Tuesday, January 27, 2009

This year, “Don’t Open Till Christmas” will seem more poignant than ever

I wrote here about the film Don't (or strictly speaking Dont) Open Till Christmas.
By any objective measure it's a terrible film, as I think I made clear.
I also love it, as I think I also made clear.
I watch it at least once a year, and always around Christmas time. No other film quite captures its sense of what a nineteen-eighties Christmas looked and felt like, in a London conveyed as thrillingly and acutely as that of American Werewolf, and though it is both inept and at points disgusting, it is also naive, benign and without a genuinely cruel bone in its body. Its outrages are silly, like a child's, its pretence of knowingness hides a deep well of boyish innocence.
It also starred and was for the most part (for some reason I am still not certain of) directed by Edmund Purdom, who died this week.
Purdom was one of those interesting actors who started as matinee idols and then fell away, and chose exploitation over oblivion. (Another was Cameron Mitchell.) He started in Julius Caesar and The Student Prince and The Egyptian. He's also in one of my favourite British movies, The Beauty Jungle with Janette Scott. Purdom has a fine screen presence, and he really does bring something of value to his later films, not least Christmas, in which he is plainly a professional of a quite different sort to everyone else involved. Remember also Frankenstein's Castle of Freaks, and I think you'll see again that he really does help lift the film from sheer flotsam into something you are frequently able to pretend is a proper movie. Of course, it's always possible that you've not seen Frankenstein's Castle of Freaks, in which case let us part here while you hurry to E-Bay, put matters right, and come back later. Then there's Horror Safari (with another lost soul, Stuart Whitman) and the chainsaw favourite Pieces if you find you've got the taste.

In later years he did voice work in cartoons, and dubbing, along with a few bits of television, in Italy, where he lived. He even played Dracula in an Italian comedy movie.
......... Purdom suffering for his art in Joe D'Amato's Ator the Invincible
As always, it's only when people die that you realise how much more there was to them than you thought. That Purdom, with a different throw of the dice, could have been as accomplished and acclaimed a serious actor as anyone is obvious (painfully so if you happen to be watching Dont Open Till Christmas): he's got the delivery, the presence, the brooding looks and the rich brown voice of Burton.
But did you know this? (I certainly didn't.)
Denis Vaughan writes ('Lives remembered', Times, January 26th): Edmund Purdom was extremely gifted and forward-looking in the field of recording orchestral music. He was among the very first to use a multi-track system, and his own six-track machine was perfected with the help of Decca technicians.
He financed and recorded my complete Schubert symphonies, followed by 12 Haydn and 15 Mozart symphonies, the Mozart opera Il Re Pastore, Schubert’s Rosamunde and Die Zauberharfe, and some popular Bach and Mozart discs. His flexible equipment and cleanly accurate recording enabled me to balance all these works myself, while he then edited the tapes together. The results were all released internationally by RCA Victor Records. The recordings were all made over eight years in Naples in the splendid Sala d’Ercole of the Palazzo Reale, where Haydn himself performed.

The thought of a man this cultivated and this accomplished trapped in Dont Open Till Christmas is heartrending. It almost makes me feel guilty for loving it so much. It was obviously not something he would have freely chosen, cannot possibly have been an experience he enjoyed, not even something that would have earned him much money, denying him even Burton's motives for getting involved with Exorcist II. According to some sources, he was liable to actually put the phone down on interviewers who raised the subject of the film.
Senseless to try to explain to a man who must have known that he was capable of vastly more that there is still nothing negligible about any work that gives such sustained pleasure, or that sincerity and talent can be conveyed under almost any circumstances. More senseless still to do so now.
But it is so, and so I do.

The hard-boiled canary

Hollywood soprano Susanna Foster has died at the age of 84.
Best remembered for Universal's lush Technicolor remake of The Phantom of the Opera (1943), and, the following year, the rather similar The Climax with Boris Karloff, hers was a short and troubled career set in a long and troubled life.
Interestingly, of all major versions of Phantom, only this one cast a trained singer in the role of Christine, as a result a lot of screen time is given over to her vocal performance. And when she's not singing, Nelson Eddy is, meaning that Claude Rains's Phantom sometimes looks like a guest star in his own movie. As a result the film is not wildly popular with horror fans, and suffers somewhat in comparison with the still amazing silent version, and the almost equally fine Hammer remake. But audiences of the time were much taken with both Foster and the movie; even so, she abandoned her film career in 1945.
As so often, behind the movies was a hell of a life story. From Ronald Bergan's Guardian obituary:
Her earnings from her Universal Studios contract enabled her to rescue her family from poverty. Yet, 13 years later, she was struggling to survive and bring up her two young sons, and her financial and mental situation worsened over the years.
Foster admitted that she was partly to blame for her changed circumstances, saying that she had made the wrong choices, including leaving films at the height of her popularity, walking out on her marriage and, when only 12 years old, turning down the title role in National Velvet because "there was no singing in it"...
In 1948, Foster made her stage debut in the Victor Herbert operetta Naughty Marietta, opposite the baritone Wilbur Evans, whom she married. They toured together in a number of operettas and musical comedies, trading on her name as a film star. However, it was Evans who got a huge break, playing Emile de Becque to Mary Martin's Nellie Forbush in the 1951 London production of South Pacific. A few years later, Foster suddenly left Evans, who was 20 years her senior, and whom she claimed never to have loved, taking her two young sons with her.
There followed years of living on and off welfare, and from hand to mouth. While trying to ensure her children were fed, she also attempted to help her alcoholic, widowed mother and mentally unstable younger sister. Foster, too, suffered depression and had problems with alcohol. In 1982, in order to save rent, she lived in her car at the beach in California. She was rescued for a while by a film fanatic, who let her share his squalid apartment, and she later cared for him when he lost his sight. In 1985, her younger son, who had become a drug addict, died of liver failure. Her surviving son, Michael, brought her back to the east coast, where she spent the last years of her life living in a nursing home.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Happy 25th Birthday, Bloodbath at the House of Death!

Let your memory take you back twenty-five years, to the first time you saw, to ominous John Carpenteresque accompaniment, a group of cowled figures stalking menacingly towards an old, fog-shrouded house, past a sign identifying it as ‘Headstone Manor - Businessman’s Weekend Retreat and Girls’ Summer Camp’.
The figures enter the building and begin prowling the corridors, many of them clutching hatchets, machetes and other weapons. One of them stops to use the lavatory.
Yes, Bloodbath at the House of Death is now twenty-five years old.
Long before the multiplex era brought revitalisation and the overpowering smell of plastic to the British cinema industry, early-eighties movie houses were dusty, velvet and carpet affairs that survived on James Bond films and hot dog sales, prayed for an ET or a Ghostbusters at least once a year, and scraped along the rest of the time on a diet of Clockwise and Morons From Outer Space.
British cinema was virtually non-existent in 1983; it was a brave producer indeed that bothered to release anything with any serious expectation of people willingly going to see it. Such ventures were so rare that Cannon and Ball’s film The Boys In Blue, a remake of Will Hay’s Ask a Policeman with Suzanne Danielle as the love interest and Roy Kinnear as the villain, actually made it to the front cover of Film Review magazine. (FIRST FILM SALVO FROM CANNON AND BALL, the headline read.) Bloodbath at the House of Death, it is sobering to reflect, was a foolhardy failure even by these standards.
It suddenly occurs to me that there may be some poor incomplete people out there who need a little reminding exactly what Bloodbath at the House of Death was exactly.
It was a film vehicle for Kenny Everett, and I can only hope that no reminders are in order on that score. Everett was a truly unique character, a manic DJ with a penchant for exhibitionism, a beard, and an obsession with communications technology. His fetishistic love of videotape prompted him to move the format of a radio show to television, and his natural exhibitionism found full expression in the links between acts.
Thus the title of the programme – The Kenny Everett Video Show – and the birth of the one thing everyone seems to remember about him: his comic ‘characters’. These – Sid Snot, Marcel Wave and later Gizzard Puke - were in truth not characters at all, but costumes, safely ensconced in which Everett would come on and tell a joke. The jokes were rarely if ever tailored to the characters, and could easily be swapped among them with no ill effect. It seems strange now, but like almost everything Everett did, it was as impossible to dislike when it was bad as when it was good.
But as the show became more popular, and audiences took to this utterly loveable and naturally funny if completely undisciplined man, the programmes moved further from their video jukebox origins and more towards scripted comedy. (Prompting a title-change to The Kenny Everett Video Cassette.)
The programme's titles credit three men with this responsibility: Everett himself, who probably came up with little more than character ideas, jingles and perhaps a bit of on-set improv, Ray Cameron, who produced the shows and is something of an unknown quantity (he was apparently a game show deviser, and he wrote some of the songs on Clive Dunn’s album Grandad Requests Permission To Sing, Sir; his chief writing contribution to Everett may well have been the thousands of game show parodies his instantly identifiable voice would invariably introduce with “and now heeeeeeeeeeere’s Kenny!”) and Barry Cryer, the everywhere man of British comedy who wrote all the jokes.
When Everett died, I was amazed to see Spike Milligan, notoriously tight with his commendations, warmly and sheepishly saying “I think I influenced his humour.” For a man who made no bones about describing Q as “the show that Monty Python copied” this seemed incredibly generous praise. Somewhat overly so, you might think – and if you do, forget the BBC compilation video, get over to E-bay and pick yourself up a bootleg of the first two BBC series.
By this time, all pretence of it being a tv-radio show has been dropped; it’s pure comedy, as signified by another telling title change to The Kenny Everett Television Show. And it is bliss. Of course, a lot of it is sloppy; there are bits of aimless dressing up and those sodding ‘characters’ padding out the running time, but still each episode contains something like twelve minutes of amazing comedy. It’s not Q, but it comes closer, miles closer, than anything else has ever even attempted.
God, what a mix; what fun Cryer and Everett and Cameron were clearly having. Brilliantly used guest stars like Joanna Lumley, Geoffrey Palmer, Billy Connolly, Mel Smith, even John Bluthal for the love of Mike, complement the amazing work of this central performer who never displays anything as straightforward as real comic talent, and yet is somehow one of the funniest men that ever lived. (Cryer once explained: “We could do anything because he wasn’t a comic who said, ‘this isn’t me’, as he had no sense of identity as a comic. One minute he was an insurance salesman; the next minute he was Queen Victoria.”)
By 1983, Everett was one of the most popular stars on tv, a regular riot in the middle of the bottom row on Blankety Blank and a firm favourite of adult and child alike. What better than a feature film to exploit this popularity?
The first interestingly suicidal decision was to cut out the huge contingent of short-trousered fans that adored Kenny and would never miss him (including yours truly and all who were of the age to have spent Christmas day 1979 and ‘80 poring over those Video Show annuals) by giving the film an 18 rating so as to more fully exploit the show’s obsession with tit humour and comedic gore. We younger fans could, in all seriousness, have made the film a hit; we would have come out for it, no question. Instead we could only dream of it, watch the clips on Barry Norman, and wait for the day – o, glorious day – when Thorn EMI released it on tape and we could get one of our mates’ dads to rent it for us. (Did it let us down? Did it hell.)
The title is both good parody and quintessential Everett - it could easily be one of the starring vehicles Cupid Stunt would announce every week on his shows – and the decision to make it a horror film parody allowed whichever of the writers it was that so loved flinging blood about (presumably not Cryer, possibly Everett himself) to go for broke in scenes where victims have their craniums split with meat cleavers, another is slowly decapitated on a wall-mounted tin-opener and, with oddly satisfying aesthetic rightness, a severed head lodged on a windowsill bleeds all over Cryer’s snowy white hair.
Everett, with an on-off German accent and a metal leg, is the leader of a group of scientists sent to investigate the strange phenomena reported in an old house where eighteen people had been murdered in one night; his “distinguished international team of specialists” are played by a distinguished international cast that includes Gareth Hunt and Don Warrington as a gay couple, Sheila Steafel as a butch lesbian, Pamela Stephenson (who was never a hit in our house and regrettably steals the attention of the film from Everett in its final quarter) and Cleo Rocos, Everett’s eccentric friend and sexy set dressing on the BBC shows, here given a major role, murdering every line and not taking her clothes off once: another baffling executive decision. (She also doubles-up as the voice of the receptionist who answers Everett’s call to the police: “What type of a dead body?” “Upside down with big chests.”)
Then there’s David Lodge and Graham Stark, and even Vincent Price, who plays “the arch disciple of Lucifer himself”, and is billed as ‘the Sinister Man’. Price, surprisingly perhaps, was no stranger to British rubbish: he had recently played a vampire with retractable fangs disco dancing to the Pretty Things in The Monster Club, and even shows up in Percy’s Progress, indisputably the penis transplant comedy sequel of 1974.
This, however, was the first time he had been scripted by Barry Cryer, so he is required to act out the old “And you tell me to piss off – you piss off!” gag, says “Oh shit, my hand!” at the end of an incantation and has it chanted back to him by his followers, and has to deal with the inevitable misunderstanding of his injunction to “take the faggots and burn them”. His delightful line “Seven hundred years undead and now this!” is delivered with what can only be described as feeling.
The biggest surprise is how straight a lot of it is played, and how, sadly, the jokes really do dry up halfway through. Some of the horror scenes, including such staples as the bleeding bathroom and blade shooting from a telephone mouthpiece, are played without comic spin, almost as if Cameron wants to get a few genuine scares in. There are several indigestible movie parodies – Sheila Steafel in a school uniform taking on Carrie, Stephenson being raped by an invisible entity with whom she shares a post-coital ciggie, and Everett writhing on the table like John Hurt in Alien, before finding relief in a prolonged belch. Some of the cross-referencing is so specific as to be meaningless. Asked why he is melting a wax dummy with a blowtorch, Price replies, “I always do!” This is presumably a reference to The Abominable Dr Phibes but is certainly not the generic cliché the joke seems to imply.
It’s 1983, so there are Mel Brooks-type jokes, too: Vincent Price, Graham Stark and ET all get to say “Oh shit!” and Brooks’s second favourite joke also gets an airing, when what we take to be ominous soundtrack music is revealed to be Everett practicing the cello. (Rest assured, this latter is given the Everett touch, however: he’s playing it while sat on the toilet.)
The truth about the film is that it’s not good enough, and that’s a pity, because the team that had just made Everett’s first two BBC series was capable of something extraordinary. The script feels like a first draft: it needs serious editing, a couple more plot ideas and lots more jokes. Too much of it is just naff (Stephenson screams “Look out a bat!” and a cricket bat falls from the ceiling), and there are some very basic double-entendres getting stuffed and mounted without a trace of comic awareness by Rocos and straight male lead John Stewart Hill. (Bafflingly, their characters’ romance seems at times to be played almost for real, certainly not for laughs.)
God alone knows what happens at the end. The film simply slips from the grasp of all concerned and sort of trickles away, with the scientists and the monks killed by satanic doppelgangers who then declare the ‘sacred house’ has ‘been cleansed’, and depart in a space ship. But I’m telling you the plot.
The final caption – ‘The End – Or Is It The Beginning?’ – is both hugely apt and, fascinatingly, the exact same caption that was used at the end of the George and Mildred film.
But the first half is good; from the opening caption (‘August 12th 1975, Thursday, Give or Take a Day’) we know that Cryer’s in the house, and a lot of what follows comes near to that peculiar self-deprecating, throwaway quality that made the tv shows so uniquely entertaining. An attempt to remember the exact manner in which the various victims had been murdered turns into a singalong to the tune of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ (“one blew up, one was hanged, two were axed, and six were frozen to death”), and there’s fun to be had in a tour-de-force of excess where Everett’s attempts to retrieve his monocle after it drops into his patient during surgery end with him ripping out handfuls of the man’s innards and pelting his mocking colleagues with them.
All to no avail. The film flopped disastrously in Britain, despite a fairly extensive publicity campaign, a tie-in novel by Martin Noble (yes, I’ve got it; yes, it’s great; no, you can’t borrow it), and Renault cars supplied for the film by Vince Maishman of Stations Supreme, Potters Bar. It was, however, a box office hit in Australia, where slumming British comedy always seems to go over okay. (In an interview to promote the film on Australian television, Everett attributed its lack of home-ground success to the fact that the British "have no class.")
In a Guardian piece celebrating the film’s triumphant reappearance on DVD earlier this year, producer Laurence Myers offered his own explanation as to why it failed: “It's a fairly terrible film… I recall showing it to [censor] James Ferman who thought it was fine and funny enough, but thought we were showing him the reels in the wrong order. We weren't - the film just doesn't make sense.”
One thing’s for sure: there has never since been another British comedy quite like it, except possibly Guest House Paradiso.