Sunday, 31 March 2013

Britsploitation from A to Z: Z is for Zeta One (1969)

Well, I’m feeling in a bit of a party mood as here we finally are at the end of this A-Z thing.  And there couldn’t possibly be a better film to celebrate with than this.  You need to understand from the off that Zeta One makes no sense at all.  It’s utterly disjointed and any attempt at a storyline takes a distant second place to ensuring as much screen time as possible is devoted to scantily-clad women.  It’s exploitation film-making in the incoherent tradition of American directors like Doris Wishman and Ed Wood.  And where Wood had Bela Lugosi, Zeta One’s director Michael Cort has Charles Hawtrey (they even wear similar hats).
It belongs to that most 60s of genres, the Bond spoof-sci-fi-sexploitation film (quite a specialist genre, I grant you).  Here the 007 substitute is called James Word (just one of many things that will have you spluttering ‘Eh?!’ at the screen if you ever dare to watch this film), and he’s played by Robin Hawdon.  Hawdon is perfect casting as he looks exactly like a cross between Sean Connery and Roger Moore (yes, I know Roger Moore hadn’t been cast in 1969: perhaps this gave them the idea.  OK, probably not).  Here he is pulling as typical a sex comedy face as you’ll ever see (slightly different to a comedy sex face):
We have the requisite Maurice Binder on the (very) cheap title sequence, accompanied by an unnamed singer Basseying nonsensical lyrics (“Call Zeta! Zeta! Zee-E-T-A Zeta!”) over a Johnny Hawksworth tune that starts off all John Barry and ends as an amazing psychedelic freakout.  For some inexplicable reason our M substitute (W) has an American accent, but we’ll pass over that.  Substituting for Miss Moneypenny is future Lust for a Vampire star Yutte Stensgard as Ann Olsen.
The main thrust of the film involves superwomen from a mysterious place called Angvia (think of it as a Countdown conundrum) kidnapping the beautiful young women of Britain (well, mainly strippers) and forcibly recruiting them to their cause (not entirely sure what that cause is, but I imagine it involves death and destruction to all men, that’s the usual drill).  But just where is Angvia? “I think it’s out in space somewhere,” Word muses, “or perhaps it’s not”.  Wherever it is, it’s accessed via an interdimensional portal in the back of a removal van.  It’s a “vast supernatural ant colony” apparently, and the queen ant is the mysterious Zeta (Dawn Addams, who’d later reprise her role as leader of a world of women in TV’sStar Maidens, wearing an even more absurd costume than the meringue she sports here).  The Angvians’ archenemy is master criminal Major Bourdon, who’s determined to winkle the secrets of their amazing technological advances out of them.  Improbably enough, Bourdon’s played by that stalwart of the Doctor films (and bear sex symbol) James Robertson Justice.  It’s frankly quite distressing seeing Justice play Bourdon, a drooling sleazeball whose point of view shots generally involve women’s crotches.  There’s no shortage of ridiculous dialogue inZeta One, but Justice’s outraged cry of “There’s a bint in the bushes!” is an especially giddy highlight.  He’s quite something to see, and as Davina McCall might say, here’s a selection of his best bits:
Yes, he is actually twirling his moustache.
Charles Hawtrey has much less fun as Bourdon’s chief henchman Swyne.  It’s a thoroughly generic part, and bereft of the camp joie de vivre of a Carry On script, Hawtrey’s a subdued, rather sad presence.  One shot in particular, of his translucently pale face peering out of a phone box, has a strangely haunting quality:
Apart from that Hawtrey only gets one decent scene, sparring with Rita Webb, who pops up briefly as a belligerent bus conductor.  Unless you count the bit where he shows some thigh, of course.
Bourdon hires Edwina Strain, star attraction of the Tease for Two strip lounge, to infiltrate the Angvians, but once through the back doors of that van she’s swiftly seduced by the delights of Zeta’s world, including wrestling classes and ‘the self realisation chamber’ (a wobbly silver wall):
“We have to eat every few hours,” Edwina’s tour guide informs her, “but not the food you would know”: cut to Angvians eating…a bowl of fruit.
The Angvians’ final confrontation with Bourdon’s men is tremendously odd: undoubtedly the most prolonged scene of men in tweeds being felled by nearly naked women raising their arms a bit I’ve ever witnessed.  But where’s our intrepid agent during all this: in bed with another Angvian actually, so you might wonder what the point of him being in the film is at all.  However, it seems Zeta One was considerably under-running as all of the above-described nonsense is padded out with an interminable framing sequence set in Word’s flat, as he relates the adventure to Miss Olsen (even though he was distracted for the majority of it) in bed after they play the world’s most tedious game of strip poker.  And smoke an awful lot:
It might drive some viewers up the wall, but I find Zeta One’s makers’ obvious awareness of the film’s essential rubbishness rather endearing: during the main action Robin Hawdon sports a silly false moustache that visibly starts to peel off at one point.  The framing sequence (added in later) starts with Yutte Stensgard demanding he removes it as it’s so unconvincing.
Difficult to believe though it might be, there was never a Zeta Two.  I can’t help seeing that as a great loss to humanity at large.  Still, at least we have Zeta One to boggle uncomprehendingly at.  Nearly every shot in the film deserves to be framed (and hung on the wall of a lunatic), and here’s a random selection:
Tonight’s special guest star: Rihanna!
Don’t come in here.

Britsploitation from A to Z: Y is for The Yellow Teddybears (1963)

From the dread hand of Robert Hartford-Davis, who we last saw presiding over Peter Cushing’s descent into stalk’n’slash in Corruption, here comes a brutally frank drama ripped from the headlines (as it might have been called at the time).  The Yellow Teddybears is based on a tabloid exposé of a girls’ school whose pupils signalled they were sexually active by wearing Robertson’s jam golliwog badges, changed to teddybears in the film.  Which is just as well because if it was called The Black Golliwogs I’d be stuck for a Y.  Anyway, perhaps the most impressive thing about the film is how Hartford-Davis and colleagues manage to make it both sensationalist and very, very dull.
The main thing keeping it vaguely watchable is historical interest.  Supposedly it was due to feature the Beatles’ first film appearance, but they baulked at Hartford-Davis’s insistence on writing the songs.  And indeed the fairly excruciating “Yellow Teddybear” seems unlikely to have found a place in their pantheon of classic songs.  Instead the role of performing goons at the ubiquitous awkward dance hall scene goes to the Embers, notable mainly for their astonishingly geeky looking keyboardist (somewhere between Buddy Holly and Bamber Gascoigne) and the alarming faces pulled by their Terry Scott-esque drummer, who seems to be enjoying himself far too much.
Also helping to make The Yellow Teddybears an intriguing historical document is its setting in that postwar would-be utopia, the new town.  This one’s called Peterbridge (a cross between Peterborough and Stevenage?).  Its houses are pristine boxes filled with contemporary modern knickknacks and occupied by dodgy businessmen, their empty-headed wives and their bored teenagers.  Chief among the bored teenagers is Linda (Rita Tushingham lookalike Annette Whiteley), permanently sulky ringleader of the Yellow Teddybear gang.  In true kitchen sink drama style she’s got pregnant by goofy would-be pop star Kinky Carson (Iain Gregory).  The overplayed scene where they discuss what to do with the baby feels almost like a parody of kitchen sink clichés – but Linda already knows what she wants to do.  She’s fallen in with a bad lot – chiefly June (Jill Adams), a slinky, sinister call girl who promises to procure her an abortion (it’s strange hearing people actually say words like ‘abortion’ and even ‘sex’ in a film of this vintage – something the actors seem aware of by the way they hesitantly spit the words out).  It soon becomes clear that in order to pay for the procedure Linda will need to become rather better acquainted with some of June’s friends.
The mouthpiece for the film’s moral message is young biology teacher Anne Mason (Jacqueline Ellis).  She’s horrified when she finds out about her students’ club, but she’s a woman of the world.  She and her boyfriend (an art teacher who’s popular with the girls, even though his nose and teeth seem to be locked in a battle to decide which is scarier) have done more than hold hands.  She earnestly tries to convince the schoolgirl sexpots to save themselves for someone they really love, in a charmingly period way: ‘What sort of a world are you girls living in – is it a world where sex is given out like soap coupons?’ (soap powder tends to figure heavily in 60s critiques of the affluent society and its morals).  Her attempts are sadly hindered by her bizarre use of metaphor, as in this memorable exchange:
Anne: It’s degrading – it’s like taking a Picasso and using it as a fire screen.
Linda: It’s our Picasso!
Anne: So you want to hang it on the walls of a public lavatory!
Perhaps not surprisingly this all falls on deaf ears.  Linda’s off for her abortion via a wistful trip through the town centre gazing sadly in shop windows at baby clothes and a rather surprising service offered by the Woolwich:
But the operation, due to be carried out by a shifty-looking doctor in June’s flat, is interrupted by Linda’s enraged dad before it can begin.  Cast out of the family home, she runs off to a transport café, where despite the sage advice of a motherly tart (much more sympathetically drawn than the would-be sophisticate June), she’s last seen being picked up by a lorry driver wearing the undeniably sinister combination of a donkey jacket and a paisley cravat.
Well, that’s the reasonably entertaining part of the film over with.  It grinds on for another 15 minutes or so with an interminable enquiry into poor Anne Mason’s morals by the Pharisees of the school’s board of governors, presided over by ubiquitous Britfilm authority figure Raymond Huntley.  The most rabidly moralistic member’s played by Hilary Mason, star of Don’t Look Now and Maid Marian and Her Merry Men (what a CV!).  It’s all rather heavy-handed, to say the least.  There are just about enough incidental details about The Yellow Teddybearsto stop it being a complete borefest.  But only just.

Britsploitation from A to Z: X is for Xtro (1982)

Britain loves a good moral panic, and the video nasties controversy of the early 80s was a classic.  The new home video market was flooded with uncertified, uncut films, many of which would never have got past the censor intact or even edited (and in some cases still haven’t).  Compared to the parade of American psychos and Italian cannibals that hit the tabloid headlines Britain’s own horror output looked pretty innocuous, and only two homegrown films got into any hot water.  One was the erotic thriller Exposé, for its sexual violence.  The other was Xtro.
The film’s directed, co-written and scored (with requisite 80s synthesiser sounds) by Harry Bromley Davenport.  His name may sound more evocative of Ealing-style comedy than sci-fi body horror, but here he’s crafted an imaginative, often disgusting and very enjoyable blend of AlienE.T. and Cronenberg (and obviously it’s all the more enjoyable for being British).
The film starts with young Tony (Simon Nash) witnessing his dad Sam (Philip Sayer) being beamed aboard a spaceship.  Three years later Sam’s wife Rachel (Bernice Stegers), thinking she was just abandoned, is living with grumpy American photographer Joe (Danny Brainin, who looks rather like TV irritant Alex Zane with a bad hangover):
See what I mean? Anyway, Joe and Tony don’t get on too well, but never mind as Tony’s dad’s on his way back, sort of.  In the countryside the spaceship returns and beams something down (Tony, meanwhile, wakes up covered in blood).  A hideous, crawling creature emerges from the earth, and after a temporary setback when it gets run over by a Sloaney couple (it kills them horribly though, so that’s all right) has the luck to stumble on a lonely cottage inhabited by an attractive blonde.  This leads to what’s probably the film’s most infamous scene:
Sex face
Yes, she’s impregnated through the mouth by the creature’s impressively flexible organ, and then gives birth to a fully grown man, who obligingly bites through his own umbilical cord.  Which is just as well as the mother didn’t survive the birth, and meanwhile the  father’s looking like a right dog’s dinner:
Once he’s cleaned himself up a bit we can see that the unusually large newborn looks just like Tony’s dad Sam.  He steals the Sloaney man’s clothes and car and heads off to pick Tony up from school.   Rachel’s understandably shocked by his reappearance.  ‘What are you doing here?’ she demands, ‘I’m back’ he replies, ‘Back? Back from where?’ I was hoping he was going to say ‘back from outer space’ and launch into a Gloria Gaynor-inspired production number but sadly it wasn’t to be.  Sam denies all knowledge of the last three years and uncomfortable domestic drama ensues when Rachel brings him home to stay with her, Tony and Joe (and their French au pair Analise, played by future Bond girl Maryam D’Abo).  Joe gets even grumpier than before, and even Tony, who was overjoyed to see his dad again, is a bit distressed when he catches Sam gulping down his pet snake’s eggs.  Fortunately Sam manages to restore the father-son bond by granting Tony amazing mental powers.  The way he does this, by sucking a phallus of skin out of his son’s shoulder, looks dodgy to say the least, like child porn directed by David Cronenberg:
By this point Xtro is already far more peculiar than most of the sci-fi horror films that followed in the wake of Alien, but it gets really bizarre when the now noticeably more evil Tony uses his new powers to turn a toy clown into an extremely sinister dwarf henchman with a lethal yo-yo.  Here he is, being sinister with his yo-yo:
In his creepy, silent way, the clown eggs Tony on to take a terrible revenge on mean old neighbour Mrs Goodman (Anna Wing, who in a couple of years would be cast as EastEnders’ original matriarch Lou Beale), who we earlier saw beating his snake to a bloody pulp with a meat tenderiser after it escaped and ended up in her salad.  In a scene that’s pure 70s Doctor Who (if a bit more violent), a giant Action Man figure breaks into Mrs Goodman’s flat and thrusts a bayonet through her as she cowers under an armchair:
There’s no stopping Evil Tony now.  As things between Sam and Rachel go all soap opera and they head off to their old country cottage in the hope of a reconciliation, he puts a malevolent alien plan into action.  Analise is jumped in the lift by the clown, and her boyfriend is savaged to death by a black panther that Tony’s conjured up.  Analise’s eventual fate is especially grim – in another particularly disturbing bit, Tony does something unpleasant to her midriff area.  She’s then imprisoned in a cocoon and starts producing eggs from a strange protuberance, which the clown stores in a gunge-filled upturned fridge:
Things are starting to get a bit nasty in the country as well, as bits of Sam start flaking off and Rachel notices during sex that he’s covered in open wounds (that can be a bit of a passion killer).  He’s changing into something else, and he’s not the only one.  In case you want to watch Xtro (why’s it called Xtro anyway?) for yourself I won’t spoil the ending, but I can tell you it’s not quite as brilliantly weird as the ending originally planned, which featured a pregnant Rachel returning home to a flat full of Tony clones.  The effect was achieved with a group of masked and bewigged children.  It wasn’t used on the grounds that it doesn’t look very convincing, but it certainly looks wonderfully spooky:
Xtro is certainly a much better film than most of the others that were vilified as video nasties.  The cast (especially Sayer and Stegers) are excellent, although Tony sounds a bit too working class for a child with such RP parents.  It’s a shame that Harry Bromley Davenport never did anything else very interesting after Xtro,getting stuck in world of the straight-to-video horror film.  His subsequent work of in-name-only Xtro sequels that went straight to video – Xtro II: Watch the Skiesis on the same DVD as the original but I don’t know if I’ll ever bother to watch it.
Finally, my favourite thing in Xtro: the toaster in the background here.  Good pans too.
You can watch the whole film here if you feel so inclined:

Britsploitation from A to Z: W is for The Wife Swappers (1969)

“Within the urban sprawl of almost any great city there is an almost infinite number of variations in human behaviour.  Millions upon millions of people going about their everyday business.  Unfortunately, we shall also find gambling, alcoholism, drug addiction, pornography and every conceivable kind of licentiousness.  Recently a new novelty has been added to this list: wife swapping.  While every incident depicted in this film is based on fact, it is only concerned with a minority group.  It is an aspect of modern life which we present in truth.”
That’s the terribly serious opening narration of The Wife Swappers.  It’s pretending to be a terribly serious film, an exposé of the new sexual mores infesting suburbia at the end of the 60s, sagely informing us of the psychology behind it all – but as with all sexploitation films what it’s really about is showing the punters as many naked ladies as the filmmakers can get away with.   As far as The Wife Swapperswas concerned that strategy certainly paid off at the box office (it was the film that really opened the British sex film floodgates, leading to the market saturation of the 70s), but I find it hard to imagine anybody getting seriously aroused by it.  Well, what do I know? The film epitomises the grottiness of British sexploitation and, although I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the intention, manages to make heterosexual relationships, and human beings in general, look entirely unappealing.  I don’t think it’s meant to be quite as thoroughly hilarious as it is either: the passing years have transformed it into a time capsule of ludicrous late 60s fashion and décor, and the sternly disapproving attitude (which was probably tongue in cheek to begin with) has aged into the height of camp.  For me this is the ultimate British sexploitation movie: I absolutely love it and I beg your indulgence as I’ll be describing the film in detail, with particular attention to the charmingly ridiculous script.
We’re hooked in with a great ‘what-the-hell’s-going on?’ pre-credits teaser: A woman in a black plastic mac (and matching hat) stands on Westminster Bridge, minding her own business.  Suddenly a car pulls up and two thugs in dark glasses pull her inside.  Blindfolding her with her bright pink chiffon scarf they drive her into the countryside and drag her to the river, where a boat’s moored on the other side.  They take off her mac (she’s naked underneath), and she swims out to the boat.  Climbing aboard, she disappears over the side.  We hear a scream and the blood red title ‘The Wife Swappers’ spins into view – accompanied by an ‘all characters and events in this film are fictional…’ disclaimer that rather spoils the narrator’s claims of veracity.
Next up are some wonderfully uncomfortable vox pops shot in central London, asking people of various nationalities what they think of wife swapping.  I’m not sure if they’re real members of the public or not but the interviews certainly feel stilted enough for them to be.  A hippie couple dismiss the notion of having a wife to swap, a Swedish pair are blasé about the whole thing, and a Canadian man practically salivates at the thought, much to his wife’s disapproval.  We launch now into the first of several ‘reconstructions’: the story of suburban dullards Paul and Ellen and their journey into the world of swinging.
‘I was certainly confused that evening as Paul, my husband, drove me towards my first meeting with an organised wife-swapping club’, begins Ellen’s earnest narration, accompanying shots of actress Valerie St John, her face a picture of wide-eyed gormlessness.  ‘Let us recreate the moment when Ellen first heard the phrase wife-swapping’ says the narrator, and they do.  Paul and Ellen are in their glorious suburban home and have just put their young daughter to bed, when Paul announces that Leonard and Jean are coming over, much to Ellen’s dismay.  All the men in The Wife Swappers are ugly, and lothario Leonard is the most fearsome-looking of all.  Played by Larry Taylor, a familiar bit-part actor whose most impressive credit is perhaps playing Captain Birdseye in South Africa, Leonard’s ogre-like face and gap-toothed leer compete with his lemon yellow shirt and cornflower blue cravat to be the most unpleasant aspect of his appearance.  He’s obviously a charmer though: the initially unimpressed Ellen is quickly won over when he helps her to empty the ice cube trays, gives her his killer line – ‘you’re no ice cube’ – and proceeds to maul her.  Wife Jean is a badly dubbed tarty blonde (actually there are only two women in the whole film who aren’t blonde) who seriously has the hots for the rather careworn Paul.
A game of poker leads in to a more risqué game involving corks and undressing, and eventually the promised wife swapping.  ‘As I left the room that night I was aware that something new had entered my life’ Ellen tells us, and she and Paul have sex that night for the first time in ages.
Now Paul and Ellen head to a proper wife-swapping party, where all the men wear dark glasses and all the women wear feathery masks.  Ellen’s first choice of sexual partner is the most attractive man of the group (relatively speaking), although he’s also one of the campest men I’ve ever seen.  A repentant Paul watches in horror, their coupling reflected in his dark glasses.
‘An eminent London psychiatrist’ (i.e. a hammy actor), coquettishly leaning against his bookshelves, gives us the benefit of his thoughts on these goings-on, sniffily blaming ‘woman’s drive for so-called equality’ for everything that’s wrong with society.
Alleged reconstruction number two involves a young husband and wife taking a holiday with another couple on their boat (probably the same one we saw earlier).  Boating and swinging clearly go hand in hand – we learned in the last story that Leonard had one too.   Our innocent pair don’t realise that their friends are sinister swingers who plan to seduce them.  The plan doesn’t work.  ‘Our married life was such that we’d never needed to indulge in such behaviour’, the offended wife tells us in voiceover.
Following this there’s a brief investigation of ‘contacts’ magazines – a newsagent introduces us to some of his dodgier wares and gives us his theories on the lonely folk who buy them and Joe, the slippery editor of one of the mags, strenuously denies that he wants to do anything other than help people make new friends.
Next up, a woman in silhouette cheerfully tells us all about her descent from wife swapping to prostitution and her husband’s prison sentence for pimping her.  ‘I found a young boy and he wanted to beat me – it was rather funny!’ she merrily reminisces.  ‘I don’t think he wanted to pay me!’ The stern interviewer asks if she’ll continue with this life.  ‘Oh yes! Well it would be silly not to, wouldn’t it? No income tax…’ ‘I suspect this woman is much less secure than she pretends to be’, the psychiatrist reassures us.
We’re now taken inside a nightclub by the magic of a supposedly hidden camera, where a woman casually strips off on the dancefloor, and others join in.  ‘Such is the progress of the permissive society’ tuts the narrator, ‘that such an exhibition as this can occur with hardly a ripple of interest’.  Finally we get to find out what that opening scene was all about: Marion, the woman we saw abducted, is phoned by a plummy-voiced mystery man who demands her presence on the bridge.  All these sex games eventually drive poor Marion to a nervous breakdown: ‘Today she considers that this collapse saved her from an escalating round of activity from which she may never have retrieved her sanity.’
Blackmail rears its ugly head now, as a couple engage in a vaguely naughty game of blind man’s buff with some married friends, not realising there’s a camera hidden in their hosts’ shabby plastic Christmas tree.  Cue ruined lives as a result.
Finally, we have the story of seasoned swingers Cliff and Sheila (Sheila’s not blonde, and is played by the magnificently named Bunty Garland).  It’s their anniversary, but Cliff’s insensitively invited the members of their swapping circle round for the evening.  Fed up with having to ‘perform’ with bloody Carol again in front of a crowd of lusty suburbanites Sheila loses it, stalking round the living room in her bra, pants and thigh-length boots and spitting venom at all and sundry: ‘You’ve taken the act of love and dirtied it!’ Sheila is a mouthpiece for the anti-swinging attitudes Ford and Long needed to put in to get the film past the censors, her remarkable diatribe at the end of the film far from a feminist analysis of swinging: ‘Between a man and a woman sex has a different meaning.  All a man has to consider is if a woman is attractive enough.  But a woman must ask herself if she’d want the man’s child… a woman isn’t a sex machine, she’s a child bearer.  It’s the fact of life.’
The film ends with some closing words from the pretend psychiatrist: ‘Artificially induced lust is no substitute for real love’, he smugly warns us.  All that’s missing is a pan to below his desk to reveal his legs clad in a pair of fishnet tights.
The Wife Swappers is truly a film that everyone should see.