Thursday, January 13, 2011

Truly, she was the most beautiful woman who ever made a British horror film


When I read of the death of Jill Haworth earlier this month, just sixty-five, I found myself turning into a blogging Elvis:
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Maybe I didn't write about you quite as often as I should have, but you were always on my mind...
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Retrospective praise comes easy. It also feels like an obligation, a mark of respect, to lavish praise on those just departed, almost as if they'll somehow take it as consolation. Much better, if you really loved them, to tell them so when they're still alive.
I clicked on Jill Haworth on my own labels cloud to see what I'd already said about her: loads, surely... But no. Just one reference, in my Tony Tenser obituary. Britain's most beautiful and underused screamer, I called her.
True enough. But had I nowhere said that she was my favourite of all the leading ladies of British horror in the Hammer years? No, I hadn't.
So I deserve your scepticism if you don't believe me when I say she was, now she's gone. But she was.
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Why was it so easy to overlook Jill, when we all hailed the greatness of Valerie and Veronica and Caroline and Hazel and the rest so often even their mums were starting to get bored with it? Perhaps we tend to think first of the milestones, then link back to the faces that animated them? Jill always worked off the beaten track. Never at Hammer; never at Amicus. Just once at Tigon. Never alongside Peter or Chris or Vince. You could forget her all too easily when constructing your mental pantheon. The only time you can't forget her is when she's on the screen. Then you can't look away. She was so gorgeous. Did you see her in Haunted House of Horror? I've seen renaissance sculptures less idealised.
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I've seen swans with less elegantly poised heads, on less impressive necks.
.Yes, that is Frankie Avalon as her boyfriend. Let's hear it for British horror movies, ladies and gentlemen.

But by the time she made these films, without which I wouldn't even know her name, she'd already had two proper careers.
First, she was Otto Protégé's preminger. The big man with the bad temper plucked her from English obscurity, aged eighteen or something, and launched her with a big splash in Exodus and a couple others. He knew his job to that extent: epics about the founding of Israel are all very well on one level, but a bit of Jill Haworth helps to get it over at the Drake Cinema, Plymouth. That didn't take for some reason. She's back in In Harm's Way and another one, but the old Faith Domergue handling had the old Faith Domergue result; I can never decide if it's a good or a bad thing that he let her go in time to avoid Skidoo.
Then she was the original Sally Bowles in the Broadway run of Cabaret, and despite bad early reviews (worse: bad reviews for her, in raves for the show) she stuck with it for two years and was much disappointed not to get the gig in the movie.
Not half as disappointed as I am. I've had that film on DVD for years; I don't doubt it's good - it's a Monogram movie after all. But there's always something I need to see more. Had it been Jill in the lead it would have probably melted from overuse by now.

Career number three - relegation to cheapo British horror - was not pleasing to her, I fear, and it's a wonder she even stood for it. But it is pleasing to we who persist in finding a dark kind of beauty in those things. Such flawless glamour is not to be expected in these movies, among the tawdriest in the Brit-horror catalogue.
You can tell she's not into it; there's a remote, icy quality to her work in British horror - she knows we don't deserve her here. Perversely, it's one of the most attractive things about these performances; a sense of sadness and frustration, the obvious feeling that here is a butterfly of Hollywood on the wheel of Wardour Street. It's one thing to do this on the way up, but when it's clearly a step back down - well, it's no wonder that she always seems disdainfully apart from the other characters.
But I love all of her horror movies a great big lot, however tacky or mired in their eras or occasionally demeaning they seem. However much, for that matter, she appears to be just going through the motions in them. If you only watch one actress going through the motions this year, watch Jill Haworth going through the motions. There are motions and then there are motions, after all.

I never got to see It! (1967), though one of the key images of my Alan Frank horror education was that mad shot of her in a nightie and cute little slippers being carried off by the Golem. (Oh what a time it was to be going to the cinema!)
But the other three: Haunted House of Horror, Tower of Evil, The Mutations... Now you're talking!

Of the three, Haunted House of Horror is the most purely fun, a typical Tigon barn dance that should go down well with anyone who enjoyed The Beast in the Cellar (that'll be YOU, dear reader), but with the added attraction of Richard O'Sullivan, Sid James's son from Bless This House and two women so outrageously beautiful the film needs no further endorsement, instead of Flora Robson and Beryl Reid. (Gina Warwick is the other one: another inexplicably non-starting career.)
But as anyone who has listened to director Michael Armstrong's fascinating DVD commentary will know, it could have been much, much more. The film he originally delivered was a cynical attack on the values in which it superficially trades, an anti-swinging sixties film that takes the beautiful people and exposes them for the self-obsessed, mean-spirited and superficial crowd of wretches they so surely were. Much has been made of the daffy things Tigon did and tried to do with the movie (attempts to get Karloff into it persisted in various forms almost until the last minute) but far more important is the insidious damage done to its thematic framework.
Editing, reordering and extensive reshoots (with which Armstrong was not involved) relentlessly softened and humanised the characters; in an effort to make them more - or even vaguely - likeable, the new material serves only to make them uninteresting, and to leave many of their motivations obscure and some of the plot developments decidedly opaque.
One of the worst hit characters is Haworth's, now turned into a typically bland damsel in distress with not much going on under her sensational architecture, but given every once in a while to what now seem like inexplicable flashes of petulance that have lingered from Armstrong's original cut. As written, her character is a prize bitch; spiteful, resentful and sullen. For what is ostensibly the heroine, the girl in whose last-act peril we are expected to care, this was audacious indeed.
That said, she's still hardly what you'd call sympathetic, and a bit of a primadonna, even in the soppy recut. She and her boyfriend (Frankie Avalon, you'll recall) appear to have come together through a kind of social inevitability: they are the stars of the London party scene and could never be seen with anyone lesser on their arms. But they don't give any indication that they actually like each other.

Tower of Evil (1972) is so grimy, so claustrophobic and so dank you'll want to hose your tv down when it's finished. It's one of those ultra-cheap Brit-horrors with one foot firmly in the British sex film tradition, far franker than the norm in matters of sex, nudity and salty dialogue, as well as gore. In these respects not unlike Horror Hospital, with which it shares Robin Askwith, but lacking entirely that film's playfulness of tone, Tower is grim, grim, grim - but compulsive. It's also cheap - cheaper even than the Mike Raven films it may also remind you of a little. In the opening scene, wreaths of swirling fog nobly try to distract us from the fact that the boat approaching the island is a) in a studio, and b) not even moving.
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As in Haunted House, Jill's character is fittingly resentful, miserable and tense throughout. Only in The Mutations (1974) is she the straight, sweet heroine, most charmingly cast as a student in Donald Pleasence's biology class, clad in the sheepskin fashions of those delightful years when London had stopped swinging and started smiling, when Cathy Come Home had morphed into Man About the House, and not before time either.
The Mutations is hardly the most savoury of films, but at least some of it is shot in real, daylit exteriors, so it feels like a holiday in the Bahamas after Tower of Evil. By any other standards it's still pure sleaze, though.
Pleasence is trying to cross-breed animals and plants. At one point he is asked if he has had any success; he replies that he most certainly has, and proudly produces a dead mouse with a sprig of watercress sticking out of it. In need of human subjects for his experiments, he pays the grotesquely deformed proprietors of a travelling freak show (Tom Baker, drooling and covered in plastic lumps, and Michael Dunn, real dwarf and fine, much-underused and misused actor) to abduct sexy girls from London parks. Post-experimental rejects are sold on to the freak show.
When Donald's students get a bit too close to the truth they go the same way; Jill's boyfriend (payed by Scott Anthony from Ken Russell's Savage Messiah, and yet another talent that vanished without trace soon after) is turned into a human venus fly trap. Because of the freak element, many people feel this film crosses some sort of line, but it's hard to stay angry with a film in which a man feeds a rabbit to a growling shrub.
As for Jill, it's the most relaxed performance she ever gave in British horror, the only one where her character is one of the gang, the only one where she appears to like her boyfriend, and quite possibly the only one where we see her smile. Certainly it's the only one where she's laid back enough to put her hair in these cute little bunches:
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And there it ended, and now, it ends for all. Natural causes they say, and thank God for that. But surely there's nothing natural about any causes that can take Jill Haworth away.

8 comments:

Jason said...

I highly recommend checking out It!. Not only does it have Jill's nudie moment, but Roddy McDowall acts his heart out, and it's got one of the best movie newspaper headlines ever ("Golem indestructible - artillery like peashooter"). It's camp as can be, but sometimes that's just what's needed.

Matthew Coniam said...

Oh I shall, worry not. I've already ordered it. I can't imagine why it took me this long to be honest.

kochillt said...

Last year, among the numerous TV movies from the 1970s that I've acquired was a 1972 title, HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS. Walter Brennan fears that he is going to be murdered, and wants all his daughters to drop by at Christmastime.Among the offspring were Julie Harris (THE HAUNTING), Eleanor Parker, Jessica Walter (PLAY MISTY FOR ME), Sally Field (YOU'LL LIKE MY MOTHER), and Jill Haworth. Needless to say, Jill isn't the guilty party, in a feature that may have been shot after THE MUTATIONS.

kochillt said...

That wasn't Sally Field but Patty Duke in YOU'LL LIKE MY MOTHER. She was a child actress who was murdered by the title monster in 1959's 4 D MAN. Patty was busy in TV horror, with SHE WAITS and CURSE OF THE BLACK WIDOW among my collection.

Matthew Coniam said...

I must track down. Jill and Jessica Walter together!

kochillt said...

videoscreams.com in Ohio is a terrific source for very obscure titles. And 70 year old Jessica Walter still looks terrific on TV Land's RETIRED AT 35.

Matthew Coniam said...

Thanks for the tip-off!

Shmoo Snook said...

I believe she was 15 when she made Exodus.