Carpenter's work seems rather empty these days (except 'Dark Star', his best film and 'Halloween', whose imagery still beguiles). Hill's similarly pared-down style also lacks the nuance and spirit to lend it resonance.

'The Driver' is a case-in-point. It's a car-chase picture dressed up as an existentialist car-chase picture by somebody who isn't entirely sure what that should look like. In the same way that the 'Dawn of the dead' remake merely borrows the location of Romero's consumerist satire and uses it as a backdrop for some nicely staged but run-of-the-mill horror heroics, Hill reduces the fable of Melville's 'Le Samourai' to a story about a criminal who just wants to do his job. Don't get me wrong, I quite like the film - its a nice concept. It's just that I remembered it as being somewhat better than it actually is. Matters aren't helped by the fact that the region 2 disc has a pretty ropey print, which exacerbates the seventies cop show look of the whole enterprise.

There are a number of good points: some amusing mono-syllabic dialogue and poetic turns of phrase ("Thats a real sad song - but sad songs ain't sellin' this year"), nice performances by Bruce Dern, Joseph Walsh (writer of 'California Split', as 'Glasses'), the intriguing physicality of Ronee Blakeley (Ryan O'Neal and Isabelle Adjani are both pretty stiff leads), and some well-staged and edited chases. On the whole, though, the mise-en-scene is claustrophobic and unimaginative, and Hill's screenplay derivative and predictable (he re-stages the chase-on-the-train sequence from his screenplay of 'The Getaway'). Even the usually excellent Michael Small turns in a rather tired score. The fact that it isn't a cult film probably attests to it's lack of idiosyncrasy.

Watchable, but it could have been a lot better. Watch 'Le Samourai' instead.

Billion Dollar Brain

"Now is the winter of our discontent..."
For roughly the first twenty five minutes of it's running time, "Billion Dollar Brain" looks like it's shaping up to be something very good indeed. And then, slowly but surely, the whole thing unravels. By the time a further hour or so has elapsed, neither you nor Harry Palmer know nor particularly care what the hell is going on. The blame for this lies firmly at the door of director Ken Russell.

When we first reacquaint ourselves with Caine's coolly amused hero, he is operating as a private eye from a seedy, rundown office in Central London. And living almost exclusively on corn flakes. His superior, Colonel Ross (played once more by the wonderful Guy Doleman), wants him back in the service. Harry's not interested, but a little persuasion and blackmail ensures that he's soon off to Finland to deliver a thermosflask to a mysterious professor. Here he encounters the spectacularly sexy Francoise Dorleac and her highly unlikely lover, a lucky old sod played by Karl Malden.

People turn up dead, and triple-cross follows double-cross. But after a while it becomes pretty obvious that all of the complex subterfuge is merely an attempt to mask a rather run-of-the-mill 'madman takes over the world' plot.

Such is the stuff of every Bond picture, and it's a big disappointment after the relatively believable milieus of the first two Palmer flicks. The major problem, though, is that the director's hand is so uncertain, and his pacing so uneven, that we are never sure exactly what kind of film we are watching. Russell mixes the starkly beautiful mise en scene and ready cynicism of a 'realistic' cold war drama with the pop-art excesses of a Broccoli fantasy, but the cake doesn't rise. Heavy-handed attempts at political satire just make the warmed-over fare even more inedible.

There are compensations: Russell knows how to frame a shot, and Billy Williams' cinematography is often extremely beautiful (especially when shooting the ill-fated Dorleac). All of the main performers are charismatic and Richard Rodney Bennett turns in an atmospheric score. The spookily evocative theremin-like sound is created using an ancient French keyboard instrument, the ondes martinot.

In the draggy latter-half, a couple of sequences manage to pique the interest, especially the superbly staged 'Alexander Nevsky' parody, framed by the surreal contrasts of blinding white ice and pitch black sky. There is also an eerie, darkly comic sequence in which Harry awakes in a bathtub full of dead bodies, unsure of what exactly is happening. Unfortunately, all of the surrounding guff only serves to dull their impact.

Amuse yourself in the tedious stretches by looking out for blink-and-you'll-miss-em spots by Susan George and Donald Sutherland. Caine's brother Stanley also appears as the postman in the opening scene.

Under the Doctor

Liz Fraser!
As an unsuspecting teenager in search of cheap thrills, I'd sneak down to my local 'Vi-star' video shop to peruse the shelves heaving with low-budget horror, martial arts and soft-core sex flicks, in wonder. Hey. This was the mid 1980's.

It was at this time that I first acquainted myself with the eminently strange phenomena that is/was the British sex comedy. A host of well-known faces from TV and the 'golden age' of British comedy would gather in front of a mouldy old arriflex, and ham it up mirthlessly through antediluvian routines for presumably minimal recompense. Their mugging was usually recorded with a complete dearth of anything even vaguely resembling cinematic flair. And only occasionally interrupted by unknown young models taking their clothes off. Far more interesting than anything on-screen was the fact that these films were all sizable box-office smashes in their day.

Amidst such dispiriting (and totally English) fare shone the beacon of middle-aged female pulchritude that was Liz Fraser. A talented comedienne who had worked alongside the finest British comic talents of the day since the late fifties, Liz rather obligingly agreed to remove the vast majority of her clothes in 'Confessions of a driving instructor' and 'Confessions from a holiday camp'. She also made brief and unrevealing (though highly welcome) cameos in 'Adventures of a taxi driver', 'Adventures of a private eye' and 'Rosie Dixon: Night nurse'. The mother lode for Frazer fans, though, is 'Under the Doctor'.

I didn't get to see this film until many years later. 1999 to be precise. In an extremely belated low-price video incarnation. And naturally, I only purchased it due to Liz's name on the label. I made myself comfortable, hoping at best to get a quick glimpse of the lady in her infamous black bra. I didn't dare to dream that the flick would hit the heady heights of 'Driving instructor' (Liz in basque and suspenders, black bra and panties, and frolicking in a bath). Oh, ye of little faith. Not only does Liz model her under garments. She is also given rather more screen time than usual to parade her eye-popping wares, and even performs a delightful Marlene Dietrich spoof. Complete with top hat.

After the let downs of the 'Adventures' movies and the truly execrable 'Rosie Dixon' I thought that I'd seen the best of this phenomenally sexy woman. Not so. 'Under the doctor' is the cream of a lamentable crop.

It goes without saying that, Liz excepted, 'Under the Doctor' is without any redeeming features whatsoever. In fact, I've only ever watched the whole thing through once. The film-makers rather thoughtfully shoe-horned the bulk of Liz's performance into one section of the piece. In much the same way that she presumably shoe-horned her formidable bosom into that basque. Hence, I merely forward the tape to the desired point and enjoy 10 minutes or so of true cinematic artistry.

Actually, now that I come to think of it, Hilary Pritchard is worth the odd repeat play as well. But no match for Mrs. Fraser. Natch.

Trivia hounds. Did you know that Barry Evans, the nominal 'star' of this fiasco and the immortal 'Adventures of a taxi driver' actually ended up driving a taxi to support himself once his career nose-dived? One hopes that his real-life adventures were far more stimulating that his on-screen ones.

R.I.P. Mr. Evans

The Poseidon Adventure

the only path to Heaven is via Hell
'The Poseidon Adventure' is a supremely entertaining flick from the days when blockbusters were amongst the best movies out there. Rather than the worst.

Sure, it's corny and it's histrionics can seem overly familiar, but it still packs a punch. This is due to the fact that it's played completely straight. Well, relatively straight in the case of the Borgnine/ Stevens double-act. And it achieves real dramatic resonance from it's allegorical plot line. It pretty much created the template for the 'disaster' film.

Favourite bits:

Red Buttons' funky little walk up on deck.

The way Pamela Sue Martin and her date boogie down when they hit the dance floor.

Pamela Sue Martin's legs. Ditto Carol Lynley.

Lynley's hippy brother.

Roddy McDowall's accent and dialogue (consisting mostly of "yes, sir" and "I think so, sir").

Ernest Borgnine learning that kids can be useful as well as merely irritating.

Hackman's "Please, God - not THIS woman" schtick and death scene.

All of Stella Stevens' wardrobe.


a feel-bad epic from a subversive misanthrope
William Friedkin is a mysterious, often mystifying film-maker. Although he rose to prominence at the same time as the rest of the so-called 'movie brat' generation of directors (Coppola, Spielberg, Scorsese, DePalma, et al.), he stands apart, even from a group as essentially disparate as this one. For one thing, his films lack the intertextual references and cinematic stylisation common to most of the other members. If he has an over-riding aesthetic, it would be the ugliness of the majority of human existence. He's not interested in prettifying his images or indulging in style-for-style's sake; which is not to say that his film's don't exhibit inventive and effective technique, just that this technique is always at the service of the story he's telling, and is often blunt and brutally effective in it's employment. All of this no doubt arises from his start in documentary film-making. Friedkin is particularly good at depicting the menace of urban environments, and the locales of a lot of his films are frightening, tangibly real places. Witness the sequences involving Karras' aged mother in 'The Exorcist', which for me are the most disturbing scenes in an often terrifying film. As we observe the elderly lady living alone in her shabby apartment in a crime-ridden neighbourhood, we realise that this is the existence that many millions of people are forced to endure, and it's oppressiveness adds immeasurably to the psychological impact of the film as a whole. We share Karras' fear and traumatising guilt that she died alone in such circumstances, and the special effects trickery of the climax is lent a genuine resonance.

Because of the stark, seemingly 'artless' force and apparent misanthropy of much of his work, a number of otherwise perceptive commentators dislike Friedkin intensely. Pauline Kael was extremely cool about 'The French Connection' and absolutely hated 'The Exorcist'. David Thompson described him as "essentially incompetent", bludgeoning the audience with blatant and obvious effects. In fact, Friedkin's best work is highly sophisticated in it's use of sound and music, and employs often visceral imagery to telling and subversive effect. However, some of his films ARE genuinely bloody awful, or at least depressingly mediocre. The very inconsistency of his work lies at the centre of the mystery that is his career. He seems to me to be a fiercely intelligent man whose art is driven by his life rather than the culture of film, and whose reportedly quixotic, often self-destructive personality in no small measure accounts for the expansive peaks and troughs of his cinematic achievements.

Friedkin has reassuring or comforting his audience way down the list of his priorities. In the case of 'Cruising', he neglected to add them at all. Because of this, 'Cruising' is a very difficult film to watch. Most film-makers, were they making a film set in such an alien and frightening environment, would go overboard on providing us with at least one protagonist we could identify with. But Friedkin takes the very opposite route and presents us entirely with characters who are abhorrent, sleazy or totally ambiguous. Indeed, ambiguity is the film's raison d'etre - we are never sure of anything, and this becomes both the pictures great strength and source of much audience frustration. It seems that unlike, say, Spielberg, who continually seeks the approbation of his audience, Friedkin actively resents his (or rather, their preconceptions and certainties), leading him to consistently challenge and upset them. This can be exciting to those who value such seditious manouveres, but dispiriting and destabilising for those that don't.

The major problem with evaluating 'Cruising' is that the film as it currently exists is seriously incomplete (apparently having been shorn of some 40 minutes of footage by the censors!). I suspect that a 'directors cut' should it ever emerge, although no doubt clarifying certain issues, would overall fail to dispel the central ambiguity that is so infuriating and troubling to the majority of the audience, and that lies at the heart of Friedkins vision. "What interests me is the very thin line between good and evil", the director once said when asked to provide a thematic overview of his work - and this is the core of 'Cruising'.

I would urge you to watch the film. It is a uniquely dark, brave piece somewhat compromised by well documented production difficulties and the censors scissors. It has a sinister, compelling momentum and wonderfully ugly, grainy textures that seep into your pores leaving you uncomfortable and unsettled. Sometimes a feel-bad movie can be as bracing as a winter morning. 'Cruising' is such an experience, and a fascinating, provocative one at that.

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