Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Tony Tenser: Quite a bit cheaper, quite a lot more fun

The death of producer Tony Tenser on December 5th this year robbed British cinema of one of the last, certainly one of the most important, living links with the sixties heyday of the British horror film.
Success to him meant commercial success. He once said he would rather feel ashamed of a movie that was making money than proud of one that was losing it, and when he explained "My films were in a similar vein to Hammer and Amicus but I made them quite a bit cheaper" he did so not matter of factly but with pride.
But as well as cheaper, they were also in many cases a lot more enjoyable.
In an odd little book called Skin Deep in Soho, writer Richard Wortley recalls approaching a film producer who "was actually puffing at a large cigar and greying neatly at the temples" with an idea to shoot a documentary on strip clubs.
He does not name him, but it is clearly Tenser:
He explained a method of beating the censor by using a rapid succession of nude stills, then scribbled a couple of selling titles on a piece of paper which he slipped across the table... We were in the presence of the master publicist who first described Brigitte Bardot as the Sex Kitten, who advertised a Lassie film at Cambridge by importing some animals for a sheep-dog trial, who renamed Love Between Friends as Love-Play Between Friends, and Plucking the Marguerittes as Mam'zelle Striptease...

A manual labourer before the war and an RAF technician during it, on demob Tenser exploited a family connection to get a job as a trainee cinema manager.
From that he worked his way up to head of publicity for Miracle Films (where he helped Bardot into posterity). Needing some strippers for a publicity stunt, he visited the Nell Gwynn strip club in Soho and met the manager, a man who - to quote Wortley again - had "seen a punter spend £30000 in eight months, nightly crawling on the floor in a hunting coat to pick up fruit that a singer was shaking off her body during her number."
The man was Michael Klinger - the manager, I mean, not the chap picking up fruit - and the two struck up a rapport that led to the formation first of the Compton cinema club (which circumnavigated censorship by catering only to members by private subscription) then to the production company Compton Films.
The earliest Compton products were mild sexploitation, coy nudist romps like Naked As Nature Intended and My Bare Lady and the likes of Saturday Night Out (1964), a quickie about a group of randy merchant seamen on shore leave that pulsated to the beat of The Searchers because Klinger and Tenser refused to pay the Beatles' train fare from Liverpool.
They also imported and distributed foreign titles, usually tame erotica but occasionally more prestigious fare, which they sold in exactly the same way. For instance, hiding among the smut in the advert reproduced on the left is an infuriating art-house classic. Can you spot it?

The move into horror production came with Black Torment (1964), a minor but pleasant supernatural melodrama, and a collaboration with Herman Cohen in the Sherlock-Holmes-meets-Jack-the-Ripper pastiche A Study in Terror (1965). But their big break came that same year, when they decided to bankroll a frankly unpromising script called Lovelihead by a cocky young Pole with little grasp of conversational English called Roman Polanski. Retitled Repulsion, this story of a woman going slowly mad in her London flat became a major critical success, winning the Silver Bear at Berlin and worldwide distribution from Columbia.
Not that the production went smoothly; Polanski's resentment of Klinger and Tenser's close attention to schedule and budget still simmers in his autobiography, where he calls them "figures on the fringe of the film industry" for whom he devised a film carefully punctuated with horrific moments because "anything too sophisticated would have scared them off". (This is the man who made Pirates.) As such he deliberately wasted time and money with fussy displays of perfectionism and fits of artistic temperament; when he took 27 takes of a cut-away showing a hand picking up a bottle of nail varnish (on a Sunday, with the crew on triple pay) Klinger had all 27 printed, invited Polanski to dinner, then furiously instructed him to identify which three he had okayed and why.
The acclaim that the film, and to a lesser degree Polanski's follow-up Cul De Sac (1966), achieved left Klinger disenchanted with the tawdry world of strippers and 'orror movies; he left in 1967 to form Michael Klinger Productions, going on to make Get Carter and the Confessions series. (He died in 1989.)
For Tenser it was back to business as usual, first as Tony Tenser Productions and then as Tigon.
He hired British veteran Vernon Sewell for my two favourite Tigon movies, the ludicrous The Blood Beast Terror (1967) and the absurd Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968). The first - and there's really no getting around this - is cinema's only weremoth movie, in which Wanda Ventham periodically transforms into a giant death's head moth that flaps about the English countryside drinking people's blood. Policeman Peter Cushing, with impeccable logic, lights a bonfire and poor Wanda is drawn to it like... well, you know what like. If that hadn't worked he would have presumably tried a ten-foot rolled newspaper.
Altar bags Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff and Barbara Steele as, respectively, surprise villain, wheelchair-bound red herring and green-skinned witch revealed at the end to be... no, that would be telling. (But it's good.) Gorgeously photographed in velvet-thick purples, reds and greens it is actually a rather beautiful film, shot entirely in Grimsdyke House, one-time home of Sir Arthur Sullivan. It could easily pass for Hammer, in fact, if not for the crazed plot and typical Tenser touches like having Virginia Wetherell likening the house to something from a horror film, to which Mark Eden adds that he keeps expecting Boris Karloff to pop up.

Tenser was generous in his employment of young, untested talent. (You never knew when they were going to give you a masterpiece - plus they came cheap.) Michael Armstrong had only made a 21-minute short called The Image when Tenser hired him to shoot a film called The Dark in 1969. Armstrong's snappy description of The Image as "a study of the illusionary reality within the schizophrenic mind of the artist at his point of creativity" was not perhaps best calculated to endear him to the one-time head of publicity at Miracle Films, but his script was good, and perhaps even at this stage Tenser knew that he'd change the title come release time.
The film, planned as "a cynical attack on the swinging sixties" emerged, after much re-editing and some reshoots overseen by Gerry O'Hara, as not much of a cynical attack on anything, other than audiences who like to know what's going on (and see it - it wasn't called The Dark for nothing.)
With Karloff in the cast as planned it would have been even weirder, especially when it was mooted that he be revealed as the knife-wielding killer in his wheelchair, but he sadly died and the grafted-on-irrelevant-character duties ended up shared between George Sewell and Dennis Price.
What finally appeared under the Tensertitle The Haunted House of Horror is a jolly, not entirely worthless anticipation of the American slashers of the late seventies, but it could have been a great film: listen to Armstrong's fascinating commentary on the DVD. Still what we have is great fun, with a lovely score by Reg Tilsley and that well-known Swinging London teenager Frankie Avalon heading what could be the greatest cast ever assembled: ex-Preminger protégée Jill Haworth, now British horror's most beautiful and underused screamer, Richard O'Sullivan with short hair and Robin Stewart from Bless This House (who according to Robin Askwith had once tried to excuse his lateness at a rehearsal by claiming that he had hit and killed an escaped camel).
But Tenser certainly got his money back on Michael Reeves, a rather pompous director in his early twenties who made the studio's biggest hit, Witchfinder General (1968) and the silly Karloff film The Sorcerers (1967).
There is plenty to admire in Witchfinder so long as you don't fall into the trap of seeing greatness in it, but both films are maddeningly overpraised. Reeves's naive, petulant response to a bad review by Alan Bennett - in which he claimed that his film was an attempt to show that "violence is horrible" and opined, hilariously, that the more lighthearted kind of horror film that "Mr Bennett... so strangely advocates is surely immoral to the extent of criminality"- is endlessly and approvingly quoted by genre writers.
Tenser responded to this brush with broadsheet respectability by continuing to green-light oddities like The Beast in the Cellar (1971) in which the mysterious beast tearing soldiers to pieces - that experts examining the bodies speculate may be an escaped leopard - is revealed to be a puny man with a beard and long fingernails that his sisters Beryl Reid and Flora Robson had locked in their cellar in 1939 so he wouldn't have to go to war
Neither the Sea nor the Sand (1972) is, if nothing else, Britain's only seaside zombie love story written by a newsreader (Gordon Honeycombe). Susan Hampshire goes on holiday and falls for a Russian in a chunky sweater who dies and returns as a green-skinned zombie to pick up where he left off; at the end they walk hand in hand into the sea.
What's Good For the Goose (1969) was a sex comedy with Norman Wisdom as a bank manager who falls for free-loving Sally Geeson at a conference in Southport: the theme song is great but the waiters with bare chests and neck-ties must have looked horrible even at the time.
Blood On Satan's Claw (1971), a genuinely chilling tale of 17th century diabolism, is surely the best of Tigon's output in a legitimate sense, but connoisseurs of British cinema's by-ways and cul-de-sacs may well warm to Zeta One (1970), a soft-core sci-fi spoof notable for the number of respected British character actors who walked off before it was finished.
Tenser claimed to have grown weary of the violence in his films, and disbanded Tigon in 1973; after serving as executive producer on Pete Walker's Frightmare (1974) he left the business entirely to sell cane furniture.
But he lived long enough to find himself hailed as a maverick hero by a new generation of horror fans. For all his carny-barker bravado, he was basically a modest man, and this belated reverence and acclaim must have surprised and delighted him.
But it was not un-earned.
In films good, bad and indifferent, there is more diversity, madness, originality and occasional greatness in Tigon's five or so years of horror film production than in the output of any of its rivals in the same period - including Hammer. Tigon's films are wackier in concept - blood-drinking moth women, OAP mind-controllers, rotting but romantic zombies - and boast brazenly and wonderfully crass exploitation titles. At a time when Hammer and their ad campaigns were routinely criticised on the grounds of sensationalism Tenser sent one film into different territories with the following titles: The Blood Beast Terror, The Deaths Head Vampire, The Vampire Beast Craves Blood and Blood Beast From Hell.
This tasteless zest, and the shrewd knowledge of the market that informed it, were what kept Tenser head and shoulders above his competitors. It is also what makes his films, to this day, so much fun.
Tony Tenser, 1920 - 2007

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Dont Open Till Christmas: You'll wish you hadn't opened it at all...

Here is a favourite seasonal movie of mine that you might wish to track down if you are looking for a break from Alistair Sim or George Bailey this year.
If like me you've always enjoyed the first episode of Tales From The Crypt (1972), that wonderfully atmsopheric, largely silent sequence with Joan Collins menaced in her isolated farmhouse by an escaped lunatic dressed as Santa, it is just possible you will enjoy perhaps the cheapest and grottiest British horror film ever made. Joan will, I'm sure, because it places the fur-lined boot firmly on the other foot and details the activities of a maniac with a homicidal grudge against Santa. The film is called Dont (sic) Open Till Christmas (1983). If you like unpleasant rubbish with a yuletide theme you can do no better. Or worse, probably, but that's beside the point.
It's a formulaic slasher thriller with the big difference that the victims are not pretty girls but fat old men getting a bit of Christmas beer money by selling chestnuts or working the department store grotto. We never quite know how many have been killed (by what turns out to be the character we had marked as principal red herring); enough have taken place for the newspapers and police to be already talking of "another Santa murder" by the time the film begins, and we get to see a mind-boggling 10 others before it ends, along with three of non-Santas and one attempted murder in which the victim is let off because it turns out to be a topless woman under the red costume instead of an old man (don't ask).
Despite this, the obvious safety measure of not going out alone at night dressed as Father Christmas is never suggested by the police, nor does it cross the minds of any of the victims. One is killed in the London Dungeon, another in full costume in a Soho peep show, another has something unmentionable done to him while taking a leak in a public lavatory.
The dialogue is frequently hilarious, especially the banter between detective Edmund Purdom and his Sergeant (Mark Jones). "Do you think, sir, we might have a psychopath on our hands?" asks Jones after what must have been at least the fifth slaying. "That's exactly what the Assistant Commissioner was bellowing at me a moment ago," says Purdom, "you know what I replied?" "It's early days yet for a pattern, I suppose," suggests Jones. On and on it goes in this vein:
Jones: Trouble is, sir, the moment anyone puts on a Santa Claus costume they become a sort of semi-holy figure, don't they, well, to the kids anyway.
Purdom (not really listening): The whole of the West End is crammed with Santa Clauses. What have you got on this latest?
Jones: Petty crook, known to West End Central, could have been pushing drugs. This one could have been a coincidence, actually.
The Evening Standard headline after one murder is 'Only Three More Killing Days To Christmas'. ("The chief's gonna love cracks like that", grumbles Purdom.)
It's one of my favourite of all Christmas movies, made on the run and on the cheap by a British outfit calling itself Spectacular International Films, actually a conglomeration of old reprobates like Derek Ford, Alan Birkinshaw and Dick Randall. ('British Rail Traveller's Fare' is thanked in the closing credits, along with Scotland Yard, presumably for not telling them to clear off while they were filming Purdom stood in front of the revolving sign.)
Purdom is both star and - incredibly - director, though one 'Al McGoohan' (actually exploitation hack Birkinshaw) is credited with writing and directing additional scenes. The smart money is on these being largely comprised of the huge numbers of additional Santa murders that nobody mentions or even seems aware of in the rest of the film, and which are in many cases surprisingly horrible despite the obviousness of the special effects.
There is, incredibly, a documentary out there about the making of this film, which I've never seen. (If anyone has a copy, please drop me a line!) It apparently shows some scenes being shot with different actors, one of them the bit where a Santa is murdered in a peep show. Presumably the actor in the costume is the one listed in the credits, since in the finished film it's unquestionably Keith Smith from the Spike Milligan shows under the whiskers.
The plot and resolution are ridiculous, insultingly so, really; the revelation of the killer's motive is absurd and his actions throughout inexplicable and often physically impossible. I confess it took a couple of viewings for me to see past the silliness and the gore and find the charm. But it is there. It's there in the guerilla film-maker's handbook shots of Purdom loitering outside Scotland Yard, in the extraneous padding as he wanders around Covent Garden listening to carol singers, in the enthusiastic amateurism of the supporting performances, in the incredibly evocative synthesiser score (including a nifty spooky version of Silent Night), in the opportunism of having one body discovered on stage at a London theatre so as to give Caroline Munro a musical number called Warrior of Love.
Make no mistake: this is a terrible, terrible film, and should be avoided entirely unless your tastes run to the most tawdry excesses of cheapjack exploitation. But if they do, prepare yourself for a treat.
Merry Christmas!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The overpowering feeling that any second he may suddenly appear

Everywhere I go in Italy reminds me of Dario Argento.
The spookier, more run-down parts recall the empty house of Profondo Rosso. The more modernistic, faceless parts evoke Tenebrae. The streets of Florence seem inseparable from the events of The Stendhal Syndrome. Every hotel I've ever stayed in, every street and narrow alley, seem like locations in some real, or imagined, or forthcoming example of the man's work.
Argento was at one time my favourite director in the world, and nobody else has quite dislodged his supremacy as my ultimate reference point for the architecture and mood of Italy. Antonioni and Fellini are nowhere evoked for me; Dario is everywhere.
Look at this house we saw in Ravenna:
It is next to a river so long-dried that trees grow in its bed, but over which grey stone bridges still cross at regular intervals. Overlooking this dead river was this incredible dead house: still occupied, I think, but with the balconies so overgrown with ivy they cannot possibly be used. And my instant first thought is: what a great location for a Dario Argento movie.
I'm not the fan I once was of these films. I'm older now, and suddenly I can see why viewers with no particular liking for horror as a genre find them rather silly. Argento, like his killers, does get carried away with himself. The films are hysterical, and often careless. Even some of the features that once seemed so innovative, like the murder scenes set to prog-rock, I can now just as easily do without. (Rewatching them all recently, it seemed to me that even Profondo would be better off without its main themes: the more straightforward portions of the score are far more effective. The drums and guitars run the risk of distancing the audience from the power of the film - as the atrocious synth score of Tenebrae does almost entirely.)
The films are highly formulaic, often revolving around a black-gloved killer who murders obsessively and sadistically out of some Freudian compulsion lodged in childhood memory, and a hero who sees more than they can remember, or is haunted by the possibility that they have all they need to solve the mystery, but cannot quite arrange the pieces in the correct order. The unfolding mystery is punctuated by murder scenes which are staged and presented almost as mini-movies in their own right, frequently outrageously inventive and horrific, and accompanied by pounding music. The finales often pile twist upon twist, revealing that the murderer is in fact not the murderer after all, or is long dead and his role has been taken on midway through the film by another character entirely, or that the hero and killer are one.
Though the plots are often incredibly intricate, the essence of the films is in their distinctive visual and aural style, and the seemingly compulsive, uncontrolled nature of their violence.
Argento is at his best, for me, when he injects a dash of the bizarre in an otherwise recognisable reality, which is why, though I admire them in many ways technically, I find the likes of Suspiria and Inferno less satisfying in their anything-can-happen-ness than Bird With the Crystal Plumage or Cat o'Nine Tails. The plots of these are certainly improbable, but they have a logic to them that makes their corkscrew development and brilliant surprise twists worth the effort of following.
These two would certainly be among my favourites, as - in plot terms, at least, and notwithstanding its flashy look and sound - would Tenebrae, one of his cleverest yarns.
But best of all is Profondo Rosso, perhaps the only Argento that still seems to me an almost complete masterpiece. The plot is superb, the twist audacious (it is the only film I know which, like Poe's purloined letter, leaves the face of the killer in plain view and challenges us to spot it) and the murders - though excessive - are genuinely skilled and frightening pieces of cinema. At university, my friends and I watched this film over and over again, and delighted in introducing newcomers to its pyrotechnic terrors and delights. It never disappointed; it is still the best illustration for those unfamiliar with Argento to what he can do and how he does it. Few directors, good or bad, can honestly be said to have a truly unique style, so that it is impossible to mistake their work for that of anybody else: Argento does, and here is where it achieves perfection.
There's something to be said for most of his subsequent films, but they tend to be things of parts, in which remarkable scenes or images frequently give way to the risible or banal.
But Suspiria achieves an atmsophere of nightmare (and nightmare-logic), or of modern Grimm's fairy tale, unparalleled in the supernatural horror film, thanks in part to the incredibly rich colour-saturated images, achieved by using outdated Technicolor film stock. It also features by far his most effective collaboration with the Italian rock band Goblin, and deserves praise for its casting of Joan Bennett and Alida Valli as evil witches.
In recent years he has found his muse most often in his daughter Asia, with whom he has collaborated four times between 1993's Trauma and this year's La Terza Madre. Herself a director and an often striking presence in the films of others (La Reine Margot, Marie Antoinnette), Asia is the most distinctive feature of his later work, most of which is uneven and some of which is poor indeed.
Argento has echoed Poe's assertion that the most poetic topic in the world is the death of a beautiful woman by frequently playing the black-gloved killer's hands in the murder scenes ("I love my killers", he offers by way of explanation), and few directors since Hitchcock have so repeatedly subjected a single erotic ideal to such relentless debasement. (His, however, tend to be brunettes: Jessica Harper, Jennifer Connelly, Chiara Caselli, two daughters and an ex-wife among them.)
The most famous image in all his work remains that of Cristina Marsillach in Opera, a row of pins taped beneath her eyelids by the film's killer, so that she is unable to close her eyes to the murder being committed in front of her. It is probably Argento's own revenge on audiences who prefer to flinch, or peer through their fingers, or look away entirely and wait for the music to stop, rather than watch the murder scenes. "Violence is Italian art", he once said, and if I now find myself gravitating increasingly toward the ranks of the flinchers and the eye-closers, I can at least still appreciate the imagination, skill and commitment to a singular vision that Argento's filmography represents.
Meanwhile, if anybody actually does live in that house by the dried-up river in Ravenna, my advice is: count the windows and count the rooms.

Monday, November 5, 2007

The White Gorilla growls again

When a film falls out of copyright it costs next to nothing to issue on DVD. This is why there are certain films that turn up over and over again, endlessly repackaged and reissued by different budget-price distributors. The accident of their public domain status in no way determines their quality; His Girl Friday, The Outlaw, Of Human Bondage and many more figure among the most ubiquitous titles.
But the majority are of titles that slipped through the net because nobody cared, which means obscure works from independent companies or distributors, second feature crime films from the likes of Chesterfield and Grand National, obscure black interest titles from the thirties and legions of cheapie horror mysteries. Many of these prints derive from the early days of television, when film companies, jealous of the medium, retained their important titles for theatrical reissue and sold off the second features and bottom-of-the-bill fillers. (Notice how often the prints on these DVDs have superimposed credits saying things like 'Movies For TV presents...')
Sold to a captive home audience happy to watch anything and long since deemed inadequate even for that, they are the staples of the new breed of multi-film box sets (50 great thrillers on 12 discs for only £18.99!) and three-on-a-disc combos.
The picture and sound quality is often poorish to dreadful, mastered as they usually are from prints many generations removed from their source, and the target audience, I suppose, are suckers, for rare indeed is a film too poor to be played up as an all-time classic on the hastily-designed and often deliberately misleading packaging.
So '50 Drive-In Classics' includes the tv movie Snowbeast, '50 Tales of Terror' includes three Tod Slaughter movies, and 'Dark Crimes' includes Things Happen at Night, a broad British comedy-drama from 1948 about poltergeists. The blurbs and imagery are always designed to disguise rather than advertise the fact that a large proportion of the films featured will be low-quality dupes of bad-quality prints of incredibly obscure thirties rarities of purely archival value to very specialised collectors.
But when you read the online reviews, they usually don't say "I got suckered", nor do they lapse into the 'Golden Turkey Awards' type of lazy mockery. Instead they seem to speak knowledgeably and respectfully to a community of like-minds who, while under no illusion as to the objective value of these films in themselves, love the thrill of discovering new old movies.
Of course, this is a passion we have acquired by sheer circumstance. These just happened to be the public domain films available; they certainly weren't released to meet a need. But just as certainly, they seem now to have created one. I'm not alone.
I think the people who make these things should try, just once, aiming it directly at us, rather than the casual browser who just might be conned into thinking that Laurel and Hardy's Atoll K is an all-time masterpiece of comedy. If it doesn't work, fine; go back to pretending that nobody could possibly feel short-changed by a three-disc box-set called 'Masters of Horror' featuring an alcohol-raddled Lon Chaney Jr in The Indestructible Man, one of those films Karloff made back to back in Mexico just before he died and Ghosts On The Loose, an East Side Kids comedy with Bela Lugosi as a Nazi spy.
("Wow! Three of the greatest horror stars of all time at their terrifying best! Plus they're classics! Great! I'll be really scared and perhaps even learn something about film history. How much? Only £5.99! I'm getting that!")
But seeing as I'm not conned or disappointed by delightful releases like these, how about targeting me directly next time? Instead of pretending that Rogue's Tavern is a classic horror film, just tell it like it is: it's a fun old dark house cheapie and it stars Wallace Ford, silent star on the skids Clara Kimball Young and Barbara Pepper, gold-digging Sally from Our Daily Bread. That's enough to rope me in. Anyone else like Wallace Ford? What an amazing life-story this man had before he even made a movie! Then the typical film career: near-star of the early thirties, MGM contract, in Freaks and superb as Walter Huston's weak-willed brother in The Beast of the City, a couple of mummy movies at Universal then alternating leads at Monogram (The Ape Man) with bits for the majors (Spellbound, Dead Reckoning) and finishing up in tv. Releases like Rogue's Tavern help keep alive names like his, names that should be kept alive, careers that deserve to be remembered. I'm sure there are fans out there who are dedicated to this kind of exhumation.
If you are a cheapie DVD distributor, why not test the water of this thesis with, say, an Irene Ware box set? You loved her in The Raven! Now see Irene Ware in four of her most obscure films! Includes King Kelly of the USA (aka Irish and Proud Of It), the Monogram comedy musical spectacular!
You've got my sale.
ff.......... Irene Ware: Never won any prizes, never had any complaints.
There is danger as well as a quick buck in trying to slip one past us - the market becomes saturated and the poor quality of many prints deters serious collectors. There are only so many suckers in the world and only so many times you can play them. It's not so different from the ethics of the pirate dealer, and we all know how resourceful and downright droll they can be. (A friend of mine was sold a DVD of what claimed to be the Peter Jackson remake of King Kong before it had even reached cinemas: it turned out to be King Kong Lives, the virtually unseen sequel to the de Laurentiis remake. The Fay Wray Kong would have been garden-variety deceit - and may have given my friend a better dose of the movies. But the choice of King Kong Lives is a deftly witty reminder of where the power resides in such transactions - one worth the money, in fact.
And anyone remember that old Kenny Everett sketch, from the days when the world was as intoxicated with the lure and aroma of video tapes as he was, which saw him in brown mac and flat cap selling a cassette in a brown paper bag to Billy Connolly on the promise of girls dressed as nuns, geezers in boots and black leather, and goats? A hundred pounds changes hands, and Connolly has himself an expensive copy of The Sound of Music.)
A little imagination is all that is needed to keep us all happy.
Release the public domain movies, but just spend a little on good packaging, informative notes, the best print you can find (or at least, not simply the first), perhaps an extra or two. Consumer loyalty will surely follow, and the takings will pay for something a little harder to find.
The result could be a label we look out for, as happened with Redemption in the last days of tape: they started with the usual suspects - Nosferatu, Caligari, The Vampire Bat - but made the sleeves collectable and distinctive, and before we knew it they had created a new audience for European exploitation, tracked down a world of rareties, and single-handedly invented Jess Franco the Auteur where Franco the Hack once stood.
Specialism will always find adherents. Of course it is important above all to attend to the classics, those that earn our attention merely through excellence. But there is so much waiting for us in the dross, in the vast store of simple, production-line fodder that cannot fail to yield insights six decades on. Here among the simple story lines and simpler technique are vivid examples of the purely popular, lost icons of a vanished civilisation. The masterpieces tend to span the years, but the ephemera act like a sponge that soaks up the transitory fads and styles, and instantly recreate the vanished age in which they were first received.
A good example, from dozens of alternatives: The White Gorilla (1945). Thanks to the internet pioneers that preceded me, I now know, and am able to pass on to you, far more about this film than I could have gleaned from any reference books, and certainly more than the packaging volunteers. It was in the 'Tales of Terror' box set but a tale of terror it is not nor ever was: it's a hybrid of new sound scenes, silent action sequences from a 1927 serial and library footage of wild animals.
It stars Ray 'Crash' Corrigan, owner of the 'Corriganville' movie ranch, as both the hero and the white gorilla. As well as a frequent cowboy hero (he was one of the Three Mesquiteers), he does ape-suit work in loads of films, including Tarzan & His Mate (1934), the 3 Stooges short Three Missing Links (1938), Karloff quickie The Ape (1940), Captive Wild Woman (1943), The Monster & The Ape (1945) and Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952).
Important in itself? Of course not. But it is of tremendous value as an example of a once staple film genre: the expeditionary film. The Tarzan series remains the most famous off-shoot of this lost semi-genre, in which gun-happy heroes go blazing into nature reserves and either bring 'em back alive or leave 'em where they drop. There were serious documentaries, fake documentaries, fictional narrative dramas and all manner of inter-generic cross-breeds. (King Kong was just one of many horror films that took the template of the expeditionary film and turned it into a horror thriller. Carl Denham is based on these expeditionary film-makers and as such would have been instantly recognisable to contemporary audiences, for whom much of the film's effect would have resided in the way in which elements of the fantastic are slowly introduced into a typical expeditionary narrative. Now that the conventions of the genre are no longer familiar it plays all of a piece, and the rug-pulling effect is lost.) One of the most famous of these films, the documentary Africa Speaks! (1930) was still current enough in 1949 to have its title parodied in Abbott & Costello's spoof of the genre Africa Screams! (featuring two of the screen's real-life Carl Denhams, Frank Buck and Clyde Beatty, as themselves).
Already, then, The White Gorilla can be seen to be of socio-historical value. As to aesthetic value, that's in the eye of the beholder, but it's hard not to warm to a film in which - while insistent music whips up excitement and Corrigan's voice-over intones "I hoped without hope that the brutes would kill each other as they fought" - a man in an obvious black gorilla costume and a man in an obvious white gorilla costume wallop each other with sticks.
The lost art of exploitation advertising (1): If your film's a dud, go for broke and call it "The Greatest Wild Animal Picture Ever Made!" It's either that or "SEE! Ray Corrigan in a zip-up ape suit! " Needless to say, the babe in the blue mini-dress is conspicuous by her absence in the film itself - and don't hold your breath for that slavering lion, either.
Suddenly you realise you have resumed dialogue with a totally vanished species of mainstream popular culture. For that is what it must have been - any film with proper credits had a proper audience, once. Out there, somewhere, were people who left their homes to go and see it. Some may be living somewhere still. And it is pleasant to feel not just as one with them but somehow honouring them by tracking down these films and watching them with delight and respect.
There's another one called Devil Monster (1946), another 'Tale of Terror', and another hybrid expeditionary yarn, cobbled together this time from footage shot ten years earlier as The Sea Fiend. This fiendish monster is in fact a manta ray, and its belated appearance combines both unpleasant documentary images of real sea life learning the true meaning of human decency and hilarious special effects in which an actor, clearly kicking about on the floor, is spectrally superimposed over footage of the ray. The rest of the film sees our heroes travelling about strange lands, talking to the elders of obscure native tribes (grainy black and white documentary footage when they don't say anything, white actors in a studio if they have dialogue).
The lost art of exploitation advertising (2): Devil Monster claims "an all-star cast" but suspiciously declines to name any of them, and promotes itself with the tag-line "DARING ADVENTURE MAN'S LOVE FOR A WOMAN" which wouldn't mean anything even if it meant anything.
The gloss of documentary realism also allows real bare breasts on the tribeswomen, and this yielded the film's most delightful and unexpected bridge to the past. At these moments, the surprisingly good condition print of the film suddenly explodes into fragments; jumps, scratches, a flash of an image here, two thirds of a sentence on the soundtrack narration there. These abundant cuts are clearly evidence of removed nudity but not I think, in their crudeness and disruptive effect, of censorship. Only one person had means, motive and opportunity to make these excisions yet make them so badly - step forward, Mr Cinema Projectionist.
These DVDs are duped from long-circulated exhibition prints that must have been passed round the exploitation cinemas for years. After all, films about manta rays don't get misleadingly titled Devil Monster for nothing: such expert showmanship speaks of a colourful lifetime in the grind houses. The snips were made by the projectionists, taking minute quantities of the sexiest shots, presumably for their own private collections. (Did they project them as slides? Or did they splice them all together to create a succession of flash-frame images, no single one discernable long enough for individual delectation but all combining to produce a subliminally meaningful mosaic of sensationalism and prurience - and thus invent television?) Whatever, here again a little fragment of American cinema history comes vividly back to life. Another reason to take these ludicrous old relics seriously, and to be ashamed for ever thinking them ludicrous old relics.
Clearly, both The White Gorilla and Devil Monster owe their presence in a box-set called 'Tales of Terror', indeed they probably owe their exhumation in the first place, to the fact that they sound sufficiently like horror films from their titles to be sneaked into a 50 film horror set. But there is no need to resort to such deception (however in-keeping it may be with the original exploitation ethic.) Package them as 'lost rarities of the expeditionary film' and we'll still buy them, plus you'll feel better about yourself by actually serving a collectors' community rather than trying to hoodwink them.
These films, seemingly so fresh now for being so long out of circulation, are like delicious desserts that complement and complete the meal for which the true classics of their time serve as main course. To the historian of cinema they are of clear and certain value, to the fan of old movies they offer, if not quite revelations, then at least pure pleasure and a valuable sense of fleshing out the backgrounds and details of canvases dominated by the big studio heavyweights. And the raw material never runs out. There is ton upon ton of this stuff hiding in vaults, waiting for its day to come again. Keep going, chaps - and how about that Irene Ware box set?

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Don't make the shark the villain

There's a film I haven't seen out at the moment, based on a book I haven't read; both are called And When Did You Last See Your Father?
For all I know, they may both be brilliant. But there's a moment in the film, and probably in the book, which, if I understand it correctly, cannot be allowed to go unchallenged.
In this autobiographical story by Blake Morrison, the young author (Colin Firth) is at a literary party. The story concerns his relationship with his difficult father, played by Jim Broadbent, who for some reason is also at the party. With acute embarrassment, Jr observes Sr buttonholing Salman Rushdie at the other side of the room, and imagines what crass thing he might be saying to him. And the nightmare fantasy line he comes up with is: "So, have you read Jaws, then, Salman?"
Now, as I say, I've not seen the film, so I may have misunderstood the point of the moment. And I haven't read the book, so I can't simply dismiss that. (Though it is true that As If, another book by the same author, remains one of only two that I have disliked so much I had to actually destroy it rather than just throw it away.) But there is no point in pretending that Peter Benchley's Jaws is not a universally dismissed book, even by fans of the film, and largely, it would seem, because it was so incredibly popular.
Through most of my childhood, though alas no longer, it seemed to be the most omnipresent paperback in the world: every house had it, every jumble sale had at least three. Basil Fawlty reads it in bed. Mike Abbott, Sid's son in Bless This House, reads it at the kitchen table.
In fact, I date the end of my youth by the first time I went into a charity shop and didn't see one. (It was the Friends video of its day.)
I still read it once a year, and every year I enjoy it more. More than that, though: every year I admire it more. It is, I am certain, a terrific book. I'm tempted to call it the best book Hemingway never wrote.
It's much more rambling and contemplative than the movie, which was a deliberate exercise in streamlining and paring down the original work so that all that remained was the bare bones story of a town menaced by a giant shark and the three mismatched individuals who set out in pursuit of it. The book, by contrast, uses the shark almost as a backdrop, as counterpoint to the main body of the tale, which is a portrait of the paunchy, middle-aged and vaguely dissatisfied police chief of a seaside town who finds himself called upon to react to an inexplicable crisis and behave with honour. The book is filled with characters either written out or vastly reduced in the film, and with sub-plots and tangents.
Of the three main characters, Quint is pretty much as film fans will recognise him, but Hooper is an unprincipled, rather smug rich kid, and is killed in his shark cage, while Brody himself is a much more complicated, flawed and less instantly likeable character than Roy Scheider's version.
History has recorded it as a cheap, trashy paperback but it is anything but: it is filled with sharp, bare Hemingwayesque detail and some wonderful dialogue. Where it does not match the standard of the film - because it is not its business to - is in suspense and action. The whole second half of the film occurs in the final eighth or so of the novel, and while the initial shark attack has something of the shock of the film's, the climax is remarkable for its lack of drama and suspense. The whole business with the exploding gas tanks is not to be found here. Again, what we have is straight, clean, matter of fact; the shark dies, unspectacularly, as most things die.
What matters most are the people, and how they react under pressure. The first half, which dwells on Brody's uneasy relationship with his wife (who, crucially, is not a newcomer to the island but a rich summer vacationer who married beneath her and stayed on), with Mayor Vaughan (who here has connections to organised crime), and with Hooper (who here has an affair with Brody's wife) are not padding: they set up the web of phoney relations between the characters, dictated by wealth and status and position, which the arrival of the shark makes obsolete. The shark is merely the catalyst, a metaphor almost, symbolic of that kind of crisis which erases artificial hierarchies and restores the primacy of courage and resourcefulness. Again, all very Hemingway.
Neither is it Benchley's only significant work. Though its immediate follow-up, The Deep, was - in both film and book versions - a calculatedly commercial endeavour of little interest, his next, The Island is a really rather brilliant sociobiological meditation about a gang of seventeenth century buccaneers still living in Darwinian isolation on an island in Bermuda, the scientist who studies them and the journalist who is captured and imprisoned by them. Strangely, it made a lousy movie, partly because of the miscasting of Michael Caine in the lead, but also - despite Benchley's sole screenwriter credit - because of the stripping away of the novel's philosophical elements and the bizarre decision to make the pirates comic rather than terrifying and repulsive, as they are in the book. Again, it has a deliberately anti-climactic ending, jazzed-up only slightly in the film. It is his finest novel, better even than Jaws.
Of his later works, the gentle ecological fable The Girl of the Sea of Cortez and Beast, a return to Jaws territory with a marauding giant squid instead of a shark, are also far from negligible. Beast, incidentally, has Benchley's cleverest anti-climax, when, just as all seems lost, the squid is abruptly eaten by a whale. Needless to say, this was swapped for a big explosion when the story was filmed, most enjoyably, as a tv movie.
Admirably, Benchley used the rewards of Jaws to raise the profile of shark conservation, to which he devoted the rest of his life. In a late-nineties article, he went so far as to write:

I couldn't possibly write Jaws today. We know so much more about sharks - and, just as important, about our position as the single most careless, voracious, omnivorous destroyer of life on earth - that the notion of demonizing a fish strikes me as insane.

In accounting for the success of Jaws he was fond of quoting E. O. Wilson: "We're not just afraid of predators, we're transfixed by them, prone to weave stories and fables and chatter endlessly about them, because fascination creates preparedness, and preparedness, survival. In a deeply tribal sense, we love our monsters." In this light, it is clear that all of Benchley's major works are concerned with Wilsonian sociobiology, as applied to the natural world (ecology) and human psychology (Hemingwayesque existentialism).
Peter Benchley died, well before his time, of pulmonary fibrosis, in 2006. He was a fine writer whose misfortune was to have had one enormous popular success that pigeonholed him as the kind of writer he in fact never was, nor had any inclination to be. His later works are, perhaps, uneasy compromises between what he wanted to write and what publishers demanded. As a result, they fell between stools and none repeated the amazing commercial success of the first.
This may have added to the misgivings he sometimes expressed over the content of Jaws in later life. Not long before his death he said: "Any story about an animal that I would write today would have to portray the animal as the victim, not the villain."
Which, sadly, is not the kind of story they hand out million dollar advances for.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

How I fell in love with Hammer Horror

I loved horror films long before I saw any. 
At primary school I would spend hours looking at a friend's copy of Alan Frank's book Horror Movies, imagining what it would be like to actually see one, to see those gorgeous colour and black and white stills actually move. (Even today I am instantly struck when a moment in a film corresponds with one of those stills - Peter Cushing sawing a skull open in Frankenstein Must be Destroyed, for instance, or Christopher Matthews with a spike sticking out of him in Scars of Dracula - it feels odd, like a trick, or when film-makers stage a scene to look like a classical painting.)
Perhaps more than any other body of films, my love of Hammer Horror is inseparable from my childhood memories of it.
All horror films seemed like hidden treasure to me then, and without doubt the first of the three great milestones in my film-lover's boyhood was when I at last caught up with the Universal sequence, thanks to a series of Saturday night BBC 2 double bills in the Summer of 1983. (The second was my discovery of the Marx Brothers that Christmas.)
But though I loved the Universals, I still dreamed of Hammer. After all, they were in colour, there was blood, Dracula had pointy fangs, the women all wore nightgowns, and the fact that both they and I were British somehow made them seem scarier to me - nearer, I suppose.
Watching Hammer films today, I seem to be more aware of the limitations to their style and methods than the strengths, and I actually now prefer the earlier Hollywood versions. But when I finally got to see them they were everything I was hoping for. In fact, I'll happily watch any Hammer film, and I've never seen one I didn't enjoy. (And that includes The Vengeance of She, so lay off this movie, everyone!)

So Hammer was milestone three, thanks to yet another BBC 2 season, Christmas 1984, consisting of Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula double-billed, then The Mummy, Curse of the Werewolf (which I missed at the time and has never been quite as comparable a favourite for no better reason) and Blood From the Mummy's Tomb.
The latter was the odd one out. Shown first, but made over a decade after the originals from which the rest of the season was drawn, it's unromantically photographed on sound stages and real streets, lacking the artificiality and elegance and uniformity of the films made at the tiny, ramshackle Bray Studios (which Hammer stopped using in 1967). Yet it remains one of my very favourites to this day.
Whether its presence in my pantheon, like Werewolf's absence, is therefore attributable to the accident of its having been shown at this time in this company is a moot point, but I don't think so: it's head and shoulders above most of Hammer's seventies output.
Odd, because it was completed under the most arduous of circumstances: original star Peter Cushing dropped out after a day's work to tend his ailing wife, and original director Seth Holt dropped dead halfway through.
An adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel Jewel of the Seven Stars, it denies audiences the mummy seemingly promised by the title and instead offers a complex plot about reincarnation that, stopping only for a few gratuitous gory deaths, moves elegantly and with a persuasively sinister atmosphere to a neatly ironic ending. Perhaps because his greatest successes had all been in monochrome, Holt does not make the error of bathing the Egyptian flashbacks in studio sunlight, which makes the sets look obvious and drowns everything in sickly yellow. Instead he goes for the simple but so much more effective gambit of setting them all at night: the sets look great, picked out in candlelight and shadow, and the strange, other-worldly aura thus achieved is so effective it makes you wonder why it's never night time in ancient Egypt in any other horror films.

As for Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula: well, I dread to think how many times I watched my Betamax copy of them throughout 1985.
They still seem to me perfect examples of low-budget horror, the underrated first as much as the rightly lauded second, and fascinating in the confidence with which they took the genre away from the gothic excess of the American model and reinserted it into a Gainsborough/Tod Slaughter milieu (that swiftly became the new orthodox among the plethora of imitators appearing in their wake).
Everything about them works, and the central performances of Peter Cushing (as Frankenstein and Van Helsing) and Christopher Lee (as the Creature and Dracula) set a new standard. They are both less than 85 minutes, and while many of the later Hammers are uncertainly paced, these rattle along like steam trains. Director Terence Fisher, who had come to the studio after a long apprenticeship at Gainsborough and elsewhere but whose work would come to define the Hammer style, does an amazing job with a tiny budget, cramped sets, short shooting schedule and the studio's generally low aspirations for and expectations of the projects. Later, when the first receipts were in, and Hammer and Fisher realised they had stumbled onto something incredibly potent, self-consciousness set in, and the effortlessness and ease characterising this first pair seemed often to elude them both.
Both films take the old myths and make them smaller. This Frankenstein works from the attic room of an English country house (supposedly in a mountain village in Switzerland) as far removed from Colin Clive's wet-walled fortress as Lee's raw and mangled Creature is from Karloff's electric green giant. The Count and his victims are only a border-crossing apart, and Cushing's Van Helsing dismisses transformation into bats as "a common fallacy". (These prosaic touches are the work of screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, and would largely disappear when his place as chief writer was taken by John Elder.)
The Baron is now a Tod Slaughteresque wicked squire, disposing of his inconveniently pregnant serving wench like Squire Corder polishing off poor Maria Marten in the Red Barn, and Lee's Dracula is deadpan and underplayed, replacing Lugosi's "I am... Dracula!" with a stiffly British "Mr Harker, I am glad that you have arrived safely." (For all his attempts to escape the character's shadow - and yes, he does have one here - Lee has never since filled the screen with such sheer presence, acting with height and bearing and poise, and with the elegant, expressive hands that glide, white and sinister, at the end of his black, mile-long arms.)
Not part of the season, however - though I wish it had been - was the film that seems to me Hammer's finest of all: The Phantom of the Opera. It is far and away Terence Fisher's best job of work as a director, with a larger than usual budget extremely well-spent, superb editing, music and screenplay, and a wonderfully detailed Victorian atmosphere. It was also a flop, ended Fisher's dominance of the studio's product, and has been criminally underrated ever since.
Basically a romantic tragedy, with the Phantom a noble outcast punished for his naivety in a world of philistines and crooks, it is an affecting and sad film; the scene in which tears stream from the Phantom's eyes when he hears his protégée singing on stage for the first time, is genuinely moving. But it's also supremely eerie, it boasts a lovely fake opera by Edwin Astley, and scene after scene displays careful, considered, masterly film-making. (One particular stand-out being the sequence in which the heroine is abducted and taken to the Phantom's lair, in which direction, editing and music collaborate brilliantly to deliver one hell of a shock when she opens her curtains.)
.I started thinking about Hammer because, even as murmurs are heard yet again of plans to revive the brand (such plans are aired, sometimes with considerable detail and fanfare, every five years or so) another link in the chain dissolved this week. Producer Aida Young has died at the age of 86.
The obituaries have been generous: interesting to see the Draculas described without qualification in The Times as “horror classics”, which would have been going a bit too far, old chap, even in the early years of my lifetime. (The same paper's claim that she had to “overcome the waves of sexual discrimination within the film industry” sounds a bit overcooked though: I can't imagine Hammer, the smallest and friendliest family firm in the business, worrying too much about things like that.)
In interviews, the real old guard of the studio would occasionally be less than generous in their assessments of her; all were in agreement that she was not overly concerned with the quality of the movies themselves. Nonetheless, I’m a big fan of some of them, especially Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. Taste the Blood of Dracula may be a more serious achievement, and Dracula AD 1972 a more joyous entertainment, but this late-sixties penny dreadful remains my favourite Dracula sequel.

You'll probably have guessed that it was the second I saw, some time in '85 I think (though somewhere around this time I also saw The Satanic Rites of Dracula at a friend's house; the exact chronology eludes me now.)
I loved the vivid opening credits, I loved the exuberantly gory (if both physically and chronologically impossible) first scene, which plays somewhat in the manner of a James Bond pre-credits sequence, and most of all I loved the ending, the most inventively gruesome in the entire series, with Dracula tumbling down a cliff and ending up kebabbed on the shaft of a huge golden crucifix, weeping tears of blood.
Now when I watch it I am also struck by the beauty of the photography and the sets, the little winding streets and rooftops, uniquely stylish and charming among the post-Bray studio films, and also by all the theological huffing and puffing in the screenplay. (It seems inarguable to me now that this subtext, betrayed overtly by the cribbing of a couple of visual ideas and the key scene in which church patriarch Rupert Davies grills his atheistic prospective son-in-law, was lifted from Fred Zinnemann's film of A Man For All Seasons.)

Hands of the Ripper, a later Young production, is also among the finest of the studio's later output, though it more obviously betrays its era in its flat lighting and obvious sound stages.
Other than that, however, it is terrific stuff, gory and spooky, but also oddly romantic and touching, and benefitting enormously - at a time when Hammer tended to look to Playboy for its female leads - from the casting of Angharad Rees, a china doll rather than an inflatable one. It is the most poignant Hammer Horror since Phantom of the Opera; the finale, as the Ripper's tormented daughter leaps from the whispering gallery of St Paul's into the arms of the protector she had earlier tried to murder, is exceptional.
.Aida Young (1920 -2007)

Monday, September 17, 2007

Karloff's Last Waltz: Boris, Bogdanovich and Targets

Like the French New Wave directors, Peter Bogdanovich began as a critic before going on to make movies heavily informed by his passion for directors like Hawks, Hitchcock and Welles, imbued with a poignant sense of loss that chimed well with the so-called ‘nostalgia boom’ (when audiences suddenly realised that, with the collapse of the studio system, something cherishable had been lost beyond recall.)
Targets (1968), his directorial debut, is many things: a thoughtful and brilliantly tense thriller, a love letter to the past and a poison pen letter to the present, an elegy for Hollywood’s golden age, and – for its star Boris Karloff – the kind of loving valediction of which all actors must dream.
Karloff plays Byron Orlok, a horror star who decides to cancel his next film and retire because he has grown to loathe Hollywood, and the modern world, and feels like an anachronism amidst slick new kinds of film-making and vapid young audiences:
Everybody's dead. I feel like a dinosaur. Oh, I know how people feel about me these days - old-fashioned, outmoded... 'Mr Boogeyman, King of Blood' they used to call me. Marx Brothers make you laugh, Garbo makes you weep, Orlok makes you scream... I couldn't play a straight part decently anymore. I've been doing the other thing too long... and even that isn't the point. You know what they call my films today? Camp, high camp.
Wait a minute, I want to show you something. My kind of horror isn't horror anymore. Look at that. [He produces a newspaper, headlined YOUTH KILLS SIX IN SUPERMARKET.] No-one is afraid of a painted monster.
He will honour one last professional commitment - to introduce his new film (actually Karloff's 1963 Corman quickie The Terror) at its drive-in premiere. As we follow him through the day in the company of his director friend Sammy (played by Bogdanovich), Karloff/Orlok holds court on old age, the decline of the movies, the golden age, and modern society. We see him argue with agents and studio heads, reminisce, get drunk and fall asleep, and even watch himself on television in Howard Hawks's The Criminal Code.
Karloff told Bogdanovich that one of his lines in the film was the truest he had ever delivered. When the writer-director asked him which one, he replied: "The one when I'm looking out the car window at the city streets and I say, 'God, what an ugly town this has become.' My Lord, it's never been truer."
Perhaps the most impressive moment comes when Orlok is, with the utmost reluctance, meeting the moronic, trendy interviewer who is going to speak to him as he introduces the movie ("When I was a kid, Mr O, I must have dug your flicks four zillion times. You blew my mind." "Obviously.")
So infuriated is he by the inanity of the questions he decides instead to tell a story to the audience, and launches into it. It's a short, clever tale of the unexpected about a man who meets Death in person, delivered hypnotically by Karloff in a single fluid tracking shot that moves slowly to extreme close-up in time for the punchline. It is utterly mesmerising, and the crew burst into spontaneous applause after shooting it. Later Bogdanovich noticed that Karloff's wife Evie had been discreetly crying. "Do you know how long it's been since a crew has applauded for Boris?" she explained quietly.
Throughout all this, Bogdanovich is constantly cuting to a second, seemingly unrelated story, concerning a disaffected young man, living a sterile, joyless existence with his wife and parents who, we soon learn, is dangerously disturbed. Eventually, he murders his family and we watch him matter-of-factly take his gun collection to a water-tower, climb it, and shoot randomly at the cars passing by on the nearby freeway.
As the two stories alternate, they begin to brush against each other. ("Guess who I saw coming home? Byron Orlok!", the young man tells his family at dinner. "Did he scare you?" jokes his father, explicitly evoking Orlok's own analogy between his tame, old-fashioned horrors and the new horrors of the real world.)
We realise that each man is moving in ignorance of the other to the same ultimate destination: the drive-in. Here, as Karloff approaches to make his public appearance, the young killer climbs the scaffolding behind the screen and, through a small hole in the fabric, begins shooting at the audience.
They finally meet in the film's final moments in a confrontation that is dramatic, clever, and moving. Walking blithely into danger, Orlok disarms the killer and slaps him hard in the face, encountering for the first time not just the evil but also the banality of this new kind of horror. "Is that what I was afraid of?" Karloff asks in sadness and disgust.
As I said, this is a gripping thriller, a profound rumination on cultural decline, and a salute to a great star that allows Karloff a chance, at just the right moment in his career, to show exactly the kind of work of which he is capable. He made other films after, Curse of the Crimson Altar in England and some terrible back-to-back quickies in Mexico, but apparently always referred to Targets, with metaphorical if not literal accuracy, as his final film. One can easily imagine many another old actor watching it and wishing that they had been given an opportunity to round off their career so show-stoppingly.
Bogdanovich's next movie, The Last Picture Show (1971, left) filtered the same bittersweet sentiments through a beautifully observed portrait of small-town life in 1950’s Texas, as played out in and around a run-down movie theatre; comparisons were made with Citizen Kane and it won many awards. He followed it with two smash-hit pastiches of classical Hollywood formulae: What’s Up, Doc? (1972), a funny if exhausting screwball comedy closely modelled on Bringing Up Baby, and Paper Moon (1973), a depression-era fable with something of the flavour of Ford or early Capra.
The films that followed reflect not so much a decline in achievement as a sense of being left behind by fashion. Though major commercial and critical flops, there's not much wrong with At Long Last Love (1975) and Nickelodeon (1976) except, perhaps, miscasting. But their failure resulted in Bogdanovich spending the rest of his career in the wilderness. And though he certainly returned to form with the excellent The Cat’s Meow (2001, left), another Hollywood insider story, in the final analysis, Targets remains his best film.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

She never left the island

Had she lived, my favourite Hollywood actress Fay Wray would have been a hundred today. In fact, she was just a month shy of an impressive 97 when she passed away in 2004.

It struck me at the time that the reaction from the world’s press was curiously muted. She was not ignored, of course, and all the obituarists had nice things to say.
But nowhere did one sense the recognition that this really was pretty much the last one, the end of that most important generation of Hollywood stars who came to prominence in the early nineteen-thirties after apprenticing either in silents or on Broadway.
Facially somewhat reminiscent of Gloria Swanson, she was never a major star, never in the Davis or Crawford or Stanwyck league, mainly because she freelanced for most of her career and rarely stayed under contract to a single studio for more than a year or two.
This meant that no studio head could be bothered to devote to her sufficient time and resources to cultivate the myths and mystique necessary for true golden age stardom. Neither was she a Hollywood animal; she preferred the company of writers to actors. Her husbands were screenwriters: angsty lost generationer John Monk Saunders and cheery Capra scribe Robert Riskin.
So she remained a jobbing actress rather than an icon, never treating her career as more than a job, never quite able to fully capitalise on the acclaim she received after Von Stroheim’s silent masterpiece The Wedding March (1928) or the immense popularity of King Kong (1933).
Nonetheless, immortality can be won by accident, and as the girl in Kong’s paw (and as the talkies' foremost screamer: a spurious reputation if ever there was one) she has found her way into screen history after all – proof that posterity is always, ultimately, a lottery.

Wray is terrific in Kong, of course, just as she is as the satin-clad victim of inhuman passions in those three monuments of pre-code grotesque Dr X, Mystery of the Wax Museum and The Most Dangerous Game. But her other films are eminently worth tracking down too.
She attempted most genres, and invariably pleased in a romantic lead. Her stint at Paramount in the early thirties catches the best of her; she’s young, incredibly beautiful and still flushed with confidence after her triumph with Stroheim.
As with all pre-Code cinema, these films are fascinating for the manner in which they capture now unfamiliar fads, fashions and sub-genres. Behind the Make-Up (1930) is a gloomy road to ruin saga with a sharply-etched vaudeville background and some prime hysterics as Fay squares up to love rival Kay Francis, pre-code’s premier man-eating sophisticate. Pointed Heels (1929) is a backstage Broadway drama with a Technicolor sequence and the delightful pairing of Fay and Helen Kane as sisters-in-law. (The title refers both to Fay's footwear and her resilience.)
Cast against type as a femme fatale she plausibly dominates Gary Cooper in One Sunday Afternoon (1933), a fine example of thirties bucolic nostalgia. (Also one of her comparitively few 'bad girls'; her best bitch role of all is unquestionably Vida, the scheming, mercenary 'oil wife', in The Woman I Stole [1933].)
And the early thirties fad for South Sea exploration saw her menaced by cannibals in The Sea God (1930), possibly the first of the many films in which she ends up with her clothes hanging from her in shreds, and subject of this memorable review from Photoplay Magazine:
If you don’t like this picture you’re just an old introvert or worse. For here is wild adventure, cannibals, pearl diving, sailing vessels, love, melodrama. Dick Arlen, just a bit of South Sea flotsam and jetsam, is charming, virile and utterly natural. There’s your old friend, Eugene Pallette, as the comic and Fay Wray being beautiful as the girl. Dialogue is grand. Lots of things to interest you. See it.
The fact that few of her early thirties films were big box office hits is not reason enough to disregard them; she worked for Capra (in the excellent Dirigible [1931]) and Sternberg and Raoul Walsh, and audience reaction of the time is always a bad index of a film's qualities: let's face it, they could afford to be choosy back then.
She was stunning in these years, her screen persona an odd, characteristically pre-code mix of elegance and exhibitionism. Though the films invariably cast her as a prim good girl, with quiet, precise diction and a fragile beauty, only those of Miriam Hopkins rival the casual regularity with which script contrivances conspire to get her down to her underwear.
When you return to her more famous horror films after a few of these, you realise how underused she was in them. Mystery of the Wax Museum (1932), for instance, gives her hardly anything to do: she doesn’t appear at all for ages and does very little even then. The contrast with Glenda Farrell’s wisemouth reporter is striking and you wonder why they couldn’t have simply stuck the two roles together and made Wray’s character the journalist. The idea that such a delicate beauty was impossible casting as a hard-boiled journo at the time is contradicted by the evidence of Loretta Young in Platinum Blonde (1931), and for that matter Fay herself in The Finger Points (1931) or The Jury's Secret (1938).
Wax Museum’s companion piece Doctor X (1931, below) gives her more to go on, including greater relevance to the plot and some nice scenes with Lee Tracy. (Tracy specialised in reporter roles like this one, much in vogue for a few years; his career petered out after he was fired from the film Viva Villa! (1934) for standing naked on his hotel balcony and urinating on the crowd below.)
But her best horror role remains in Most Dangerous Game (1933). Rather than merely a menaced bystander she gets a full share of the action, and the film is notable for its use of King Kong sets, more shredded clothing, and eye-opening pre-code severed heads and sado-eroticism.
The secret of her success in these roles is I think attributable to an odd streak of perversity that comes rushing to the fore whenever she is in distress, terror or the throes of passion. She pants loudly, whimpers, her chest heaves, and she throws herself back in complete submission, her arms flailing. In direct contrast with her cut-glass accent and mannered style, these sudden moments of eroticised abandon hint at strange depths to her personality. When threatened by lusting maniacs it is not her famous screams that make the deep impression so much as the instant capitulation, tinged with what really does seem like arousal, that comes swiftly in their wake.
Her career stalled after Kong and it’s hard to say exactly why, though disinterest on her part surely was a factor. (She retired completely in 1942 but returned as character support in 1953; Joan Crawford, on behalf of the old guard, sent her a note saying "welcome back, we need you".) She doesn’t even appear in Son of Kong (1933, Helen Mack does), though she would have been relieved when this rushed production (released the same year as the original) proved a surprise flop.

A big mistake, career-wise, was her decision to take up a lucrative offer from British Gaumont in 1935; she considered herself resented by the British actors, and few Hollywood careers could have been sustained by imported appearances in Jack Hulbert movies. Still, it's nice to see her on the London Underground in Bulldog Jack (1935), and the holiday did result in one excellent film, The Clairvoyant (1935), a creepy thriller with Claude Rains, featuring Wray in a terrific stage outfit, working the audience in a mind reading act. (Watch this film here.)
Back in the States she drifted into B-films, usually for Columbia (though she also turns up at Universal, where she had started in B-westerns in 1926, and even Monogram). Don't write these off either. After setting a giant octopus on her in Below the Sea (1933), Columbia got her mixed up with voodoo sacrifices in Black Moon (1934), a forgotten semi-horror from director Roy William Neill with an almost Val Lewtonesque feel, and a real find. Murder in Greenwich Village (1937) is a sparky comedy murder mystery, with dialogue and characterisation clearly inspired by It Happened One Night, as most romantic comedies were around this time. Fay is the spoiled heiress, obliged to pretend for the sake of an alibi that she is engaged to an oafish photographer; they have some good bantering dialogue and there are a number of funny scenes in which their heated rows are interrupted and they are forced to switch instantly to devoted cooing. The film is further notable for Fay’s first appearance, in which she climbs out of a skylight, jumps from one building to another and then shins down the fire escape in her underwear.
Most of her films can be found on public domain DVD, and I’ve yet to find a one in which she, at least, is not worth the effort. Look out for They Met In a Taxi, The Lawyer's Secret, Woman in the Dark, Navy Secrets, The Vampire Bat, It Happened in Hollywood and especially The Richest Girl in the World, in which she more than holds her own in support of Miriam Hopkins. It's a charming romantic comedy, and early go through of the millionairess-swaps-places-with-her-secretary-in-pursuit-of-true-love scenario, and an obvious influence on Jane Russell's The French Line.
Though in the public consciousness she remains tied to a post on Skull Island, Fay’s now seems one of Hollywood’s most interesting careers, albeit one all too rarely rewarded at the box-office or by posterity. It’s also one of the most useful careers for the film historian in that it encompasses the entire history of classical Hollywood, via ingénues in silents, romantic leads in the early thirties, character roles and television in the fifties.
For an instant retrospective to celebrate the centenary of this most elegant of stars, start with The Wedding March, then try Pointed Heels, then a horror (Dr X or Most Dangerous Game, perhaps, rather than Kong) then take your pick from The Finger Points, One Sunday Afternoon, The Unholy Garden (1931), Ann Carver's Profession (1933) or Madame Spy (1934). As a finale, I suppose playing Leslie Nielsen's mother in Tammy and the Bachelor (1957) has novelty value, if nothing else.