Monday, 17 May 2010

The A-Z of Britsploitation Cinema: K is for Konga (1961)


You may well have seen the title of this film and the poster there  and thought ‘Oh no, a rubbish King Kong rip-off’. Well, you’re not entirely wrong – Konga is about a large ape and the ending does feature said simian going on the rampage and laying waste to a great city – although it’s not so much laying waste as stumbling about a bit and bumping into things and the city in question is actually Croydon pretending to be central London. However, for the most part Konga isn’t very much like the  older ape film at all, instead happily ploughing its own demented furrow.

The film’s director is John Lemont, who has a few interesting B-movies to his credit, but nothing else suggesting the inspired madness of Konga. For the true guiding spirit of the movie we must look to producer and co-screenwriter (with regular partner Aben Kandel) Herman Cohen, who had previously given the world I Was a Teenage Werewolf and its various follow-ups and, working in the UK, Horrors of the Black Museum (also available from Network), a film for which the word ‘lurid’ could have been invented. Konga has many of the Cohen trademarks, including absurd dialogue and a laughable attempt at portraying the era's youth culture, but another key Cohen ingredient, the  homoerotic relationship between a middle-aged mad scientist type and a hapless teenage boy is here replaced by an even stranger interspecies relationship between a middle-aged mad scientist type and an ape.

The mad scientist in question is botanist Dr Charles Decker, played by Michael Gough, who also brought his overripe, lip-smacking style to Horrors of the Black Museum and Cohen's later, American film Black Zoo.  Decker was stranded with a mysterious African tribe after a plane crash but has now returned to the UK, and his post at the prestigious Essex College, accompanied by a very cute baby chimp called Konga. He’s also brought back the tribe’s arcane knowledge of a mysterious link between plant and animal life, and sets to work applying it, tearing all the pretty flowers out of their beds in his greenhouse to make way for his new experiments. This causes much consternation to his housekeeper, secretary and assistant (as she's always long-windedly referred to throughout) Margaret (played by Margo Johns, a sometime Emergency Ward 10 regular with the appearance and general demeanour of a 1950s children’s TV presenter). Margaret’s also Decker’s lover and straight away is jealous of the new addition to the family – ‘You didn’t ask once how I felt – Konga came first!’ Yes, Decker’s relationship with his new pet seems rather closer than it probably should be – ‘Please leave, I want to be alone with Konga’ he demands at one point.  Most alarmingly of all, he later breathes heavily to the creature that 'We know each other better than the world knows'.

But it’s not just Margaret who’s been thrown over in favour of Konga. ‘You’ve neglected Tabby shamefully’ she chides when the cat comes to the greenhouse in search of food. And to prove his lack of concern Decker wastes no time in whipping out a gun and shooting the poor animal when it starts lapping at his special formula. ‘Even those few drops might have made Tabby swell up to huge proportions!’ he shrieks in the face of Margaret’s protests. Poor Tabby.

Before long the greenhouse is heaving with sinister carnivorous plants, the most alarming being a number of black, veiny, extremely phallic specimens with forked tongues (it's hard not to ponder what was happening in the designer's psyche at the time). Pleased with these results (and who wouldn’t be?), Decker administers his growth serum to little Konga who, by the magic of a wobbly camera effect grows larger each time until he eventually evolves into a man in a highly unconvincing gorilla suit. When Essex College’s fusty old dean expresses scepticism about Decker’s theories the doctor sends Konga after him. Trying to justify the killing to a horrified Margaret, Decker claims that ‘I would have been forced to kill someone through Konga, just to prove my experiment was right!’ Despite it making no sense whatsoever she seems quite happy with this explanation, but nonetheless blackmails Decker into making her his wife rather than his housekeeper, secretary and assistant (unfortunately she’s upstaged in her big dramatic moment by the phallic plants sticking their tongues out over her shoulder). But Decker doesn’t want to go through with it just yet: ‘In the eyes of the world you are still my housekeeper, secretary and assistant’.

By this time Decker and Konga have acquired a taste for blood (as well as a special van which Decker drives Konga to his victim’s houses in). Next on the hitlist is Professor Tagore (all-purpose rent-a-foreigner George Pastell, playing an Indian complete with turban this time around), who has rudely pre-empted all of Decker’s work (except for the killer gorillachimp bit).

Lest we think Decker's desires are all unnatural, we learn that his head’s also been turned by one of his students, enormous-chested Sandra (Claire Gordon). But despite seemingly irresistible chat-up lines like ‘I can’t get over how much you’ve grown – and I of all people should understand growth’ she doesn’t seem all that interested in him. Decker’s attempts to seduce her during a field trip to look at mosses and ferns end up in a fist fight with her boyfriend Bob (pop singer Jess Conrad, looking very cute in his sweatertastic early 60s fashions but giving a performance of awe-inspiring ineptitude). Bob’s not the brightest of sparks – when Decker replies to his threats with ‘Leave her alone? How? She’s a student in my class’, poor Bob can only rejoin with ‘Don’t throw a load of questions at me! You’re trying to confuse me!’ It’s not long before poor simple Bob and his Vespa fall foul of the marauding Konga. His death leads to the film’s most blissfully ridiculous line as Margaret confronts Decker over the newspaper report at breakfast: ‘What are you having with your poached egg – murder?’

But Margaret’s old news: Decker plans to make Sandra his new assistant (and possibly secretary and housekeeper too). When jealous Margaret gets wind of this during a visit from Sandra to look at Decker’s big phallic plants, she lets Konga out of his cage, planning to set him on her faithless employer. Unfortunately (and illogically) her attempts at hypnotising the mangy beast simply result in him growing to enormous size, crashing through the roof and promptly squashing her. Confirming our suspicions that there was something funny going on between the two of them, Konga chooses the silver-haired doctor rather than the leggy blonde as his Fay Wray and heads off to destroy central Croydon – I mean London. The police swing into action – officers are helpfully informed that ‘There’s a huge monster gorilla that’s constantly growing to outlandish proportions loose in the streets!’ – and Konga is rather anticlimactically shot dead.

And there you have it – Konga, as enjoyable a piece of cinematic lunacy as you’re likely to find anywhere and a glittering gem of Britsploitation that’s nowhere near as well known as it should be. The only thing left to say is, dodgy plants and motheaten gorilla suits aside, just what an absolutely gorgeous-looking film Konga is. Photographed by veteran Desmond Dickinson in ‘Spectramation’ (whatever that might be) the colours practically glow, making Konga perhaps the handsomest phallic-plant and killer-chimp movie of 1961.

I promise you this film is even better than the trailer makes it look:

Saturday, 1 May 2010

The A-Z of Britsploitation Cinema: J is for Jack the Ripper (1959)


I’ll be honest – my reason for choosing this film is that it’s the only vaguely appropriate one I could find with a title beginning with J (whose idea was this stupid A-Z thing anyway?). I approached with trepidation, as despite having had it on DVD for ages, I’d never managed to get all the way through it without falling asleep. Also, I remembered from previous (attempted) viewings that it had a particularly nasty case of American Hero Syndrome. This is a disease that affects British films of all eras, but was particularly common in the 50s, when an often woefully conspicuous American lead is brought in, in a naked attempt to appeal to the US market. Often it’s a third- or fourth-string star whose career’s on the rocks – in the case of Jack the Ripper the American in question is  Lee Patterson, who was actually Canadian but made a good living as a rent-a-Yank in British films. He plays a visiting American detective working on the case alongside gruff old Eddie Byrne, and making him stick out like even more of a sore thumb than normal is his huge 1950s quiff, which somehow doesn’t quite go with the movie’s ostensible 1880s setting.

The title probably gives you a good idea of what this one’s all about: Notorious serial killer targeting prostitutes in the East End of London, etc. Don’t expect a deeply-researched account of the investigation into the crimes or an ingenious solution based on the evidence at hand, though: Jimmy Sangster’s script doesn’t even edge toward historical accuracy. All the characters are fictional, and it transforms the most famous unsolved crimes of all time into a basic murder mystery plot with all the sophistication of an episode of Scooby Doo. It being established early on that the Ripper must be a medical man, there are two main suspects – one is grumpy, moans about women with loose morals and is regularly seen carrying a knife about, the other is cheery and likeable and only to willing to help the police with their investigation. You probably don’t need to see the film to work out which one’s the killer. In this film, the Ripper’s on a quest to find a woman called Mary Clark, stopping ‘ladies of the night’ in the street to ask if they are she and then rather unfairly slicing them up anyway when they say they’re not. The first of these is bit-part queen Marianne Stone (playing, in a typical credit for her, ‘Drunken woman’) in a pre-credits sequence

The depiction of Victorian London’s pretty much what you might expect: All fog, top hats and comedy drunks (one of whom is played by the great Esma Cannon, who steals so many scenes in the early Carry On films). There’s also an alarming range of thoroughly unconvincing stick-on facial hair everywhere you look, and people say things like ‘The emancipation of women I’ve heard so much about – so you’ve been bitten!’ That line’s delivered by John Le Mesurier, providing this film’s ‘Ooh look, it’s him!’ quotient as the sinister Dr Tranter, who’s so suspicious throughout the film that he might as well have been called Dr Whore-Killer. The would be emancipatee is his ward Anne (every film set in Victorian times has to have at least one ward), played by Betty McDowall, who looks rather like a brunette Judy Geeson. Much to Tranter’s horror she’s being romanced by Patterson, who at one point takes her to a very classy-looking music hall to see the can-can. Backstage Hammer regular George Woodbridge plays a rich pervert drooling over a new dancer in topless scenes (the dancer, not George) filmed especially for the continental market. That’s a sort of sleazy highlight of the movie, the only other one being the Ripper’s eventual death when he tries to evade the police – crushed under a descending lift.

Well, I managed to stay awake all the way through this time, but I can’t deny that Jack the Ripper’s a tedious slog for most of its length (which seems lengthier than it really is). Directors/producers/photographers Robert Baker and Monty Berman (whose joint credit makes them seem like a downmarket Powell & Pressburger) would soon afterwards score a major hit on TV with The Saint and had previously produced The Flesh and the Fiends, a wonderful version of the Burke & Hare story with Peter Cushing and Donald Pleasence, which Jack the Ripper isn’t a patch on. But if you ever desperately need a British exploitation-type film beginning with J…

Trailer time:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Fdxn1cNAbw

Thursday, 29 April 2010

The A-Z of Britsploitation Cinema: I is for I Don't Want to Be Born (1975)


Dame Joan Collins is an international glamour queen. Dame Eileen Atkins is one of Britain’s most distinguished actresses. It’s likely that neither of them sees Peter Sasdy’s I Don’t Want to be Born as a particular highlight of their careers. Before her career was revived at the end of the 70s by the discotacular screen adaptations of her sister Jackie’s novels The Stud and The Bitch Collins was no stranger to tacky horror, but this is Atkins’ one and only venture into Britsploitation’s murky waters. It’s one she makes memorable by adopting a very peculiar accent (‘Possessed – by the dayeveel!’) to play a demon-busting Italian nun.

Yes, like many movies of its time I Don’t Want to Be Born is clearly trying to emulate (i.e. rip off) The Exorcist (the popularity of which meant that the death toll for British horror films was already ringing), mashing it up with a bit of Rosemary’s Baby, and adding that uniquely grotty ambience only to be found in British films of the 70s, as well as an ingredient inexplicably missing from those earlier films – an evil dwarf.

I Don’t Want to Be Born has a classic exploitation title (disappointingly changed to The Devil Within Her for the US audience – perhaps they hoped people would mistake it for a porn film, and released on DVD as the thoroughly boring The Monster), but the birth in question actually takes place during the opening titles (accompanied by a marvellously funky them from the legendary Ron Grainer of Doctor Who, Steptoe etc. fame), so I Didn’t Want to Be Born would be more appropriate, although that sounds less like the title of a horror film than the cry of a sulky teenager. Anyway, I digress. 80s children like myself will be delighted to see that the nurse attendant at the birth is Playschool goddess Floella Benjamin. The doctor is Donald Pleasence, in a performance so low-key it almost seems like he’s going to drop off to sleep mid-way through a line. Collins plays the mother, Lucy, and she begins to suspect that all is not right with her unusually huge new baby Nicky when he bites a chunk out of her face shortly after his birth.

Lucy’s husband is Italian Gino, played by Ralph Bates, with an accent almost as strange as Atkins’. She’s his sister Albana, who’s a sister (although she’s also a medical researcher when she’s not busy nunning). ‘Now I’m here we are only going to speak English!’ she says, which is lucky for any non-Italian speaking audience members. They’re also concerned about the baby, whose behaviour is becoming increasingly destructive and beyond the realms of what a newborn can usually manage, smashing up his nursery and going berserk at the sight of all the crosses at his christening. Lucy has misgivings. Before her marriage she was a stripper, and she tells chum Caroline Munro about a disturbing incident that occurred one night after her act: The club’s resident dwarf, Hercules (George Claydon) (I’ve no idea if dwarfs were a regular feature of strip acts in the 70s - it was a strange time) made advances toward her which although ‘maybe for an instant I was fascinated’ Lucy disgustedly brushed off. The result: A curse from the seemingly demonic-powered Hercules that she’ll give birth to ‘a monster baby, as big as I am small and possessed by the devil himself!’

Given that the normally placid baby’s face keeps changing into Hercules’ leering features (in scenes a bit like that recent TV advert with Christopher Biggins in a pram only not quite as disturbing) it seems likely that this is indeed at the root of the baby’s violent behaviour. Nicky’s reign of terror continues as he drowns his nanny in a lake and manages to tie a noose, drop it round Gino’s neck from a tree and lift him off the ground to hang him, then hide the body in the cellar – needless to say, we don’t actually see the baby doing these things, it’s left to the boggling imagination. Sleepy Doctor Pleasence ends up being gorily beheaded with a shovel! Oddly enough, the only person who’s particularly nasty to the baby, housekeeper Mrs Hyde (Hilary Mason, the psychic from Don’t Look Now) is let off with just a dead mouse in her tea. The continual close-ups of the perfectly pleasant looking baby help to enhance the hilarity of the whle thing.

Sister Albana has her own theory of what’s wrong with the baby – he didn’t want to be born (as per the title) and is taking revenge on the world because he was. Stanley Price’s very confused screenplay completely fails to match this up with the idea that the baby’s possessed. And what’s it possessed by – the dwarf or the devil? Maybe the dwarf is the devil? Oh, I don’t understand… can anybody explain? Anyway, good Catholic cliché that she is, Albana realises that the only way to sort the whole sorry mess out is with a good old fashioned exorcism. But can she get there in time to save Lucy from her ‘orrible offspring’s maraudings?

Director Peter Sasdy made some really good horror films like Taste the Blood of Dracula and Hands of the Ripper. This is the worst film of his I’ve seen (though The Lonely Lady, his 80s vehicle for flash-in-the-pan US starlet Pia Zadora, has an even worse reputation), but in terms of entertainment value it’s a genuine classic of British trash cinema.

Sorry, I couldn't find a trailer for this one - but here's Joan Collins being felt up by a dwarf and having sex with Ralph Bates:

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

The A-Z of Britsploitation Cinema: H is for Horror Hospital (1973)


Believe it or not, not everyone knows what I’m banging on about when I talk about Britsploitation (not that I tend to start conversations about it in the street with complete strangers, you understand). Well, if I could pick one film to show to people that sums up 70s Britsploitation in particular that film would probably be the glorious Horror Hospital. I try to avoid using words like archetypal and iconic because they’re clichéd and make people sound tosserish, but Horror Hospital really is the archetypal 70s British horror and its stars are two of the most iconic: Robin Askwith and Michael Gough, in their accustomed roles of hapless hero and demented villain respectively. Askwith fans (if you’re out there) take note that he spends a large part of the film topless. Not that this is anything unusual.

The movie’s directed by Anthony Balch, who started out making avant-garde shorts with William Burroughs and then drifted into the realms of sex ‘n’ horror with the mind-boggling anthology film Secrets of Sex (also known, very appropriately, as Bizarre) in 1969 – in its own sleazy way as strange and obscure as any art film could hope to be. As I’ve indicated, Horror Hospital is much more of a typical British horror flick, but it’s still magnificently bonkers.

It’s an especially gory outing (by British standards of the 70s at any rate), and starts as it means to go on with a pre-credits sequence that introduces us to black-gloved, knuckle-cracking Dr Storm (Gough), his dwarf helper Frederick (Skip Martin) and his car, which has a blade that emerges from the roof at the flick of a switch, ready to behead any would-be escapees from his sinister country house health farm. It even has a neat little basket to catch the heads in. Gruesome decapitation and credits over with, the film gets the obligatory embarrassing nightclub sequence over with straight away and introduces us to disillusioned musician Jason Jones (Askwith), fed up with dodgy glam acts stealing his songs – ‘Who does she think she is? Greta Garbo? Looks more like a lemon meringue pie on heat!’ he spits in rage. Deciding he needs a break, Jason spots a promising advert for Club 18-30esque Hairy Holidays. Our first indication that the tour company may be slightly dodgy is the man who runs it, sinister old queen Mr Pollack (Dennis Price looking very much the worse for wear) who can’t keep his hands off Jason’s crotch. It turns out that the holiday destination is Bricklehurst Manor in Hampshire, the site of the decapitation we saw earlier, where Dr Storm claims to have invented a cure for any and all hang-ups.

On the train there Jason meets Judy (Vanessa Shaw), who’s going to the Manor to visit her Aunt Harris (named, oddly enough, for her taste in Harris Tweed suits), a former brothel madam. They’re greeted at the station by a sinister station master (the brilliantly named Kenneth Benda) and are driven to the Manor by a pair of leatherclad motorcycling zombies. Aunt Harris (the uniquely sour-faced Ellen Pollock) meets them there – she’s now ditched the tweed in favour of a succession of eye-catching outfits including a snakeskin tunic and an all-red ensemble complete with turban. She’s married to Storm and is reluctantly helping him in his nefarious plans. But what are said plans? Well, he’s transforming the manor's libidinous young visitors into zombies who do his bidding at the flick of a switch. Why? Well, that’s not absolutely clear but what’s important is that our hero and heroine are next for the brain-altering treatment… and as if that wasn’t bad enough, there’s a hideous lumpy monster roaming around with a particular interest in poor Judy. But there’s insubordination in Storm’s ranks: The ill-treated Frederick dreams of revenge and Harris wants out (‘People twice my age have managed to make ends meet!’ she claims, an apparent reference to prostitution which seems particularly disturbing considering Ellen Pollock was in her 70s at the time) – will one of them come to Jason and Judy’s aid in time?

Look away if you don’t want the end spoiled but… it turns out that the lumpy monster is actually Dr Storm himself – not confined to a wheelchair due to a hideous laboratory fire as we’d been informed, just hideously deformed and wearing a lifelike Michael Gough mask (I wish I knew where to buy one of those) to hide it. In fact he’s very agile, as he proves at the end of the film by jumping out of a window and running through the grounds of the manor before Jason beheads him with his own death-car. So why exactly he’s been pretending to be paralysed throughout the film (other than because the filmmakers had seen Mystery of the Wax Museum or House of Wax and liked the idea) is another mystery. Even more bizarre is the very end of the movie. After being treated to the unique sight of Robin Askwith in a Michael Gough mask, we see Storm’s headless body seeming, somehow, to return to life, and a final shot of Benda lying dead and bloodstained on the train track. What?! Oh well, this sort of narrative incoherence would probably have been praised in Balch’s more avant-garde work, and the sheer madness of it all just adds to the film’s delirious feel.

If you want an authentic 1973 experience (and I can’t think why you wouldn’t) you should really watch Horror Hospital back to back with US trashfest The Corpse Grinders, which it was partnered with on its original release. Directed by Ted V. Mikels, also behind such classics as The Astro-Zombies and Blood Orgy of the She-Devils, it’s a prime example of early 70s grindhouse fare, with production values that make Horror Hospital look like Lawrence of Arabia. As great double bills go it’s not exactly The Wicker Man/Don’t Look Now but it’s a perfect illustration of 70s exploitation cinema on both sides of the Atlantic.

OK, I promise this is the last time you’ll see me use the words archetypal and iconic. It’s not the last time you’ll see either Mr Gough or Mr Askwith around here though…

As per, here's the trailer. It doesn't give much away!

Thursday, 22 April 2010

The A-Z of Britsploitation Cinema: G is for Groupie Girl (1970)

Another production of Stanley Long’s Salon Films, Derek Ford’s Groupie Girl is a cautionary tale aimed at any young girls who might think it’s a good idea to abandon their boring home life and seek out the glamorous lifestyle of a groupie. Obviously it’s also (more importantly) aimed at any heterosexual males who might enjoy seeing young girls, especially in various states of undress.

Sally (Esme Johns) is tired of her drab existence in suburban anywhere and decides to head for the bright lights of Swinging London. Money stuffed into her bra and her post office savings book tucked into her knickers, she stows away in the transit van of the first group who visit her town. They’re the greasy, unappealing sorts you might expect, though some of them do have rather nice floral shirts, and their jolly little tunes are more Brotherhood of Man than Led Zeppelin. They’re also managed by Private Walker from Dad’s Army, which seems a rather ominous sign. Their reaction on finding Sally stowed away isn’t immediately favourable, (‘it’s a bloody slag, innit?’) but youth and looks are on her side and it’s not long before the dirty van becomes the romantic location for the loss of her virginity to lead singer Bob (Jimmie Edwardes). Sally’s now a bona fide groupie and soon settles into her new life - before you can say A Hard Day’s Night she and the group are larking about all over London without a care in the world.

But nothing lasts forever. There’s precious little sisterhood in the world of the groupie and as soon as she spots a blonde, mini-skirted threat, Sally engages in a brilliantly rubbish catfight (‘you bitch! I’ll kill you!') which lasts for about ten minutes and features lots of rolling around on the floor, hair-pulling and breasts being exposed. Rapidly exiled from this band (she’s better off without them, Bob was a useless mimer), Sally doesn’t take long to find another near-identical (but slightly more successful) one to latch on to – Orange Butterfly, led by Steve (Martin Shaw lookalike Donald Sumpter), who Sally makes a beeline for. This band’s into a pretty crazy scene, and takes Sally along to an amazing party that’s like a scene from a lethargic, cut-price British remake of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. It’s full of amazing eccentric characters including a lusty middle-aged blonde boasting about not wearing knickers and a heavily bearded man with a monocle who wants to try the band’s hash (‘What’s meant to happen?’ ‘You’ll fly man, really fly!’ ‘Will I really? How super!’). The host’s a marvellous old queen whose response to one of the band members’ horrified refusal of his advances is ‘Stuffy old thing!’ The party concludes with everyone crawling on the floor making animal noises.

Sally has a whale of a time on the road with her new boyfriend and his band. But her happiness is quickly tainted by having to participate in a foursome with Steve and the Collinson sisters from Hammer’s Twins of Evil. After her obvious unwillingness there Steve quickly decides to get rid of her. In the film’s most disturbing scene the band pass a kicking and screaming Sally out of the window of their moving tour bus through to the bus of fellow group Sweaty Betty. But they quickly get their just deserts, ploughing into the back of a parked van and dying instantly. Hysterical Sally is holed up in Sweaty Betty’s Stones-style country mansion and pacified with drugs so she can’t tell the police about their part in Orange Butterfly’s demise. The police show up on a drugs raid (led by 70s Britsploitation regular Neil Hallett), Sally swallows a large piece of hash to get rid of it, and promptly falls down the cellar steps into unconsciousness.

When she awakes Sweaty Betty have been carted off and only sensitive folk singer Wes (Billy Boyle) remains. Unlike anyone else in the film Billy seems to want to treat Sally like a human being instead of a convenient sex object. Could this be love for the much-abused groupie? Is Wes as lovely as he seems? (Probably not, or I wouldn’t be asking…)

Groupie Girl’s co-written by Suzanne Mercer, a one-time groupie herself, so presumably a lot of it’s based on the sort of thing that genuinely happened to girls who latched themselves on to rock groups. Sally’s not exactly an empowered woman, being pretty much a helpless victim throughout the film, but there’s a quiet strength in the way she walks away from it all to go home at the movie’s end. The men in the film are all pretty revolting (Trevor Adams, Reginald Perrin’s Tony Webster, is the closest thing to an attractive man, and that’s not saying much). The various bands’ music ranges from the entertainingly kitsch (there’s one quite fun number with a chorus that goes ‘lighting up a cigarette all our worries disappear’) to the incredibly dull. The incidental music consists of a couple of Alan Hawkshaw tunes from the KPM library that are used over and over again (so it’s a good job they’re so groovy). Groupie Girl is a very entertaining piece of late 60s/early 70s sleaze that, despite various rapes, deaths and kidnappings manages to seem relentlessly upbeat in comparison with the other groupie movie of 1970, Lindsay Shonteff’s thoroughly depressing Permissive.

Here's a US trailer for the film, with the alternative title I am a Groupie:

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

The A-Z of Britsploitation Cinema: F is for Frightmare (1974)


Die Screaming Marianne, Schizo, The Flesh and Blood Show – films that have a couple of things in common: they were all directed by Pete Walker and they all have titles that are better than the films themselves. That’s not the case with Walker’s Frightmare though – beyond the unhelpfully generic horror title lies a grisly Britsploitation gem.

Frightmare’s the second of the mid-70s trio of films that makes up Walker’s finest work. On either side of it are House of Whipcord and House of Mortal Sin (it seems a shame that Frightmare’s title doesn’t continue the House theme – House of Mortal Remains would have been pretty appropriate). These are uniformly bleak visions of 70s Britain as a decaying society. I don’t know how much of their social commentary’s intentional and how much has been read into them by too-clever-by-half writers years later, but they all work as dark satires of the UK and its institutions. All benefit from intelligent, knowing scripts by David McGillivray (who also appears in them in brief cameo roles - he's a doctor in Frightmare) and the inspired casting of character actress Sheila Keith. Keith played the staple exploitation supporting roles of sadistic prison warder and sinister housekeeper in Whipcord and Mortal Sin respectively, but Frightmare sees her taking centre stage. She’s playing another stock exploitation character, it’s true – but a cannibalistic serial killer is not the kind of role normally played a genteel fiftysomething woman. It very much pays off though, as she gives one of the most remarkable performances in any British horror film.

The first victim of Dorothy’s that we see is Andrew Sachs (a short while before achieving heavily-accented TV immortality) in a black and white prologue set very precisely on February 18, 1957. He pays a visit to fortune teller Dorothy’s hut and ends up with a nasty hole in the side of his head. Cut to a stern judge assuring us that Dorothy and her accessory husband Edmund will be kept in a mental hospital until they’re completely rehabilitated. The sinister music following this suggests that all is not likely to go to plan. A tarot card-based title sequence a bit like Tales of the Unexpected follows, and then we’re introduced to two very different sisters, Jackie (Deborah Fairfax) and Debbie (Kim Butcher). While Jackie enjoys herself at a jolly dinner party with friends, Debbie visits a dodgy nightclub (well, the dancing’s certainly dodgy) and ends her evening by enthusiastically assisting her boyfriend in beating up the barman (Michael Sharvell-Martin, the next door neighbour from pretty obscure 80s sitcom No Place Like Home). We soon learn that these are Edmund and Dorothy’s children (well, bloodthirsty Debbie is – Jackie’s from Edmund’s first marriage), and while Debbie thinks her parents are dead, Jackie knows better. They’ve been released with a clean bill of sanity and are living in an out of the way cottage – Jackie ventures there at night with mysterious bloody parcels for her stepmother.

Dorothy, of course, isn’t as cured as the state would like to believe. She’s started up her old tarot reading business and is luring lonely souls to the cottage while Edmund’s out, gruesomely killing them and then hiding them in the barn out back so she can snack on their brains later. Edmund and Jackie begin to suspect something’s up, but what can they do? Meanwhile, Debbie’s starting to take after her mother more and more, and Jackie’s would-be love interest, psychiatrist Graham (Paul Greenwood) takes it upon himself to help heal the widening rift between the sisters. Like everyone else’s in this film, his good intentions have rather nasty consequences…

The performances in Frightmare are excellent all round. Especially brilliant are Rupert Davies (looking like a careworn Michael Winner) as the helpless Edmund, horrified by his wife’s activities but prevented by his love for her from doing anything but cover up her crimes, and Gerald Flood as the blasé psychiatrist who let the Yateses back into the community. Sheila Keith though, is just hypnotic throughout. She brilliantly communicates Dorothy’s insanity through showing the character’s different sides: Sweet, distraught old lady, callous harridan taunting her lonely victims, crazed murderer, and even white-faced, blood-drooling zombie in a highly disturbing dream sequence of Jackie’s.

Frightmare’s commentary on the rehabilitation of offenders and the family unit is biting enough to entertain those who like a bit of substance to their films, and it’s gory enough for those who enjoy more straightforward horror. Something for everyone, in fact.

I love the very 70s font they use in this trailer:

Saturday, 17 April 2010

The A-Z of Britsploitation Cinema: E is for Eskimo Nell (1975)


We return now to the mucky world of the 70s sexcom. Eskimo Nell is unusual in several respects for a film of the genre, including the fact that at times it’s actually, genuinely funny – and because it means to be rather than because of its ineptitude or the cruelty of the passing years. Admittedly most of the jokes are the usual sledgehammer-subtle double entendres that make Carry On at Your Convenience look like The Importance of Being Earnest (‘My late husband was a keen ornithologist – he specialised in tits!’, that sort of thing) but where Eskimo Nell really scores is as a spoof of the British sex comedy itself, a ripe target by 1975.

Eskimo Nell is about a young director with big ideas who’s sidetracked into sexploitation as it’s the only kind of film he can get the money to make. It’s directed by Martin Campbell, a young director with big ideas who… well, you get the idea. Campbell (previously behind 1974’s The Sex Thief) would eventually see his big ideas pay off and he’d go on to much bigger things like the Bond movies Goldeneye and Casino Royale. The same seems unlikely to be true of fictional director Dennis Morrison (played, in a further level of self-reference, by Eskimo Nell’s screenwriter Michael Armstrong) who hooks up with the only producer who’ll have him, Soho denizen Benny U. Murdoch of B.U.M. Productions. Benny is a brilliant comic turn from Roy Kinnear, oozing sleaze from every pore (‘Which would you rather see – an arty-crafty film or a bloody great pair of tits?’). His previous hits include She Liked It Hot and Sweaty and Midnight Forever (a film about lesbianism in a convent which did terrible business until the title was changed to Dirty Knickers). For anyone who likes to dip their toes in the murkier waters of 70s cinema this knowing humour at the expense of the sex film industry should be priceless and Campbell, Armstrong and seasoned sexploitation producer Stanley Long are clearly having a whale of time – but the humour’s good natured ribbing rather than penetrating (ooh, I say) satire. After all, Eskimo Nell is still a Soho sex film itself, and it doesn’t do to bite too hard on the hand that feeds you.

Benny assigns Dennis and virginal, penguin-obsessed screenwriter Harris Tweedle (Christopher Timothy pre-All Creatures Great and Small) to a big screen version of the famous dirty poem The Ballad of Eskimo Nell, to star Benny’s chesty girlfriend Gladys Armitage (the wonderful Diane Langton, now a star of Hollyoaks). All they need now is to raise the cash. Benny arranges meetings with a series of eccentric backers, each with their own demands for the film’s content. First up is American distributor Big Dick (Gordon Tanner), who insists that the film be hardcore and star his current squeeze, the terrifying, screech-voiced Billie (Beth Porter) (it’s significant that in a film full of brash, tasteless characters the Americans are the brashest and most tasteless of all). The next potential funder is elderly philanthropist Ambrose Cream (Richard Caldicot) who takes a special interest in the welfare of young girls and sees the film as an ideal vehicle for the particular talents of his latest protégé, soprano and Kung Fu expert Millicent (Prudence Drage). Finally they approach merchant banker Vernon Peabody (Jeremy Hawke), whose financial acumen may not be as great as he thinks, considering his idea for a surefire hit is an all-British Western starring his drag queen boyfriend Johnny (the alarming Raynor Burton, whose drag outfit makes him look like Ronald McDonald dressed as Carmen Miranda).

Benny assures the boys they’ll find a way round the various demands that have been placed with them, but then absconds with the cash. Salvation of a sort arrives in the form of Dennis’s girlfriend Hermione. She’s played by Katy Manning, shortly after her stint as Doctor Who companion Jo Grant and with the same kind of breathless enthusiasm that made her a hit in that show. She’s also the daughter of moral crusader Lady Longhorn (Rosalind Knight, best known in recentish years as the mad landlady in excruciating sitcom Gimme Gimme Gimme), a gleefully unsubtle parody of Mary Whitehouse and Lord Longford. Her organisation includes The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Jonathan Adams as the droolingly hypocritical Lord Coltwind (‘I’ve studied pornography over the years and I know what effect it can have on you’) and her son Jeremy (Christopher Biggins, essentially playing a live action Walter the Softie). Lady Longhorn provides the cash for the film, but unsurprisingly wants a totally wholesome, family version of the story.

Dennis decides that the only way to please everyone who’s invested is to make all four versions of the film back-to-back on the cheap. In one night they get all four in the can (in a very odd conception of film-making which consists of just pointing the camera at on-stage action). Obviously all we see of the ‘hardcore’ version is just Benny Hill-style speeded-up romping, while the seemingly Heidi-inspired family version mainly features Manning and Biggins exchanging especially groansome innuendoes (the sight of Katy manning having a good feel of Christopher Biggins’ big purple package is one that lingers in the memory). The stereotypes populating the gay Western are exactly what you’d expect in a 70s comedy, though the idea of what gay men find arousing is more than bizarre – camp men in full make-up smacking each other’s bottoms. On the receiving end of a spanking is Nicholas Young, in very different territory to his day job as leader of TV’s The Tomorrow People. By far the funniest of the four versions is the Kung Fu musical, a bizarre mish-mash of The Sound of Music and The King and I with added martial arts. Anna Quayle, whose career at the time consisted mainly of strange cameos in films like this but who my generation remember as Grange Hill ’s Mrs Monroe, turns up briefly to give a ridiculously OTT performance as a temperamental opera star playing Mother Superior.

Despite (or perhaps because of) featuring only one set and consisting mainly of two people having a tea party, the family version of the film proves a hit with Lady Longhorn and is chosen for a royal charity performance. But a series of predictable mishaps and a race to ensure the correct version of the film gets screened lie just round the corner…

Eskimo Nell is enormous fun, with the jolly, good natured feel of classic 70s sitcoms, enhanced by its jaunty, banjo-led score. True to the film’s depiction of Wardour Street philistines its publicists ignored the film’s satirical angle and promoted it straight as an adaptation of the filthy rhyme. Katy Manning, who famously once posed naked with a Dalek, remains fully clothed throughout. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of Roy Kinnear.

If it pleases you to do so you can watch the opening sequence below:

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

The A-Z of Britsploitation Cinema: D is for Dracula A.D. 1972


I don’t generally watch reality TV (he said, failing to sound at all highbrow), but I did tune in to the first instalment of this year’s Celebrity Big Brother, mildly curious to see which limpet-like hangers-on to an already overextended fifteen minutes of fame would turn up. Imagine my joy at seeing the wonderful Stephanie Beacham, star of such lovable trash as And Now the Screaming Starts! and Schizo taking part. Even more wonderfully, the introductory montage preceding her entrance featured a brief glimpse of the poster for Dracula A.D. 1972. Unfortunately there was no clip of the lovely Steph being strangled with a rosary in House of Mortal Sin, but maybe they were saving this idea for a future task. Still, it was great to have this nod to Ms Beacham’s Britsploitation past – if it had been Joan Collins taking part it’s doubtful that a poster for I Don’t Want to Be Born would have flashed up on screen.

Anyway, after that rather pointless preamble, on to the film itself. In some ways Alan Gibson’s Dracula A.D. 1972 is a towering classic of Britsploitation, though perhaps not for reasons its makers would have liked. Obviously searching for new variations on their well-worn Gothic template by the 70s, Hammer had already livened things up a bit with lesbian vampires and bare breasts all over the place and now decided to drag their most popular character into the present day. As you can tell from the use of the year in the film’s title, it very much wants you to know it’s set in THE PRESENT DAY. Of course the big problem with deliberately making something up-to the-minute is that once that minute’s over it looks distinctly old hat (there are, by the way, quite a few old hats in the film, most of them floppy). By the time it made it into the nation’s cinemas it  already looked past its best. The ludicrously dated feel of the film is nowadays its biggest attraction – any time I watch it I find myself gaping open-mouthed at the would-be ‘with it’ dialogue and the clothes sported by the film’s trendy youths – one of them, particularly annoying comic relief character Joe (William Ellis), spends the whole film in a monk’s habit, which I can only imagine must have seemed like a good idea at the time. I quite like the outfits sported by villainous, backward-surnamed Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame) though, which may just point to a form of mental illness on my part.

The film begins with a prologue set in 1872 which almost seems like a parody of the Hammer style, with its blood red gothic titles and portentous narrator. Old Hammer faves Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, in their old familiar roles of Van Helsing and Dracula do battle once again, Dracula eventually being dispatched when he rather clumsily manages to impale himself right through the heart on the spoke of a broken carriage wheel. Van Helsing manages to hammer it home and then expires himself (he’s been thrown from his horse). Dracula crumbles to dust as usual, and a shady onlooker (Neame) gathers up his ashes and later buries them just outside the churchyard where his nemesis has been interred.

We now fast forward a hundred years, when the carriages are horseless and other prominent modes of transport include jet planes and that ultimate cliché of Swinging London movies, the red double decker bus, accompanied by the wonderfully funky (and definitely not Victorian) theme by Mike Vickers (formerly of Manfred Mann). Beacham is Van Helsing’s most recent descendant, Jessica, first seen at a posh party frequented by men in monocles and women in pearls. She’s not really part of such a square scene though, she and her goofy friends (including future Foyle’s War star Michael Kitchen and Mick Jagger’s ex Marsha Hunt) have gatecrashed in order to bop along to the music of their favourite band, Stoneground. Stoneground look absolutely horrible (my favourite member is a slightly mature lady dressed in purple, who bangs a tambourine, wails a few backing vocals, looks a bit like Penelope Wilton and can’t keep her eyes off the camera) but their music actually sounds quite good in a kitschy kind of way, especially the memorable ‘Alligator Man’. But uh-oh, one of Jessica’s crowd looks quite familiar. It’s Neame again, as a descendant of the Dracula-burier we saw a few minutes earlier, pledged to bring his master back to life. Without a huge amount of persuasion he manages to talk the motley gang into holding a black mass at the church we saw earlier on, now deconsecrated and about to be demolished. The plan is to resurrect the count and for Jess to be his first victim, but it goes a bit wrong when busty Laura (Caroline Munro) insists on being the sacrifice instead, ending up with a goblet of blood down her cleavage and her own blood swiftly drained.

From now on Drac’s on a mission to make Jessica his bride, although his attempt to hunt her down is hampered by the fact that for some reason we’re never told he doesn’t seem able to leave the church (he makes himself at home there though, with some lovely curtains over his coffin embroidered with a glitzy gold ‘D’). Instead he has to rely on smarmy Johnny to help him, and to this end turns him into a vampire too. Oddly enough it’s only men who turn into vampires when they’re bitten in this film – the women just die. With typical reticence over anything vaguely homoerotic all the man-on-man biting happens discreetly off-screen though. Johnny proves to be pretty useless though, managing to dispatch himself by accidentally opening the blind in his bathroom and letting the sunlight in, then falling into the bath and accidentally turning on the shower (vampires don’t like running water). But can Jessica’s granddad Lorrimer Van Helsing (Cushing again) save her from the foul (although not very mobile) fiend in time?

Despite playing the title character, getting top billing and presumably being paid more than any other cast member, Lee’s barely in Dracula A.D. 1972. When he does turn up he looks more grumpy than menacing. Cushing’s as great as always, though – he’s particularly good at communicating lonely old Lorrimer’s sadness at not being able to connect with his granddaughter. Jessica’s a thin character with some appalling dialogue ('Weird man, way out - I mean spooks, hobgoblins, all that jazz') and could easily have been very annoying, but Beacham managers to work wonders with the character, playing against the nature of some of her more ridiculous lines to make the character seem less like an airheaded thrillseeker and more like a mature, thoughtful young woman who just likes to have a good time.

After A.D. 1972 Hammer had one last go at the count, keeping the 20th century setting but not going quite as over the top with it for The Satanic Rites of Dracula – still with Cushing and Lee but with Jessica now played by Joanna Lumley! In a lot of ways it’s a much better film, but it’s not quite as daffily entertaining as 72. It’s a shame that Hammer weren’t a bit more imaginative with the idea – maybe they would have kept going a bit longer if they’d thought to combine the vampire film with one of their other popular genres – how could the punters have resisted Dracula One Million Years B.C.?

Dig the trailer kids!

Sunday, 11 April 2010

The A-Z of Britsploitation Cinema: C is for Corruption (1968)


Peter Cushing was arguably Britain’s greatest horror star (I’d definitely argue it), but it’s unusual to see him take quite as hands-on a role as he does in Robert Hartford-Davis’s remarkably lurid Corruption. Against a garish backdrop of Swinging London and the not-quite-as-swinging Sussex coast he turns from a perfect gentleman to a serial slasher and decapitator of young women.

Corruption is a very 60s film indeed – not just in how it looks and sounds (Bill McGuffie’s jazzy score is pretty much inescapable throughout – I loved it but it might sound a bit muzaky for most people) but in its plot too. The new morality of the decade clashes with older values to disastrous effect. No prizes for guessing which of these Cushing (seen so often in 19th century get-up) represents. He plays Sir John Rowan, a distinguished surgeon and seemingly as upright a member of the Establishment as you could hope to find. The new era is most fully embodied by Mike (Tony Booth, son-in-law of Alf Garnett in Till Death Us Do Part and father-in-law of Tony Blair in real life), the familiar 60s stereotype of the trendy photographer, calling everyone ‘baby’ and urging his models to do things like ‘freak out’ when they’re posing.

The link between these two very different characters is Lynne, played by Sue Lloyd. Sir John’s girlfriend and Mike’s model, she’s upper-crust enough to convince as the former’s girlfriend despite a major age difference – although how they got together in the first place is anyone’s guess - and coolly beautiful enough to be believable as a 60s model. The catastrophe happens at a party held by Mike - a textbook example of a 60s party scene, full of swingers shaking their thing and being terribly groovy. Needless to say, Cushing looks as out of place as a grandfather clock in a space shuttle. He’s desperately uncomfortable when a dim model played by Vanessa Howard (the Girly of Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly) starts making excruciating conversation with him (‘I don’t like Chinese food, well I don’t mind spare ribs – have you ever been to Texas?’), his politeness only just masking his bewildered contempt for her and the rest of the young people surrounding him. Mike decides to hold an impromptu photo session with Lynne – as it becomes steadily more suggestive Sir John’s anger rises to the surface and he tries to stop it, ending up in a fight with Mike which causes a lamp to come crashing down onto Lynne’s face, horribly burning it.

Understandably upset by the damage to her looks and livelihood, Lynne’s driven to the brink of suicide. Sir John’s similarly crushed and decides to use his surgical skill to restore her face. Determined to discover the lost skills of the Ancient Egyptians (who were apparently a dab hand at the odd nip and tuck) he obtains both a giant laser (controlled by a computer, which automatically makes it about as futuristic as anything could be in the 60s) and a pituitary gland from a corpse in the hospital morgue (pituitary glands have a special attraction for mad scientists in horror films of the 50s and 60s). Enlisting the help of Lynne’s loving sister Val (Kate O’Mara) he uses the laser and the gland (I’m not quite sure how it’s meant to work, despite the gruesome surgical close-ups) to bring back Lynne’s beauty. He succeeds. Hooray! The end.

Well no, not quite. The effects don’t last very long and Sir John decides the only thing to do is obtain a fresh gland from a living subject. Deciding to pick on an unwanted and degenerate member of society he visits a prostitute, but gets cold feet almost as soon as he arrives and tries to sneak out. She’ll have none of that though, and finds his knife, which she threatens him with. Oh dear. Before long she’s been stabbed to death in full view of her creepy collection of cuddly toys and broken dolls, and Sir John’s made away with her head in his medical bag. From this point on the film becomes increasingly lurid and bizarre, almost like a British version of one of Herschell Gordon Lewis’s crazed US gore films like Blood Feast or Color Me Blood Red, only not quite as gory. Sir John performs another operation, but after a brief happy period Lynne’s new face again begins to fall apart. By this stage she’s getting increasingly Lady Macbeth on us and demands more killings. Maybe a trip to their cottage at Seaford will help calm her down? No, not even her amazing visor-like sunglasses cool Lynne’s bloodlust. Spotting a lone sunbathing girl she insists they grab her gland. The increasingly helpless Sir John starts to go along with it and they invite young Terri (Wendy Varnals) apparently all alone in the world, to stay with them (she assumes, not unreasonably, that they’re just rather kinky). Sir John takes a bit of a shine to her and decides he can’t bear to cut her head off, but she’s not quite what she pretends to be… The stage is set for more grisly murders, a wonderful head in the freezer discovery moment, a pre-Manson family home invasion by a brutal gang, a disturbing cameo from comedy stalwart David Lodge as the mute, animalistic Groper and a bonkers double ending ripped off from classic Brit horror Dead of Night.

The standard of acting helps lift the film above being just another sleazy shocker. Lloyd is wonderfully effective as the cool model who transforms into a kill-crazed harpy, and Booth and O’Mara are great in their supporting roles. Noel Trevarthen as Sir John’s doctor colleague and love interest for O’Mara is a bit more stiff, and it doesn’t help that he’s given the film’s most unwieldy dialogue, including B-movie clichés like ‘But-but that’s impossible!’ Cushing is absolutely brilliant as the desperate and rather pathetic Sir John, horrified at what he’s been reduced to. It’s pretty obvious which side of the old/new divide the filmmakers sympathise with – Sir John is presented as a decent man adrift in a crazy world and led astray by a duplicitous woman: Lynne claims she wants her face restored to heal the rift between them caused by the accident but in fact just wants to resume her modelling career, which she promised she’d give up. Yes, as with the majority of exploitation films casual misogyny’s the order of the day here.

Director Hartford-Davis is a major Britsploitation figure, also responsible for schlock classics like The Yellow Teddybears, The Smashing Bird I Used to Know, Incense for the Damned and The Fiend. Corruption’s one of his most interesting films and, as it progresses, one of the most gleefully unhinged British films I’ve ever seen. And for Cushing fans it’s worth watching just to see a whole new dimension to the great man.

Here's the sublimely OTT trailer:



And if you don't mind having the ending spoiled here it is in all it's insane glory:

Thursday, 8 April 2010

The A-Z of Britsploitation Cinema: B is for Berserk (1967)


Berserk brings us a clash of two international titans of camp. Visiting from Hollywood is Joan Crawford, while on home turf is our very own Diana Dors. Joan’s following in the footsteps of her What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? co-star Bette Davis, who had already been over to Blighty to make a couple of films for Hammer – The Nanny and The Anniversary, two of their classiest movies, giving outstanding performances in both. Crawford’s British horror efforts are a bit nearer to the bottom of the barrel, masterminded by producer/screenwriter Herman Cohen, who previously gave us two of Britsploitation’s most wonderfully lurid movies, Horrors of the Black Museum and Konga - I'll get round to both of those eventually. Her performance in Berserk is at least entertaining. As circus proprietor Monica Rivers she struts around in black tights and a ringmaster’s jacket, snarling, shouting and being generally unpleasant to everyone in sight (the prominent adverts for Pepsi that can be seen around the circus tent may or may not be connected to Joan sitting at the head of the soft drink company’s board at the time the film was made).

All is not well under Monica’s Pepsi-sponsored big top, with circus personnel being gruesomely killed off by a mysterious assailant. Not that she’s vastly bothered about this – in fact it’s doing wonders for her takings as rubbernecking punters flock to the show hoping to witness the next murder. ‘How can you sit here so calmly and check box office receipts after that major catastrophe?’ demands Cohen regular Michael Gough in a characteristically histrionic performance as Monica’s business partner. She calls him a ‘miserable, gutless adding machine’ and offers a reminder that ‘We’re running a circus, not a charm school!’ – just as well really, as that’s not a role she seems very suited to. Shortly afterwards Gough gets a tent peg through the back of his skull, paving the way for Crawford to be courted by high-wire artist Frank (the peculiarly named Ty Hardin), who goes by the thoroughly unexciting stage name of The Magnificent Hawkins. The idea of the sixtysomething Crawford being an object of lust for a musclebound younger man may seem faintly ridiculous, but as this sort of thing tends to be the norm with ageing male stars and young actresses maybe it should be applauded.

Could Monica be behind the killings? Dors, as mutinous magician’s assistant Matilda, thinks so. Somewhere between the Bombshell and Fishwife stages of her career, Dors has to make do with third billing after Crawford and Hardin (who’s not exactly a major name – I think he was mostly in TV Westerns). Practically the first words Monica utters to Matilda are ‘You slut!’ and later she refers to her as ‘attractive, in a common sort of way’ but unfortunately a full-on catfight between the two never really happens. Dors does, however, have a major ding-dong with Marianne Stone as alcoholic knife-thrower’s assistant Wanda, seemingly for no particular reason other than that the sight of two women rolling about on the grass tends to liven a film up a bit.

It’s fair to say that the film can do with a bit of livening up at times – Cohen managed to secure the services of Billy Smart’s Circus for the film and obviously wanted to show it off as much as possible so the plot keeps stopping to make way for a series of circus acts. Admittedly Phyllis Allan and Her Intelligent Poodles (yes, really!)and Jodie the Wonder Elephant are pretty entertaining but a murder mystery tends to lose some of its tension when it’s interrupted by scenes of dogs dancing on beachballs and burly men prodding moth-eaten lions. Rather wonderfully, even though the film’s supposed to be set over several days in a number of different cities it still appears to be exactly the same people in the audience during the circus acts. The strangest of the circus interludes comes at a party toward the end, with the circus’s rather threadbare collection of freaks – bearded lady, dwarf, skeleton man (although it’s hard to tell how skinny he is as he wears a heavy coat throughout) and strongman – perform a jolly song about how frightening they all look. At the same party we're informed by the fortune teller that Monica 'will never grow old - she has the gift of eternal youth', a line you can't help feeling Crawford insisted on.

About two-thirds of the way through the film another Britsploitation mainstay, the lovely Judy Geeson, turns up as Joan’s wayward teenage daughter Angela, escorted by Ambrosine Philpotts (always the embodiment of upper middle class venom) in a wonderful cameo as the gleefully disapproving headmistress who’s expelled her – unfortunately the opportunity for the line ‘I’m running a charm school, not a circus!’ is passed up. Disappointingly, Angela's wicked ways seem to have consisted mainly of hiding in a wardrobe and giggling. She's desperate to join the circus and her mother grudgingly allows her to take the place of the permanently paralytic Wanda - arranging for her daughter to have knives thrown at her every night almost sounds like it belongs in Crawford's real-life parenting strategy. ‘What a shame you had to return at a time like this, when we have a homicidal killer among us’ comments Dors, possibly for the benefit of those whose minds strayed during the poodles. Geeson gives a really quite sincere performance which is completely lost amid the silliness of the rest of the film.

Also in the cast is Robert Hardy, many years before All Creatures Great and Small, as the investigating detective – seemingly in disguise as Leslie Phillips. Dors' partner Lazlo is played by Philip Madoc, perennial cult TV guest star and ex-husband of Ruth. He doesn't get a huge amount to do, but it's quite fun trying to work out where his bizarre accent is supposed to originate from (there's a lot of strange accents going on among the circus acts). Most of the actors give at least slightly dodgy performances but worthy of mention as especially awful are the thoroughly wooden Hardin and George Claydon as the circus dwarf Bruno, managing to make lines like ‘I could always rely on him when I was short – I mean, short of money’ sound even worse than they look on paper.

I won’t spoil the revelation of the killer’s identity for you – suffice to say it’s as ludicrous as everything else in the film – but it’s worth quoting the exposed murderer’s motivation – ‘Kill, kill, kill! That’s all I feel inside me!’

Director Jim O’Connolly would later give us the spectacularly tawdry Tower of Evil, while the next stop for Crawford and Cohen was the even more insane prehistoric-man-runs-amuck funfest Trog. But those are stories that must be told another time…

P.S. if you're so inclined Berserk is currently available to watch in full on Youtube. Here's part one:

Monday, 5 April 2010

The A-Z of Britsploitation cinema: A is for Au Pair Girls (1972)

A film with a title like Au Pair Girls might sound like it should be full of risqué domestic situations involving unsatisfied husbands and foreign home helps, but Val Guest’s film of that name is actually something a little bit stranger (if you want a film about an unsatisfied husband and indeed wife in risqué situations with a foreign home help then John Bown’s Monique will probably fit the bill nicely). Au Pair Girls does involve young women who’ve come from various countries to work in the homes of middle-class families, but for the most part their occupation’s pretty irrelevant. There are a few sitcom style moments with clumsy, colour TV-obsessed Anita (Astrid Frank) disrupting the calm, ordered suburban home of Catweazle’s Geoffrey Bayldon but these are quickly over with and the film concentrates on misadventures of its four protagonists which, with one exception, are all outside the home. The game-for-anything Anita’s from Sweden and adding to the popular stereotype of Scandinavian licentiousness is the equally uninhibited Randi from Denmark, who spends most of the film naked and whose name should give you a good indication of the film’s level of humour. Randi’s played by Gabrielle Drake, who was the main purple wig girl in UFO and later starred in Crossroads – she’s also the sister of cult folk singer Nick (it’s hard to imagine siblings with more different entertainment careers). The other au pairs of the title are the virginal German Christa (Nancie Wait) and vaguely Chinese Nan Li (Me Me Lay, whose name sounds like it could have been invented by either Ian Fleming or Carry On scripter Talbot Rothwell and whose career eventually consisted mainly of playing various native girls in Italian cannibal movies).

Au Pair Girls is an earlyish example of 70s sexploitation and as is often the case with the genre a lot of the fun of the film comes from its cast of instantly recognisable TV faces. As well as Bayldon and Drake there’s Johnny Briggs (the future Mike Baldwin) and Man About the House’s Richard O’Sullivan as potential suitors for Anita and Randi, Dad’s Army’s John Le Mesurier as O’Sullivan’s dad (he tells his son to piss off at one point, which is certainly not something you would have heard in a BBC sitcom of the time), and Are You Being Served?’s Mr Lucas and Young Mr Grace (aka Trevor Bannister and Harold Bennett). There’s also the first appearance for this A-Z of the wonderful Marianne Stone, possibly British cinema’s most prolific bit-part actress, great in a characteristically tiny role as Christa’s employer.

The film’s usually thought of uncomplicatedly as a sex comedy along the lines of the slightly later Confessions films, but generically it’s a bit more complicated than that. Each of the girls has her own adventure (there’s only two scenes in which they appear together, and none exchanges any dialogue with the others) and it’s not laughs all round. Randi and Anita’s stories are the kind of broad Carry On-style frolics that would quickly become the norm for British sexploitation: Randi and her employer’s son (O’Sullivan) have a (literal) roll in the hay when they're stranded on the way back from the airport, leading to Randi’s clothes getting soaking wet and a quest to find some new ones; Anita visits a casino and throws Briggs over for a Middle-Eastern Sheikh (played, bizarrely enough, by German actor Ferdy Mayne – probably best known to people who like this sort of thing as the head vampire in Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers – in a terrifyingly loud check jacket) and is eventually inducted into his harem.

The other two stories are a bit more serious - Christa is led astray by her employer’s wayward daughter (Lyn Yeldham) – who’s amazed to find that the German girl is still a virgin ‘Intacto? Oh man, this is too much!’ and procures her for the remarkably unattractive pop star Ricky Strange (Steve Patterson) – who looks like he belongs in one of Hammer’s grunty prehistoric movies, throwing rocks at a back-projected lizard. This isn’t a turn-off for Christa though, and after watching Ricky gyrate and mime along to a surprisingly pleasant ditty at the generically-named nightclub Groovers (no exploitation film is really complete without a naff nightclub scene, I always feel) she’s lured into the hirsute singer’s bed after a minimum of protest. Feelings of guilt and shame ensue. This part of the film feels the sleaziest – it’s in the rather hypocritical ‘dire warning’ mode of exploitation cinema and strikes a completely different note to the knockabout exploits of the Scandinavians. It’s like a more concise version of films like Groupie Girl and Permissive with their alternate finger-wagging and lustful panting over the more sordid elements of the music business.

And there’s an entirely different feel again to Nan Li’s tale. Hired to work in a forbidding country mansion which feels a world away from the post-swinging London of most of the film, she’s the intended ‘playmate’ of childlike, mother-dominated pianist Rupert (Julian Barnes - not the novelist but the only attractive male in the film by a very long way). There’s almost an art cinema feel to this segment, with its wistful, melancholy quality (greatly enhanced by Me Me Lay’s sad-eyed expression throughout and the emphasis on children’s games) and the uncertainty of what exactly is going on – has Rupert’s mother actually hired Nan Li to seduce him? She certainly doesn’t look like she’s doing it for fun. Intentionally obscure or just poorly scripted – who knows? Sexual awakening taken care of, Nan quietly departs.

The Christa segment has an unpleasant edge to it, but for the most part there’s something oddly lovable about Au Pair Girls. The excellent and reassuringly familiar cast has a lot to do with this: The charmingly hapless Richard O’Sullivan, for example, is infinitely preferable to the smug sleazeballs that would often pass as heroes in later sexploitation comedies. The focus on women as characters in their own right (although not exactly three-dimensional ones) rather than as a succession of conquests for the male lead helps as well (not that the film has an especially progressive attitude to gender politics – its idea that sending all the girls to a harem is a happy ending isn't likely to be embraced by feminists). Intercutting the different stories makes sure none of them outstays their welcome, but the resulting jumps in tone from story to story are a bit disorientating, though Au Pair Girls still manages to be easily one of the most entertaining British sexploitation films of the 70s. Do bear in mind, however, the words of director Val Guest (probably a bit miffed at being reduced from high-profile sci-fi, crime and social problem films in the 50s and 60s to films relying largely on shots of swaying bottoms) ‘There is absolutely no violence or kinks. There are no lesbians, no queers and no whips. Nothing like that at all.’ Oh well, never mind.

Here's the original trailer, featuring the fabulously groovy theme song: