Friday, 21 August 2015

Road to St Tropez (1966)

Wendy Richard and Raquel Welch are maybe not names that you'd normally put together, but they're the two women with whom Mike Sarne will always be linked.  In 1962 he and the future Pauline Fowler reached number one with 'Come Outside', which I'm sure you know. 

A change of career later Sarne directed Raquel Welch in the film adaptation of Gore Vidal's Myra Breckinridge, which ever since its release has been recognised near-universally as one of the worst films ever made. Road to St Tropez, an enjoyable bit of fluff, was the first thing Sarne directed (he also wrote and sang the theme tune - although Wendy Richard's distinctive vocals are sadly absent).  It's a curious blend of travel documentary, comedy and drama: Fenella Fielding reads us a cheerily ironic commentary over images of the sights of the French Riviera that should delight any fans of Stella Artois adverts, interwoven with a perfunctory and mainly silent romantic drama.  The commentary subtly mocks a very chic Melissa Stribling (Mina in Hammer's Dracula), a lonely traveller who picks up a beautiful couple of drifters (Gabriela Licudi and an especially gorgeous young Udo Kier) and embarks on a naive but temporarily blissful holiday romance with gigolo Udo after Gabriela's packed off on a plane.  It's basic, but charming and very lovely to look at.  Here are some Riviera postcards for you to enjoy:


Tip: anything you read on this blog will be more enjoyable if you imagine it being read by Fenella Fielding.  But then, let's face it, that's true of anything you'll ever read.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Twisted Nerve (1968)

“Ladies and gentlemen: in view of the controversy already aroused, the producers of this film wish to re-emphasise what is already stated in the film – that there is no established scientific connection between mongolism and psychotic or criminal behaviour” – the very serious announcement that opens Twisted Nerve.
Film making twins John and Roy Boulting are best known for their satires of the late 50s and early 60s: Private’s Progress, I’m All Right, Jack, etc. This psycho thriller is a bit of a departure for the pair. John produces and Roy directs: like their comedy The Family Way from a couple of years earlier it’s a vehicle for Roy’s future wife Hayley Mills, and as in that film she stars alongside a young, startlingly beautiful Hywel Bennett (he looks a bit like a sexy owl). In The Family Way they played an innocent young married couple unable to consummate their marriage because of Bennett’s sexual hang-ups. Martin, the character he plays in Twisted Nerve, has sexual hang-ups of his own, and they’re a lot more dangerous. Twisted Nerve’s one of a trio of British films (the others being Goodbye Gemini and Straight On Till Morning, both from 1970) that make up a very specific little subgenre: stories about pretty blond boy-men with murderous Twisted Nerve (1968)tendencies. They’re all direct descendants of Psycho and Peeping Tom, but it’s in Twisted Nerve the lineage is most obvious: Peeping Tom’s writer Leo Marks co-wrote the Twisted Nerve screenplay with Roy Boulting (Mills and Bennett’s relationship in Twisted Nerve’s vaguely reminiscent of Carl Boehm and Anna Massey’s in the older film), and like Psycho it’s got an unforgettable score by Bernard Herrmann. In fact, Herrmann’s haunting, whistled theme is far better known than the film itself, having been given a new lease of life by Quentin Tarantino’s use of it in Kill Bill (and, more recently, it was heavily featured in the first series of American Horror Story). It turns up here in several variations, including a wonderfully silly party version and a slowed down, oddly circus-like version used for the film’s denouement.
Twisted Nerve (1968)Aside from the music, the best thing about the film is Bennett’s remarkable performance. Martin’s a spoilt, indolent rich kid who nonetheless is haunted by the fate of his older brother, placed in an institution by their mother (Phyllis Calvert), unable to cope with (but mostly just embarrassed by) his Down’s Syndrome (or ‘mongolism’, in the now rather awkward 60s terminology). When we first see him, visiting his brother, he seems like a perfectly ordinary young man. Next time we meet him, he’s disconcertingly different. He’s invented another persona, the childlike ‘simpleton’ Georgie, which he uses to charm library assistant Susan (Hayley Mills), and, when his exasperated stepfather’s had enough and chucks him out (which eventually Martin takes bloody revenge for), to inveigle his way into her home. Bennett is convincingly innocent as Georgie, and his sudden switches to snarling, dangerous Martin are truly chilling. The split personality angle’s heavy-handedly underlined by his tendency to strip off and fondle himself in front of a mirror. There’s a stack of musclemen magazines nearby to act as a casually homophobic signal that he’s a bit odd sexually.
Twisted Nerve (1968)Susan’s the only person Martin shows any sexual interest toward though – although her slightly tarty mother Joan (Billie Whitelaw) meets a sticky end after a clumsy attempt at seducing him. The sight of Susan helping to dress a clearly aroused Martin, secure in the belief he’s completely unsexual, is the film’s queasiest moment, but dodgy as the premise of someone pretending to be learning disabled might seem, the main problem with the film is that it’s not offensive enough. It’s far too restrained and genteel, and despite its obvious channelling of Hitchcock (most bizarrely when, in an echo of the ending of Psycho, Hywel Bennett starts speaking in the badly dubbed voice of Phyllis Calvert) it’s seriously lacking in suspense. Interestingly, as well as echoing one Hitchcock film, Twisted Nerve foreshadows another: Barry Foster’s Gerry, Joan’s lodger/lover, is an only slightly more benign version of Bob Rusk, the jolly psycho he plays in Frenzy. Gerry works for a film distributor (presumably based in Soho), and is a type you can sense Twisted Nerve’s makers looking down their noses at: “If you want me to sell your crummy films, you’ve gotta give it a dose of the old S&V – sex and violence! Cartoon, ice cream, the old S&V, and everyone’s happy.” If Gerry had been involved with the making of Twisted Nerve it probably wouldn’t look or sound as good, and it certainly wouldn’t have such a top-drawer cast. But I can’t help thinking it would have been a lot more lively.

Night After Night After Night (1969)

Lewis J Force, the curiously named director of Night, After Night, After Night is in fact Britsploitation stalwart Lindsay Shonteff under an assumed name. Take the fact that the man at the helm of such trashfests as Permissive and Big Zapper didn’t want his own name attached to this film as a warning. Night, After Night, After Night is an hour and a half of wallowing in sleaze, and a fine example of the bright lights of the swinging 60s dimming to the gloom that would dominate British cinema in the 70s (even in films that weren’t meant to be gloomy). It’s a genuine B movie, from second feature specialists Butcher’s Film Distributors, and to some degree it feels like an update of another Butcher’s film, Cover Girl Killer, from ten years earlier. Like that film it features a crazed moral crusader in a strange disguise targeting young women they see as depraved but, well, there was a hell of a lot more to make moral crusaders crazed in 1969 than there was in 1959.
Night After Night After Night (1969)Young women are being stabbed to death in London by a mysterious man clad in leather. The case is being investigated by Detective Inspector Rowan (Gilbert Wynne) and becomes very personal when his wife (Linda Marlowe) falls victim to the killer. She’s knifed in the shower, which is a bit of a mistake because the last thing an extremely modest film like this should be doing is reminding people how good Psycho was. Anyway, Rowan begins a vendetta against cocky scofflaw Pete Laver (Donald Sumpter), who he’s convinced is the man responsible. Laver’s attitude to the opposite sex is pretty repellent (“makin’ birds is like a career with me… I bang every bird I meet” – that’s an example of the ridiculous dialogue he gets throughout), but he’s not the only suspect.
Night After Night After Night (1969)Judge Charles Lomax (sepulchural-voiced Jack May, best known to my generation at least as the voice of Igor in Count Duckula and hamming it up a treat here) is a “modern witchfinder” obsessed with putting a stop to “the filth and horror of the age”. He hands out grotesquely disproportionate sentences to defendants he views as morally unsound and has a near breakdown after delivering each verdict. Could he have taken to handing out rough justice of his own? Then there’s his clerk, Carter (Terry Scully, whose shifty appearance is perfectly used here) whose ringing denunciations of the permissive society draw even Lomax’s disdain for their extremity, but who spends his spare time goggling at porn mags and pawing at strippers in the fleshpits of Soho.
The killer’s identity, it must be said, doesn’t come as a massive surprise. And as the reveal comes half an hour before the film’s ending, we’re left with 30 minutes of him going increasingly barmy (including a strange incident of him dressing in appalling drag to evade police and then encountering some queerbashing youths who he swiftly turns the tables on) while Rowan and his colleagues encounter various obstacles in getting to him.
Night After Night After Night (1969)Night, After Night, After Night is not, in itself, a very fulfilling film (unless, perhaps, you’re especially keen on long scenes of heavy petting) but it’s an interesting one in terms of its place in British horror cinema. It revives the themes of Cover Girl Killer and Peeping Tom from ten years before but also looks ahead to the corrupt moral guardians of Pete Walker’s House of Whipcord and House of Mortal Sin. In fact, watching Night, After Night, After Night I found myself regularly thinking how much more frightening and wittier it would have been with Walker and his screenwriter David McGillivray behind the scenes. It can also be seen in terms of a sort of crude British version of the Italian giallo film. That seems almost an inherently funny idea, British filmmakers’ attitudes to sex and violence being generally so different from Italians’ – and certainly Night, After Night, After Night has no trace of the stylishness that makes gialli interesting. But while its killer doesn’t wear black leather gloves, he wears black leather everything else, and its plot’s as easy to imagine unfolding in the glamorously violent world of Dario Argento and his compatriots as it is against the grottier backdrop of a Butcher’s B-feature. Of course if it was a giallo it would need a far more absurd title: in deference to the most eccentric part of the murderer’s get-up it would surely have to be Death Wears a Beatle Wig.

Scream and Scream Again (1969)

Yes, it’s a thoroughly generic title that could have been applied to any horror film ever made, but then a more specific title would probably have been just as confusing as the film itself. Scream and Scream Again is based on a novel by Peter Saxon (a pseudonym used by various writers of horror and sci-fi fiction in the 60s) called The Disorientated Man, and that’s a pretty good description of any man who sits down to watch Scream and Scream Again. For such a thoroughly commercial movie – it was a co-production between Britain’s Amicus Films and Hollywood’s American International Pictures – it’s got a pretty ambitious narrative structure. We’re given seemingly unconnected events in disparate locations, and the connection between them only slowly becomes clear (for some viewers, anyway. Others are left scratching their heads as the credits roll). This approach is largely down to screenwriter Christopher Wicking, confusing scripts for horror films being his stock in trade: see also Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb and Demons of the Mind – but Gordon Hessler’s psychedelic direction plays its part in baffling the viewer too.
Vincent Price & Michael Gothard - Scream and Scream Again (1969) The puzzle pieces dished out to us: a runner (played, fans of cult TV may be interested to know, by Nigel Lambert, who did the voiceover for spoof schools programme Look Around You) collapses in central London and wakes to find himself in a private hospital ward complete with sinister/sexy nurse, and a new limb amputated every time we cut back to him (wonderfully bizarre, this). Also in London, Superintendent Bellaver (Alfred Marks) is investigating the murder of a girl whose body was drained of blood. The trail leads to her employer, the rather shifty Dr Browning (Vincent Price). And in an unnamed militaristic state (presumably in Eastern Europe somewhere) the seemingly superhuman Konratz (the rather wooden Marshall Jones, hilarious later in the film stalking the streets of London in a bobble hat) is letting nothing and nobody stand in the way of him seizing power, disposing of superiors who get in his way (including Peters Cushing and Sallis) with a deadly shoulder squeeze.
Vincent Price - Scream and Scream Again (1969) The international intrigue elements of the film are a bit dull – the London sections are much more interesting, greatly benefiting from a droll performance from Marks, playing one of a long line of disgruntled detectives who pop up in British horror films. The gold standard is Donald Pleasence in Death Line, but Marks’ splendidly gruff Bellaver comfortably takes silver. The film’s most memorable character, however, is the mysterious Keith (Michael Gothard) the man behind the vampire murders (sorry for the spoiler, it’s not much of one). A louche dandy with an enormous blond bouffant and ruffled purple satin shirt, he’s the world’s most Swinging 60s looking person. We initially encounter him in the regulation 60s nightclub scene, which is pretty impressive here – the club looks huge and it’s chock-full of people dancing extremely self-consciously in wonderfully absurd outfits. The Amen Corner (of “If Paradise is Half as Nice” fame) are on stage, and their set obligingly includes a catchy number called “Scream and Scream Again”. However, a few rather too close shots of the singer reveal he’s not even opening his mouth. This club is where Keith picks up his victims, who he then brutally rapes and kills. One of them turns out to be an undercover policewoman, and this leads to the film’s main set piece, an incredibly long but pretty absorbing chase sequence that dominates the whole middle section of the film. This sequence is so lengthy compared to the head-spinning speed of the first part of the film that it throws Scream and Scream Again off balance, with scarcely half an hour left to explain what the hell’s going on.
Peter Cushing - Scream and Scream Again (1969) What the hell is going on? Well, I won’t spoil it for you – Scream and Scream Again is definitely worth a watch even if you can’t quite get your head round it. But it all winds up with a glut of exposition from Price (though  there’s nobody I’d rather listen to a glut of exposition from) and a pretty perfunctory twist ending.
Scream and Scream Again’s main selling point was that it featured the big three horror stars of the time – Price, Cushing, and Christopher Lee – all together for the first time. It’s a con really, as only Price has more than a cameo (Cushing’s the worst served, with less than five minutes on screen before falling victim to Konratz’s deadly grip), and though Lee and Price have a scene together it’s more than a tad suspicious that they’re not seen in the same shot.
It’s difficult to see Scream and Scream Again as anything other than a confusing mess, but it is one hell of a confusing mess.

The Sorcerers (1967)

It's not unusual for a marriage to disintegrate from loving companionship into bitter battle of wills, but in The Sorcerers it happens both more quickly and more literally than usual. The film revolves around a trio of characters, linked in an ingenious way: Marcus and Estelle Monserrat are an elderly couple living a meagre existence in a dingy flat that seems a world away from the nightspots haunted by handsome swinging Londoner Mike (director Michael Reeves’ regular hero Ian Ogilvy) – although the film’s low budget means the nightclub setting seems scarcely less grotty than the Monserrats’ home. Marcus (a perfectly shabby, weary-looking Boris Karloff, seeming nothing like a Hollywood star on a visit home) is a medical hypnotist whose claims of his lasting fame are belied by his need to advertise in a poky local newsagent’s. Estelle (Catherine Lacey) is a loving companion who has patiently gone without as Marcus spent a fortune on building a bizarre machine in their spare room. Marcus’ quest for a subject to try his mysterious apparatus out on brings him into contact with jaded, thrill seeking Mike. Their late night meeting in a Wimpy bar (one of a series of joyous period bits, including a stack of Nova magazines and Cliff Richard’s “In the Country” on the radio) seems like an uneasy pick-up – “I could offer you an unusual evening,” Marcus promises, “some extraordinary experiences” – but Mike’s game enough to go along with it.
The Sorcerers (1967) Marcus and Estelle hook Mike up to the machine, and several minutes of strange noises and a very 1967 light show later, they’re able both to control his actions and feel every sensation he does. Idealistic Marcus has conceived this as a way of allowing old people a new lease of life by letting them share the experiences of the young – and the couple’s initial excitement is rather sweet: the first thing they do is send Mike swimming. But a quick dip isn’t enough, for Estelle at least. Marcus shares the viewer’s horror as it emerges that far from the sweet little old lady she first appeared, Estelle is a monster.  Estelle is one of the most frightening characters in any horror film: because she’s one of the most believable. Seemingly kind and gentle, as soon as she’s offered the opportunity to do anything she likes without consequence she seizes it with both hands, gleefully making Mike steal, viciously attack his friend Alan, and finally murder two girls (including anextremely young Susan George). There’s an uneasy message in all this to us, the audience, sat here experiencing all this violence on screen with no threat to ourselves.
The Sorcerers (1967) Having been denied pleasure for so many years, Estelle’s impulses easily override Marcus’s more benign ones, and he helplessly finds her gaining complete control of Mike. Catherine Lacey’s performance is just incredible: her transformation from meek housewife to blood-crazed harpy is horribly convincing (the highlight perhaps being her queasily post-coital sigh of “that was the best yet” after she forces Mike to beat up Alan). And poor, good-natured, bewildered Marcus is one of the finest performances of Karloff’s career. It’s a real achievement of Reeves and his actors that The Sorcerers’ most compelling scenes consist of two old people talking.
If there’s one thing central to swinging London films it’s youth. Older people might turn up as local colour in the form of Irene Handl or Arthur Mullard but they’re rarely more than caricatures. This is what makes The Sorcerers startling even now: it’s one of the few films of the era that addresses the feelings of old people left behind by a society geared to the desires of the young. The film’s view of the older generation is stark and unsentimental, but it acknowledges that they’re people with desires as noble or as depraved as those of the young.

Goodbye Gemini (1970)

Alan Gibson is probably best known for two films he directed for Hammer: that masterpiece of kitsch Dracula A.D. 1972 and its much more sober sequel The Satanic Rites of Dracula.  Goodbye Gemini is an earlier Gibson effort that shares A.D. 1972’s setting of a swinging London past its best, but not its cartoonish feel.  The revellers in A.D. 1972 are crazy kids led astray by their craving for new kinds of fun; the denizens of Goodbye Gemini’s London are jaded deviants for whom fun is probably a distant memory.  It’s hard to imagine a character like Freddie Jones’s laconically malicious queen in Gemini reacting to the suggestion of a black mass with more than a stifled yawn.
Infantile but strangely endearing twins Jacki and Julian (Judy Geeson and Martin Potter) are innocents abroad in this decadent metropolis, but there’s a very dark side to their love of childish games.  Moving in to a palatial flat owned by their distant father, they’ve no compunction in removing the grim housekeeper when she threatens to limit their fun.  An accident on the stairs involving the twins’ ever-present teddy bear Agamemnon is arranged shortly after they move in: we don’t find out if the poor woman survives it but she and her spoilsport rules aren’t seen again.
The twins are disturbingly close, but while Julian’s attempts at molesting Jacki show he loves her in a more than brotherly way, she’s becoming more interested in their new acquaintance Clive.  He’s a debonair bisexual hustler who runs “queer boy circuses”, he’s played by The Prisoner’s Alexis Kanner and despite his ridiculous sideburns and even more absurd accent he’s probably the sexiest character called Clive in film history.  In a fascinating scene for anyone familiar with London’s gay scene the twins first meet Clive at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern,  where popular drag act of the time (and a quick Google reveals he’s still going) Ricky Renee is stripping on the bar: a clear sign of the queer world they’re being dragged into.  It’s a world Vito Russo, author of the influential study of gay characters in cinema The Celluloid Closet, would have been unimpressed by, but which from this distance seems more bizarre than offensive.
It’s a world of non-stop partying, where the twins become a sort of sideshow attraction to onlookers including Freddie Jones and Terry Scully giving it their all as a bitchy gay couple and Michael Redgrave lending a touch of class as a furtive MP who becomes quietly obsessed with them.  Clive quickly gets fed up with Julian’s possessiveness of his sister, so he decides to seduce the brother as well.  In the film’s most startling scene Clive brings Julian to a hotel room where he’s raped by two drag queens (including the above mentioned Mr Renee) as Clive gleefully photographs the whole thing.  His plan to use the photos to blackmail Julian so he can pay charmingly world-weary gangster Mike Pratt goes a bit wrong, however, and he soon falls victim to one of the twins’ little games.
Appropriately enough, Goodbye Gemini is a film of two halves: the first half, climaxing in the twins’ terrifying ritual murder of Clive, fizzes with energy and interesting characters, and is thoroughly absorbing.  Sadly after that it all comes unstuck.  Somewhat implausibly, considering her cheerful connivance in offing the housekeeper, Jacki’s role in Clive’s death causes her a mental breakdown: she loses her memory and spends most of the rest of the film wandering around London in a balaclava looking for her brother while Michael Redgrave behaves terribly concerned.  Alexis Kanner’s such a weirdly charismatic presence that once he’s gone nobody really seems to know what to do.  The film meanders to a talky conclusion and it’s all just horribly disappointing.
One thing that doesn’t disappoint is the film’s frankly incredible soundtrack.  The film kicks off with the Peddlers performing the thrillingly funky “Tell the World We’re Not In” over the credits and Christopher Gunning’s score bears comparison with Roy Budd’s music from the same year’s Get Carter.  The music played at the parties in the film is music that would still sound bloody amazing at parties now.  A re-release is more than overdue.

Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly (1970)

The best thing about Halliwell’s Film Guide is the capsule reviews that read like the work of a disapproving Victorian maiden aunt.  The verdict on Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly is my absolute favourite: “Revolting black comedy for masochists, representing the British cinema at its lowest ebb”.  Wow – who wouldn’t watch a film that inspires a write-up like that?
Halliwell’s ideas of what makes for a good British film are obviously very different from mine – and probably yours too as you’re visiting this blog.
Girly (as the title was abbreviated to in the US) is surely one of the most unusual and most entertaining of all British horror films – as well as one of the most thoroughly British.  What does that mean? Well, for goodness’ sake, it’s got toasted teacakes and a Sooty doll in it! In short, it’s a film that’s got ‘Cult Classic’ stamped on every frame.
The nightmare of family life is frequently explored in 70s horror films: Girly takes a different tack from most by using the idealised English middle class family and its way of life as a gloriously macabre joke.  The family at the centre of this film are psychopaths, yes, but happy psychopaths – because they live by the rules.  These rules are handed down by supremely smug matriarch Mumsy (Ursula Howells), who’s aided in enforcing them by the not-terribly-bright Nanny (Pat Heywood).  They’re obeyed implicitly by the dear children (actually grown-up, but clad in school uniform with behaviour to match) Sonny and Girly (Howard Trevor and Vanessa Howard).  Some of the guests who the children find to bring back to the family’s big house (homeless men and bewildered drunks) are more troublesome, though, and frequent rule-breaking guarantees a trip on the train to see the angels…
The family’s happiness is jeopardised by the arrival of a new friend (Michael Bryant).  A drunken reveller picked up by the children, he’s accidentally responsible for the death of his girlfriend (Imogen Hassall, whose elegant beauty’s too much of a contrast to the film’s nursery rhyme world for her to stay around for long) during one of their games, and blackmailed into becoming the family’s new house guest.  But he turns out to be far more cunning than previous visitors, and by skilfully twisting the rules to his own ends and exploiting the unspoken tensions behind the family’s jolly façade, he proves just as dangerous as they are.
Bryant’s great as the unwilling guest who eventually realises he can have a lot of fun with the women of the household, seducing them and playing them off against each other (personally I’d have liked to see him have a crack at the fey Sonny as well) – and it could be argued there’s a misogynistic agenda here, the female-dominated family perverted through lack of a father figure and the new friend putting things back to how they should be.  But the film’s strongest (and deadliest) character turns out to be Girly.  Vanessa Howard’s compelling performance regularly shifts from wide-eyed innocent to naughty schoolgirl to self-assured young woman, and her response to the new friend’s reassurances after he’s taken her virginity (he assumes) is to coldly spit “don’t be so bloody naïve” – a jolting moment that brings the whole nature of what’s really going on in that house into question.  It’s never clear quite who has the upper hand in their relationship, and the film’s ending preserves the ambiguity.
Freddie Francis’s career as a director is to say the least a bit uneven, but Girly’s one of its highlights.  The film’s scenes of violence are few, but Francis makes those literalising children’s games startling and highly effective (especially the “Tony Chestnut” scene – you’ll see what I mean).  I haven’t read Maisie Mosco’s play Happy Family, which the film was based on (I don’t think it’s ever been published in book form) so I don’t know how much the film differs from it (though I’d guess that it ups the violence a bit), but the screenplay by Brian Comport is packed with grim humour, whether his own or Mosco’s.
One of the strangest things about the film is how oddly hip the family’s little world now looks, with its broken dolls and twee Edwardiana (the work of art director Maggie Pinhorn and set decorator Dimity Collins – brilliant names, the pair of them).  Mumsy and Girly’s wardrobes both look pretty trendy now as well, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see either of them swanning around the streets of Brighton  (but with a few more tattoos).

Crucible of Horror (1970)

At the end of the 60s, ‘anti-psychiatrist’ R D Laing’s ideas about the family as an oppressive institution causing untold psychological damage to its members started to filter down into popular culture.  Makers of horror films took them up with particular aplomb, and in the 70s unhealthy family relationships become as much of a horror cliché as fog-shrouded graveyards were in previous decades.  They’re at the centre of some of the most interesting British horrors of the time, including Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and GirlyGoodbye GeminiDemons of the MindThe Creeping FleshFrightmare – and this little curio.
An arty, small-scale project, it was the brainchild of director Viktors Ritelis and actor Olaf Pooley, who wrote it and also pops up as a suspicious neighbour.  The film’s original title was The Corpse.  That’s a creepy and appropriate enough title but in their infinite wisdom the film’s American distributors retitled it Crucible of Horror (“crucible” is one of those words that sounds good in a horror film title even if it doesn’t have much to do with the film: see also the Mike Raven extravaganza Crucible of Terror – although that was called Unholy Terror in the US).
Michael Gough gives a pretty restrained performance (by his standards) as domestic tyrant Walter Eastwood.  The first indication we get that his relationship with his teenage daughter Jane (Sharon Gurney) is a bit out of the ordinary is the sight of him furtively squeezing her bike seat shortly after she’s dismounted.
The second is the sight of him beating her senseless with a riding crop after  learning she’s stolen money from the local golf club (and aroused the interest of its lecherous proprietor).
Jane gets no sympathy from her brother Rupert, an odious creep who idolises his father despite or because of his general terrorising of the family (and is played by Gough’s real-life son Simon).  Mother Edith (Yvonne Mitchell) retreats from her nightmarish home life into her room, where she paints monstrous portraits of Walter.
The family’s strained dinner table conversation, full of subtle putdowns that wouldn’t be out of place in an Ivy Compton-Burnett novel, makes for uneasy viewing.  “Oh God,” says Rupert, on realising he’s forgotten to buy a canvas for his mother.  “I hardly think He would be interested”, Edith replies with subtle self-pity.  Her face perfectly communicating a lifetime of disappointment, Mitchell’s brilliant performance is the heart of the film: Edith’s faraway manner conceals a burning hatred for her husband that quietly comes to a head after the assault on Jane.  “Let’s kill him,” she says to her daughter at breakfast the morning after, and it’s her lack of emotion that makes it such a heartrending moment.
Edith and Jane follow Walter on a shooting weekend at the family’s country retreat, where Edith shoots her husband after explaining she’s been inspired by reading the Marquis de Sade in an effort to understand how his mind works: “it’s full of the most unutterable filth, but it opened a few windows for me”.  Walter’s fear of his impending death is outweighed by his sheer outrage that his wife would dare handle one of his firearms.  The women’s efforts to make the death look like an accident afford us the sight of a half-naked Michael Gough, something perhaps few people have ever wanted to see.
But Walter proves no easier to handle in death than he did in life, his body disappearing and reappearing in disturbing fashion, leading to a creepy and entirely inexplicable conclusion.  Meanwhile, Edith’s decaying mental state’s conveyed to us through the kind of psychedelic dream sequence that’s always a highlight of films from this era.
This probably isn’t everyone’s idea of a classic horror film: anyone drawn in by the title and John Hotchkis’s utterly generic horror music (it sounds more like the theme to Dark Shadows than anything else) might be driven up the wall by the self-conscious artiness, the many talky scenes and the lack of any especially gruesome moments, let alone the lack of explanation for the strange goings-on.  But it’s a disturbingly pessimistic portrait of middle-class family life as an inescapable prison, with a steadily mounting atmosphere of dread.
The current US DVD release of Crucible of Horror has absolutely diabolical picture quality, and the sound’s no better.  If ever an obscure British film deserved to be given a brush-up by the BFI’s Flipside department it’s this one.
Oh, and even more inexplicable than the film’s ending is the presence of this in the Eastwood home:

Yes – it’s a Michael Gough mask! Why these aren’t readily available in the shops is beyond me: I don’t know about you but I now want one of these more than anything else on Earth.


Shadows is usually admirably spooky (when it doesn't get sidetracked into the realm of twee fantasy), but Ewart Alexander's The Eye, directed by Neville Green, is the only episode that's genuinely scary, even for an adult viewer (well this adult viewer, anyway).  With its  weird atmosphere and  unfathomable story (seemingly) involving something gone wrong with time it feels more than anything like a Sapphire and Steel story a few years early.  But there are no clever trans-dimensional agents to help out the kids caught up in this nightmare (and the feeling of being caught up in a nightmare is exactly what The Eye evokes).

In a rain-lashed house in Wales (decorated with several varieties of truly startling 70s wallpaper), nervous teenager Steve is frantically trying to tidy up before his dad's return home.  Meanwhile his creepy sister George sits in the dark, staring at the pictures of historical figures pinned to her bedroom wall, and murmuring about time.

Steve's made uneasy by the strange atmosphere given off by a Greek urn in the hall commemorating the mythical blind wanderer Stratos.  George is almost as obsessed with this as with her pictures from the past, and has taken up smashing crockery to make a huge mosaic of Stratos in the garage.  As she seems to drift further into her own little world, Steve is increasingly terrified by strange sounds and images that fill the house, centred (for a reason that's never explained) on an over-boiling saucepan on the stove.

Eventually Dad arrives home - or does he? The figure that enters the house is wearing his bike gear, but is silent (apart from some scary heavy breathing) and apparently unable to see.  And it seems to be searching for something...

What's going on in The Eye might be anyone's guess, but thanks to its weird, almost subliminal spectral images, a memorably  frightening monster and John Sanderson's convincingly terror-stricken performance as Steve it becomes a classic of TV horror .

Deer Grandad

The opening titles of Shadows bring the supernatural into the modern (for 1976) age of the high-rise.  They're especially appropriate for The Inheritance, an episode written by Josephine Poole that contrasts that world unfavourably with the mysterious old ways of the countryside.

For many years Eli (John Barrett) has been a harbourer, or deer keeper, and is a countryman through and through.  He feels a deeper connection with his deer than with any human being.  But now he has a terminal illness, and goes to stay with his daughter Margaret (Priscilla Morgan) in the city, for what he knows will be his final days.  In contrast to the slow, quiet Eli Margaret symbolises all that's inane about the urban world, with her endless chatter and fascination with her television and electric blanket.  She's proud to have secured a job in an insurance firm for her school leaver son Martin (Dougal Rose), but Martin's only interest is nature, and it becomes clear that he and his grandfather are kindred spirits.

Eli tells Martin all about the ways of deer, and about the legendary horn dance, performed by antlered men, which he has always wanted to take part in.  Later, on a visit to the local park, Martin sees ghostly figures performing the dance - but there are only five, where there should be six.

You've probably guessed the ending already - Eli dies during the night, while Martin dreams about the dance again: this time all the dancers are present, and when it ends the sixth dancer is revealed as Eli.  Later Martin finds Eli's cottage and livelihood as harbourer has been left to him, and he takes it up, grateful to have escaped from a lifetime of insurance.

It's a slight story, but a quietly affecting one, and an example of how frequently themes of paganism, folk rituals and paeans to rural life turn up in 70s children's TV - see Children of the StonesSkyRavenThe Changes, etc. etc.    The negative dream-images of the horn dance are especially haunting and make The Inheritance more than worth watching in themselves.

Brutalist Nightmare

Hello.  Here are some images from the wonderfully strange and creepy opening titles to the second series of Thames' fantasy and supernatural show for kids, Shadows, first broadcast in 1976 - in which a crow turns into a block of flats and then various other disturbing things happen.