Thursday, 28 May 2015

The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971)

Director Robert Fuest first came to international attention with his work on the last series of TV’s The Avengers, his idiosyncratic visuals a natural match for a show whose style was its substance.  Fuest’s fourth feature film, The Abominable Dr Phibes has the feel of an extended, unusually gruesome episode of The Avengers - but here, instead of doing battle with diabolical masterminds, the sophisticated man and glamorous woman at the centre are the diabolical masterminds.  The goodies here are grouchy Joseph Cotten and a gaggle of more-or-less incompetent detectives (Peter Jeffrey’s Inspector Trout being the least).  The baddies are a far more interesting proposition: Dr Anton Phibes (Vincent Price) is a world-renowned organist and theologist, believed to have died in a car crash but in fact hiding out in a sumptuous underground lair and plotting revenge on the medics he holds responsible for his wife’s death on the operating table.  Mrs Phibes is played by 70s horror icon Caroline Munro, but we only see her in photographs and, at the film’s climax, as an embalmed corpse – the female half of the deadly duo is the beautiful Vulnavia (Virginia North), who assists Phibes for reasons that remain entirely mysterious.  One thing that's missing is the witty repartee shared by The Avengers’ protagonists: Vulnavia is silent throughout, while that car crash robbed Phibes of the power of speech, meaning that for most of the film Price is an entirely physical presence, in a manner more expected from Christopher Lee (and one which seems downright perverse for an actor known above all for his distinctive voice).  We do eventually hear Price’s voice in distorted form, played through a device Phibes has invented to speak with.  The doctor’s face was also horribly disfigured in the crash, meaning he wears a ghastly, pallid mask of his own former visage.  

The climactic reveal of his horrifically burnt face at the film’s climax (a callback to a similar scene in an earlier Price vehicle, House of Wax) was severely diminished by the heavy use of his skull-like features in the film’s publicity.

Phibes’ 1920s setting is a refreshing novelty, and in keeping with it the plot is as diaphanous as a flapper’s dress: Phibes kills each of the medics in a manner based on one of the 10 plagues of Egypt (he’s very big on the Old Testament), and the police try to stop him with the assistance of Dr Vesalius (Cotten), whose name’s on the list.  That’s it, but it’s all strung together in  highly entertaining fashion.  Any real theologist is likely to raise an eyebrow at the film’s interpretation of the plagues: the plague of lice is replaced by one of bats, and despite sucking the blood of poor Dr Dunwoody (Edward Burnham) they’re played by fruit bats rather than the genuine vampire variety.  Presumably these were chosen for their impressive size, but they look entirely unthreatening.  

Later, the plague of wild animals is represented by Dr Whitcombe (Maurice Kaufman) being impaled on the horn of a brass unicorn, which seems tenuous to say the least.  

The most impressively staged of the murders see Dr Hargreaves (Alex Scott) garrotted by a gorgeous, bejewelled frog’s head mask, and Dr Kitaj (Peter Gilmore) eaten alive in the cockpit of a plane by rats. 

  Phibes’ dousing of the sleeping Nurse Allen (Susan Travers) in pureed sprouts through a hole in the ceiling before setting a horde of locusts on her is agonisingly drawn out, but the pay-off of her fleshless face covered in the crawling insects is nearly worth it.

There are some witty lines in James Whiton and William Goldstein’s script, and a distinctive score by cult favourite composer Basil Kirchin, but it’s how Phibes looks that makes it unforgettable, and Brian Eatwell’s remarkable art deco sets and Elsa Fennell’s costumes (particularly Vulnavia’s striking ensembles), beautifully photographed by Norman Warwick, linger in the mind longer than anything else.

·         Familiar faces in the cast include Hugh Griffith and Terry-Thomas, billed third and fourth but with minimal screen time as an exposition-spouting rabbi and a victim of Phibes who’s bled to death respectively.  John Laurie makes a tiny appearance (that looks like it’s been heavily cut) as a senile music seller.  Future Doctor Who companion Ian Marter and Inspector Morse’s boss James Grout both appear briefly as policemen.

·         Joanna Lumley had a small role as a lab assistant, but her scenes were cut from the finished film.

Monday, 25 May 2015

Adventures of a Plumber's Mate (1978)

The third film in Stanley Long’s Adventures series starts off with a credits sequence featuring crude, lavatory-themed cartoons.  But where the previous films in the series had theme songs related to the hero’s profession (Taxi Driver and Private Eye respectively), this time we just get a generic disco song called “I’m Flying”.  As with Private Eye’s theme it’s written and sung by star Christopher Neil, and he’s not the only one who seems to have found little inspiration in the world of plumbing: much of what happens in the film itself is entirely unrelated to it.

The absence of reliable screenwriter Michael Armstrong this time round is keenly felt.  In what initially seemed a bit of a coup, Long had engaged the services of Stephen D Frances to write the script.  Though his own name was unknown, Frances had originated the Hank Janson series of spicy pulp thrillers that became a publishing phenomenon in the 50s.  Unfortunately, Long found that Frances’ ideas about what was sexy, and what was funny, were stuck in that era.  The attempt to cobble together a workable script is sadly all too apparent: the film’s really just a string of barely related sketches, but with far more of a feel of desperation about it.

Initially it seems like the film’s going to revolve around the toilet seat Neil replaces for bondage-loving housewife Prudence Drage: unknown to either of them it’s made out of gold bars melted down by her criminal husband (Leon Greene), who’s just got out of prison and wants it back (the Golden Toilet Seat sounds like an award given to films of this type).   However, this plotline comes to a premature end after the seat’s acquired by detective Richard Caldicot, with only a callback to it at the very end of the film, by which time the audience is likely to have forgotten all about it.  The remainder of the action sees Neil attempting to get hold of enough money to pay off a superannuated pair of bookies’ enforcers (Arthur Mullard and Jerold Wells), in brief sketches that see him alternating legitimate work for his plumber boss B A Crapper (Stephen Lewis doing his usual Blakey schtick) and small-time villainy for seedy crook Dodger (Willie Rushton in a role intended for Jimmy Edwards, who proved too drunk to play it).

Memorable moments (“highlights” would be stretching it a bit far) include a housewife (Lindy Benson) getting her dress pulled off after catching it in a waste disposal unit, and Neil attempting to blackmail a massage parlour owner but ending up black and blue at the hands of mammoth masseuse Claire Davenport.  Most mind-boggling of all is the wild party held by wealthy dominatrix Anna Quayle (doing an “Ah do declayuh” Southern US accent for no obvious reason) at which Neil attempts to steal a Picasso.  Here, Christopher Biggins can be seen as a young man in love with a blow-up doll, and we reach the peak of 70s sexcom homophobia with an old queen (David Rayner, who played a similar character in Hylda Baker sitcom Not on Your Nellie) who gets off on the threats of violence with which Neil greets his advances.

Adventures of a Plumber’s Mate has a much grimmer feel than either of the earlier films in the series, and Neil’s character is, generally, much less likeable than the hapless berk he played in Private Eye.  Here he’s deliberately written as a male chauvinist pig, and his less-than-convincing Cockney accent doesn’t do anything to increase his appeal.  After this role, Neil decided to concentrate full-time on music and, give or take a few episodes of BBC children’s programme You and Me, it was his last screen performance.  His subsequent achievements included discovering Sheena Easton and producing hits as diverse as Dennis Waterman’s “I Could Be So Good for You”, Celine Dion’s “Think Twice” and Cher’s “Walking in Memphis”.  You may recall that the heroes of the previous Adventures films were named Joe North and Bob West.  The lead character in this opus is Sid South.  Although Plumber’s Mate did better financially than Private Eye, Stanley Long decided to end the series with this one, meaning that sadly the compass was never completed – though there’s some consolation in the fact that John M East was a key figure in British sexploitation’s final years.

  •  Elaine Paige, an unknown actress friend of Christopher Neil’s, was given the part of Suze, the regular girlfriend for whom he contemplates chucking in his womanising ways.  By the time of Adventures of a Plumber’s Mate’s release, she had become a West End star thanks to her lead performance in Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Evita.  Despite keeping her clothes on throughout, the film proved an embarrassment to her and she exerted legal pressure on Stanley Long to keep her name off any publicity.
  •  Richard Caldicot, Willie Rushton, Anna Quayle, Leon Greene and Jonathan Adams all return from the previous Adventures film.  Stephen Lewis and Prudence Drage were both in Adventures of a Taxi Driver.  Stephen Riddle, who played drag queen Bunny McQueen in Taxi Driver (and was the casting director on Private Eye), appears briefly as a heavily-bandaged former victim of Arthur Mullard.  Other familiar faces in the cast include former Please Sir! star Peter Cleall and Derek Martin, best known in years to come as EastEnders’ Charlie Slater.
  • Confessions of a Plumber’s Mate had been mooted as a fifth and final entry in Columbia’s rival sexcom series before Stanley Long started work on this film, though this appears to have been simply a coincidence.

Adventures of a Taxi Driver (1976)

Any search for the ancestors of the 70s sex comedy would be bound to light on Clive Donner’s 1967 film Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush.  Cycling around the sparkling new streets of Stevenage (a surprisingly vivid setting) and lusting after every female in sight, the film’s hero, 17 year old Jamie McGregor (Barry Evans) is a prototype for the randy Jack the Lads who’d infest the nation’s fleapits in the next decade.  Scenes of him fantasising about the older women he delivers groceries to could almost be subtitled Confessions of a Delivery Boy.  But for the most part, fantasise is all Jamie does: his attempts to get his end away with an assortment of dolly birds are all frustrated, until he finally loses his virginity to the beautiful, seemingly unattainable girl (Judy Geeson) he wanted most of all – after which it becomes clear she’s not the girl for him after all.  The film ends with Jamie poised on the edge of growing up as he heads for university and a relationship with sensible Diane Keen.  His lustful ways, we’re led to infer, are just an inevitable teenage phase.

In the sex comedies of the 70s, men never surrender willingly to the passing of this phase .  There’s no better way of comparing their outlook with that of Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush than Adventures of a Taxi Driver, the first of three “On the Job” sexcoms from Stanley Long.  Made nine years later, it reunites four of Mulberry Bush’s young cast members.  Barry Evans (whose cheeky chappie persona was by now familiar from the TV sitcoms Doctor in the House and Doctor at Large) stars again, this time as cab driver Joe North.  As in Mulberry Bush, he keeps the audience aware of his thoughts by talking to the camera throughout (it gets a bit creepy at times here, with him informing us of his plans to seduce women who in reality would be able to hear every word he’s saying).  Judy Geeson again plays the unattainable girl who’s the summit of his ambition: though this time it’s simply because his friend Tom (Robert Lindsay) got there first.  Geeson’s character, Nikki, is a stripper, yet she’s one of the few women in the film who remains clothed throughout.  At one point Joe goes to pick her up from the club where she works in the hope of seeing her act, but misses it and instead sees her colleague Helga (Anna Bergman, daughter of Ingmar, who would star alongside Evans in the sitcom Mind Your Language from the following year.  She only has one line in Taxi Driver: “Ouija board? What Ouija board?”).  After a game of “strip spin the bottle”, Joe and Helga end up in bed, where they’re discovered by Joe’s fiancĂ©e Carol (Adrienne Posta).

As in Mulberry Bush, Posta (who also sings the theme song, which designates the hero as a “Cruising Casanova”) represents a fate from which Evans’ character is trying to escape.  In the earlier film she was the slow-witted, common-as-muck former classmate of Jamie’s, his abortive attempt at seducing her demonstrating to him how far up the social scale his grammar school education had taken him.  Here, her character’s only purpose is to drag Joe down, to entrap him in a clearly unwanted marriage.  Carol also keeps her clothes on, though the sense is that for Joe at least this is a mercy.  Despite her role as the conventional, marriage-minded girl, Posta’s look – cropped peroxide hair and Bride of Frankenstein makeup – is pure punk.  She looks, quite literally, a fright.
The final cast member of Mulberry Bush to turn up in these reduced circumstances is Angela Scoular[1].  As in the earlier film, she’s one of the girls who the hero dallies with along the way (though this time with considerably more success).  In Mulberry Bush she was a hoot as upper-crust featherbrain Caroline.  Here she’s given the generic role of a housewife customer who Joe ends up sharing a bath with, only for it to be interrupted by the premature arrival of her husband.  He’s a grey executive played by Brian Wilde (one of several sitcom stars making an appearance), who voices his disapproval of a colleague who “runs a Ford Anglia and doesn’t play golf” while Jamie hides underwater, almost drowning.  Other conquests during the course of the film include posh Prudence Drage and a suicidal young woman played by Jane Hayden, lookalike sister of Confessions of a Window Cleaner star Linda (as if to underline the point, her character’s called Linda).  Joe talks her down from Lambeth Bridge and takes her home to deliver his own brand of comfort.  Her husband turns up too – he’s played by Dad’s Army’s Ian Lavender. 

There’s also a “narrow escape” with female impersonator Bunny McQueen (Stephen Riddle), whose sex Joe only discovers when he reaches a hand up his skirt (the response to this is comparatively free of homophobia, Joe simply pondering to camera “I wonder if I could have him done under the trades descriptions act?”).  Intriguingly, Joe seems to fancy Bunny more than any of the actual women he meets.  Could his claim that Bunny’s (fake) breasts are the “most wonderfully shaped” be a subtle reference to the unrealistic expectations men have of women? (It’s unlikely).  Liz Fraser connects the Adventures films with their Carry On forebears (and also to the Confessions films, the next instalment of which she’ll appear in) as a gossipy prostitute who regularly sees clients in Jamie’s cab (one of the film’s rudest jokes has her going down on a city gent in the back of the car when Jamie has to brake quickly: the man’s anguished gasps are accompanied by a close-up of an advert for Jaws).

Adventures of a Taxi Driver is clearly a response to Columbia’s massively successful Confessions films (though made for a fraction of the cost), although Stanley Long played this down, insisting his films were based on “comic truth” rather than the slapstick of the rival films.  Disingenuous as this sounds, there’s some truth in it, particularly in the kitchen sink feel of the scenes at home with the North family (as far down market from the suburban, lower middle class McGregors as Adventures of a Taxi Driver is from Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush): resentful single mother (Diana Dors in full-on fishwife mode), thieving brother Peter (Marc Harrison, star of spooky kids’ show Sky, minus the wig and freaky contact lenses) and lawless baby sister.  What little plot the film features between its set pieces revolves around Joe leaving the family home to move in with Tom and Nikki, and becoming unwillingly involved with a gang of thieves that includes both Tom and Peter.  Evans makes a more engaging (and attractive) sexcom lead than most, in turn helping to make Adventures of a Taxi Driver more engaging and attractive than many of its contemporaries.

  •  Other familiar faces in the cast include On the Buses star Stephen Lewis in a brief cameo as a strip club doorman and Jack Haig, who’d later become best known as useless spy LeClerc in ‘Allo, Allo!, uncredited for his tiny role as a priest.
  • The film begins with a spoof documentary-style celebration of the London cabbie, with a voiceover from David Brierley, who’d stand in as the voice of robot dog K9 for the 1979-80 series of Doctor Who.
  •   Michael Armstrong, who wrote most of the film’s script uncredited, appears briefly  as a customer of Joe’s, while another key figure in British sexploitation, Pete Walker, has a cameo as a Rolls Royce driver.

[1] Several other young cast members from Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, including Christopher Timothy, Nicky Henson and the above-mentioned Diane Keen would also turn up in 70s sex comedies, though as with Robert Lindsay in Adventures of a Taxi Driver they were stopping off on the way to more respectable TV fame.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Adventures of a Private Eye (1977)

A beautiful young woman is targeted by a mysterious blackmailer.  She turns to a private detective for help and he finds himself drawn into a web of intrigue, murder and bare breasts involving a sinister, cursed family and a night club run by gangsters.  It could be the plot of one of the Italian giallo films Suzy Kendall starred in during the 70s, but in fact it belongs to a film she made back home in Britain that’s about as far from a giallo as it’s possible to get.  Other than the bare breasts.

Laura Sutton (Kendall) could be about to lose out on an inheritance from her octogenarian millionaire fiancĂ© Ashley Grimsdyke when she’s threatened over some explicit photos of her being unfaithful with Bless This House’s Robin Stewart.  The private eye she seeks out is Judd Blake (Jon Pertwee, associated in the public mind with mystery as host of TV panel game Whodunnit?).  But he’s just gone abroad, so his inept assistant Bob West takes charge of the case instead.  His name’s clearly a riff on that of Joe North, hero of Stanley Long's previous film Adventures of a Taxi Driver, but Barry Evans passed up the chance to appear in the follow-up (though he starred in the even further downmarket Under the Doctor the same year) and was replaced by Christopher Neil, whose sexcom pedigree included roles in The Sex Thief and the Stanley Long-produced Eskimo Nell.  Neil also sings the film’s theme song, which he co-wrote with Paul Nicholas, whose hits “Dancing with the Captain” and “Grandma’s Party” Neil was also partly to blame for.

As if to compensate for being taken off theme song duty this time round, Adrienne Posta performs two numbers in her role as Lisa Moroni, an unsubtle spoof of Liza Minnelli.  “Make my pendulums swing,” she demands in one of them, and sure enough we get to see her pendulums in full swing in the very next scene.  Several other members of Long’s “repertory company” also return from the first Adventures film: Ian Lavender gets a bigger role this time around as Bob’s friend Derek, who does most of the actual detecting alongside Bob’s comically “ugly” secretary Maud Gubbidge (future Coronation Street star Veronica Doran) while Bob has various cack-handed encounters with loose women.  One of these is Angela Scoular, another returnee, once again playing a lustful housewife, this time with a very unattractive grey perm.  Diana Dors is back too, popping up for one scene only as a charwoman, and sporting the same vividly floral tabard she wore in Taxi Driver.  Finally, Liz Fraser plays eccentric vegetarian Violet, one of the dysfunctional Grimsdyke clan who are the prime blackmail suspects.  The other family members are boggle-eyed lecher Harry H Corbett, bonkers psychic Anna Quayle and buxom (and seemingly dubbed) Linda Regan.  In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Neil and Regan have sex in a boat in full view of a rowing team (Neil’s manhood can be briefly spotted in this sequence).

As you might expect, the mystery plot is a wholly perfunctory excuse to string together a lot of a comic sketches: the final denouement, arrived at by Lavender, Doran and seedy reporter Willie Rushton, is rushed, barely comprehensible, and intercut with vivid images of Neil escaping from Posta’s mafia boyfriend (head Tomorrow Person Nicholas Young) disguised as an Arab woman.  For reasons too baffling to recount, he ends up naked in an open grave, at a funeral.  Still, it’s one of the most agreeable films of its type, with a couple of truly wonderful moments.  One of these has Fred Emney, in his final film role, being absolutely hilarious as a sozzled aristocrat trying to get into the knickers of a dragged-up Christopher Neil.  The other sees Neil, on his way to dispose of a body, waylaid by yet another horny housewife (Hilary Pritchard), whose voracious consumption of “sex films” has led her to believe that all passing men are up for it.  And it seems she’s not wrong (“I would have suggested Deep Throat, but I tried it with the window cleaner last week and nearly choked myself”).   It’s a return to the satire of the porn industry writer Michael Armstrong had previously given us in Eskimo Nell.

Adventures of a Private Eye saves its most grimly memorable moment for its final scene: Pertwee returns from Beirut and tells everybody how bloody obvious everything was all along while in the nude (he’s getting a massage).  Then a desk fan falls on his crotch after Bob trips over a wire.  I imagine there wasn’t a dry eye in any house where this film played.


·         Other familiar faces in the cast include Irene Handl (doing her posh voice) as a nosy neighbour called Miss Friggin, Rocky Horror Picture Show star Jonathan Adams as Angela Scoular’s police inspector husband, and Peter Moran (later Grange Hill’s Pogo Patterson) as their young son (who’s named Willy, purely so his father can exclaim “What a big Willy I’ve got!”).  Richard Caldicot, who plays the Grimsdykes’ butler, co-starred with Jon Pertwee on radio in The Navy Lark for many years.